As­tro­nauts aground as new rocket set to fly

Af­ter de­lays, NASA gets ready to launch Orion aboard SLS with­out crew

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY JOEL ACHEN­BACH joel.achen­bach@wash­post.com

The first flight of NASA’s ex­pen­sive new deep-space rocket is go­ing to be de­layed again, and it won’t have any as­tro­nauts aboard, the agency an­nounced Fri­day. That de­ci­sion comes af­ter NASA and White House of­fi­cials pon­dered an al­ter­na­tive plan to add two as­tro­nauts to the test flight in an at­tempt to do some­thing dra­matic in space dur­ing the cur­rent term of Pres­i­dent Trump.

Go­ing with­out crew in that first test flight has been NASA’s plan all along. The agency wanted to do a rig­or­ous test flight of the new rocket, called the Space Launch Sys­tem, and the new crew cap­sule, Orion, that pushed the hard­ware to its lim­its dur­ing a three­week lu­nar or­bit. The agency had hoped to launch in 2018, with a crewed mis­sion in 2021.

The elec­tion of Trump scram­bled the pic­ture. Soon af­ter the in­au­gu­ra­tion, Trump po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees showed up at NASA head­quar­ters and met with the vet­eran civil ser­vants run­ning the agency and re­viewed NASA’s hu­man space­flight pro­gram. NASA act­ing ad­min­is­tra­tor Robert Light­foot soon an­nounced that the agency would con­duct a thor­ough re­view of the pro­gram to see if it would be pos­si­ble to add two as­tro­nauts to the first test flight, then sched­uled for late 2018.

On Fri­day, Light­foot said the staffers do­ing the fea­si­bil­ity study had con­cluded that NASA should stick to its orig­i­nal idea.

“While it’s tech­ni­cally fea­si­ble, they re­ally reaf­firmed that the base­line plan we had in place was the best way to go,” Light­foot said in a tele­con­fer­ence with re­porters.

Wil­liam Ger­sten­maier, the top NASA of­fi­cial for hu­man space­flight, re­peat­edly em­pha­sized that NASA wants a steady, sus­tain­able pro­gram that in­volves build­ing the in­fras­truc­ture for decades of deep-space ven­tures not only for NASA but also for the pri­vate sec­tor.

“We’re essen­tially build­ing a multi-decadal in­fras­truc­ture that al­lows us to move the hu­man pres­ence into the so­lar sys­tem,” Ger­sten­maier said.

This is not hap­pen­ing quickly. NASA does not op­er­ate with the kind of bud­gets avail­able dur­ing the Apollo era. The agency has had set­backs, in­clud­ing a tor­nado that se­ri­ously dam­aged the Mi­choud Assem­bly Fa­cil­ity in New Or­leans in Fe­bru­ary. Ear­lier this month, as first re­ported by the blog NASA Watch, work­ers at Mi­choud ac­ci­den­tally dam­aged be­yond re­pair a large dome that was to be part of a liq­uid oxy­gen fuel tank. “This was a sig­nif­i­cant event for us,” Ger­sten­maier said.

The first flight of the SLS was orig­i­nally en­vi­sioned by Congress for 2016. On Fri­day, Light­foot said that var­i­ous de­lays in the pro­gram have pushed the first mis­sion to 2019, with the ex­act tim­ing still un­cer­tain. Ger­sten­maier noted that, af­ter the first un­crewed mis­sion, NASA will need about 33 months to re­vamp a mo­bile launcher at the NASA Kennedy Space Cen­ter to han­dle the se­cond SLS mis­sion, which will have ad­di­tional hard­ware and stand 40 feet taller on the launch­pad. That means it is very un­likely NASA will launch as­tro­nauts on the SLS be­fore 2022.

Phil Lar­son, the space pol­icy ad­viser in the Obama White House, said of this new de­lay in the rocket sched­ule: “This is some­thing that I think a lot of peo­ple saw com­ing. I don’t think too many peo­ple within NASA are shocked.”

The com­mer­cial space sec­tor — in­clud­ing SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, and Blue Ori­gin, owned by Jef­frey P. Be­zos (who also owns The Wash­ing­ton Post) — is rac­ing to de­velop its own rock­ets that are com­pa­ra­ble in scale to the SLS.

“This re­ally isn’t about NASA versus SpaceX, or NASA versus Blue Ori­gin; it’s more about the past way of do­ing busi­ness versus how do we run the gov­ern­ment more like a busi­ness,” Lar­son said.

The agency had con­sid­ered adding two as­tro­nauts to the first SLS flight to try to re­spond to the clear de­sire of Trump and his aides for some kind of dra­matic space mis­sion, with as­tro­nauts. Trump has made al­lu­sions to space ex­plo­ration in speeches but has never spelled out ex­actly what he wants.

Dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion re­cently with as­tro­nauts aboard the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, Trump said he wanted to send as­tro­nauts to Mars in his first term, or by the end of his se­cond term “at worst” — but the man­ner of his com­ment sug­gested that he was ei­ther jok­ing or speak­ing off the cuff with min­i­mal grasp of the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of a Mars mis­sion.

Light­foot, asked about that com­ment, said of the White House, “They have not asked us to go to Mars by 2024.”

STEVEN SEIPEL/NASA

Weld­ing is com­plete on the largest piece of the core stage that will pro­vide the fuel for the first flight of NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch Sys­tem, with the Orion space­craft.

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