NASA nixes crew for test flight of new megarocket in 2019

US Navy divers and other personnel practicing for recovery of Orion on its return from deep space missions using a test version of the crew module

The spacecraft which has been created to eventually send astronauts to Mars represents a robust foundation for ultimately moving human presence out into the solar system but, NASA's Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said his space agency concluded - alongside White House officials - that their initial "baseline plan was best", which would mean "leaving [the rocket] EM-1 unmanned".

The group's consensus hasn't been formally announced, and NASA's decision-or that of President Donald Trump-on whether to add crew to the SLS's first flight could disregard the findings, said the person, who requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss NASA's internal review.

Sending the rocket into space already costs $24 billion, and astronauts would have added $600 million to $900 million to that cost, in addition to delaying the launch until 2020. Lightfoot found the original commission of the feasibility study "typical of what a lot of new administrations do when they come in". However, "we decided that while it was technically feasible, we decided that the baseline plan we had in place was the best plan", he continued. We didn't have crew displays, we didn't have an active abort system, we didn't have an active life support system.

The delays are largely due to technical issues encountered during the development of SLS and Orion, as well as tornado damage to the rocket's manufacturing plant in New Orleans.

Lightfoot emphasized that programs like Apollo were built with a singular goal in mind, and given an incredibly high budget to accomplish this.

Gerstenmaier called it "an unfortunate event" but said it shouldn't affect the schedule much.

A crunch to make the Orion module astronaut-worthy on its first flight could also collide with other White House budget priorities, many of which will cost tens of billions of dollars: a wall on the Mexican border, an infrastructure-renewal plan, and a large increase in USA military spending.

The private spaceflight companies SpaceX and Boeing, for example, both hope to begin launching astronauts to the International Space Station in the next couple years under a contract with NASA. "It's unfortunate, but predictable", Phillip Larson, a former senior advisor for space and innovation in the Obama administration, told BuzzFeed News. We're building a flexible, reusable and sustainable capability and infrastructure that will last multiple decades and support missions of increasing complexity.

Beyond the question of whether to fly astronauts aboard the first flight, NASA has been struggling with delays and development problems on both Orion and the behemoth SLS, which was initially scheduled to fly a year ago. Trump has made allusions to space exploration in speeches but has never spelled out exactly what he wants.

"We needed additional funding, and we needed additional time", said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's director of space flight.

Lightfoot was asked by reporters Friday if the White House meant that.

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