NASA examining risks, rewards of astronauts on first SLS flight

Updated: Feb. 24, 2017 at 7:02 PM CST
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(WAFF) - Might astronauts fly on the first flight for NASA's Space Launch System? Possibly, and the president wants to know.

NASA is looking at the risks and rewards of putting astronauts on board the maiden voyage of its deep space SLS rocket.

The study was asked for by the Trump administration and has been going on for a week. A study "team" was appointed last Friday.

NASA officials say they have selected individuals from across NASA to participate. It's led by Exploration Systems Development with participation from multiple offices, including the astronaut office.

NASA did not name team members or detail how the study would be conducted. They did not specify if it would be a review of data, tabletop exercises, computerized reviews or real hardware tests.

NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said he is going in with "no preconceived notions" as to whether it could be or would be possible to launch a crew on the first flight of a brand new vehicle.

"We will let the identified risks and benefits drive us, as well as the data," he said.

The study will likely last a month.

Much would have to be done to the Orion Crew Capsule that flies on top of the SLS, specifically safely, as well as sections of the SLS itself, namely the ICPS that sits ready for shipment from the state docks in Decatur. It is the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage manufactured by United Launch Alliance for Boeing for this first flight. Boeing was going to manufacture the ICPS for EM2.

As of Friday, Boeing states that the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage will proceed on schedule down to the Kennedy Space Center.

Gerstenmaier said that it is currently not "human-rated," so one of the tasks involved in this study would be to understand what would it take to do that for the ICPS and the upper stage of the rocket.

One necessary addition discussed would be to add some meteor protection to the propulsion stage.

The Orion Crew Capsule already flew on a test flight in December 2014 on top a Decatur-built ULA Delta IV-Heavy rocket. NASA officials say they learned much from that flight regarding re-entry, propellant usage, GPS, the navigation system, the heat shield and the recovery efforts from the Pacific Ocean.

NASA officials say they were asked by the Trump administration if it were possible to put people on this first flight to "accelerate crew capability." This study will answer that question, according to NASA officials.

Currently, the first uncrewed flight of SLS is scheduled for November 2018. Alterations to the current schedule that would include spacecraft modifications would likely push that back. Gerstenmaier said he does not want to go past 2019.

He also talked about the recent tornado and impact on production at the Michoud Assembly Facility managed by the Marshall Space Flight Cente), saying tank production would be down two months, coupled with the delay in the European Service Module.

Gerstenmaier said they not only will they need to look at the feasibility but the funding it would take to add crew to the SLS for Exploration Mission 1. He said the Trump administration made no promises for funding when it asked about the possibility of putting people on this first flight.

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