NASA had previously planned to launch its heavy-payload rocket Space Launch System or SLS in November 2018. The US space agency said in a statement Friday that the first launch of the SLS rocket won’t take place until 2019. NASA has also decided against the idea of adding a two-person crew to the Orion capsule that will fly around the moon.
SLS rocket to help get humans to Mars
The initial launch or Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) involves using the SLS rocket to send the Orion capsule into a high lunar orbit. NASA has designed the EM-1 for an unmanned first flight to test the SLS rocket and Orion capsule’s capabilities. The SLS is the biggest rocket NASA has ever built. It will be capable of putting 77 tons of material into an orbit 160km above the Earth. Later versions of the giant rocket are likely to carry twice that load.
The SLS and Orion are part of NASA’s long-term plan to get equipment and astronauts to Mars and beyond. The delayed initial launch would push back the second flight to 2021 or later, said NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier. NASA’s Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said the space agency would provide a more specific EM-1 timeframe in a month.
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According to Reuters, the delay was caused by technical problems encountered during the rocket and capsule’s development. The rocket’s manufacturing plant in New Orleans had suffered tornado damage, which further delayed the development. According to the agency’s Office of Inspector General, NASA will have spent $23 billion on the project by September 30, 2018. That doesn’t include the nearly $9 billion it has spent on the Constellation lunar exploration program, which involved the initial development of a second heavy-lift rocket and Orion.
NASA decides against sending a crew on EM-1
Earlier this year, NASA began evaluating the possibility of adding crew to the EM-1 flight, as suggested by the Trump administration. The launch will be delayed even without a crew, but the agency has decided not to send the crew. Sending astronauts to the lunar orbit and beyond could pose major safety risks during re-entry and landing. Lightfoot said the agency would wait until the SLS rocket’s second flight before adding astronauts.
Sending astronauts during initial launch was not part of the plan. Robert Lightfoot told reporters that putting necessary systems to support a crew would add $600 million to $900 million to the budget, and will further delay the flight to 2020. He said it was already too late into the planning schedule to alter the original plan for the EM-1. The crew will be added only on EM-2. “Right now, we are very focused on accomplishing the EM-1 flight test,” said Robert Lightfoot.