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No Crew On Maiden Voyage Of NASA's Next Rocket

Artist's concept of SLS/Orion on the launch pad. Photo: NASA
Artist's concept of SLS/Orion on the launch pad. Photo: NASA

When NASA's Space Launch System blasts off from the Kennedy Space Center for the first time, the capsule will be empty. Acting Director Robert Lightfoot announced the decision after a review of Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first mission atop the massive rocket.

For the past two months, the space agency has been looking into the possibility of putting a crew in the Orion capsule, NASA's next human spacecraft. "After evaluating cost, risk, and technical factors in a project of this magnitude," said Lightfoot, "it is difficult to accommodate changes needed for a crewed EM-1 mission at this time."

The mission would send the Orion capsule in an orbit around the moon, testing the hardware in deep space. It's a step in NASA's goal of putting humans on Mars in the 2030s.

Lightfoot said that while putting crew on that first mission is technically feasible, it would be too costly to pull off. NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier told reporters it would cost about $600-$900 million to upgrade the EM-1 mission for astronauts. That cost would include an upgrade to the capsule's heat shield.

The space agency was forced to move the launch date to sometime in 2019, a shift from the previous November 2018 target launch. Officials will meet in the next few weeks to finalize that target date.

Manufacturing delays are partly to blame. Parts of the rocket are fabricated at Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana. A tornado damaged the facility earlier this year and a part of the rocket's liquid oxygen tank was damaged earlier this week, adding to delays.

On a call to the International Space Station last month, President Trump accelerated the timeline to put humans on Mars. "I think we want to do it in my first term or at worst in my second term,” Trump said, “so I think we’ll have to speed that up a little bit.”

Lightfoot told reporters Friday that the White House has not asked NASA to get to Mars by 2024.

The next opportunity to send a crew on the Orion capsule is in 2021 on Exploration Mission 2, although NASA officials said that schedule is likely to slip.

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to Central Florida in 2005 to attend the University of Central Florida. He began working at WMFE as a college intern where he discovered his love for public radio.