NASA is considering launching a living, human crew on the first integrated flight of the new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft currently scheduled for late 2018. While most of NASA’s crewed spacecraft have had their initial launches unmanned or with (adorable) non-human animals, this is not unheard of, as the Space Shuttle Colombia launched with a crew of two for its maiden flight in 1981.
While it’s the first launch of the Orion and SLS together, it’s not quite as reckless as it may seem; the Orion capsule has already been on an uncrewed test launch in 2015 and will be launched uncrewed again on an earlier test flight. The SLS is using technology based on the well-tested Space Shuttle launch system hardware, including new versions of the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) and the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs). NASA isn’t reckless with this sort of thing, and if they feel they’re capable of making things safe for astronauts on the first integrated flight, they’ve done their homework.
The mission itself, known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), has already gone through significant changes. Initially, it was just going to send an uncrewed Orion around the moon, but was later updated to allow Orion to enter a retrograde lunar orbit that would be similar to one needed for a future asteroid-encounter mission.
This new study would keep the mission parameters, but add a crew. The number of crew that may fly hasn’t been specified, but the Orion is capable of handling up to six. If I had to guess, I’d bet they’ll launch with four, which would give the mission the largest crew ever to orbit around the moon.
The mission, which would last about three weeks, with six of those days in lunar orbit, would be one of the most ambitious first-crewed flights in the history of human space travel. It’s somewhat similar to the crewed trans-lunar Apollo 8 flight in 1968, which sent three astronauts into lunar orbit in preparation for the Apollo 11 moon landing.
One of those astronauts, Jim Lovell, actually went around the moon again during the Apollo 13 mission, when an exploding fuel cell prevented the mission from landing on the moon. You saw the movie.
One thing that would have to happen before the EM-1 can proceed with humans is that the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), based on the second stage of a Delta rocket, would need to be human-rated.
The Delta rocket was not originally intended to send humans anywhere, so it needs to complete the process of getting human-rated, which was put on hold in February of last year. The stage was only intended to be a stopgap while the final propulsion stage for the SLS was developed. If the crewed mission is going to proceed before the planned second Exploration Mission around 2020 or so, that human-rating would need to re-commence.
Personally, I hope NASA does decide to put astronauts on the EM-1. We’ve been hitching rides on Soyuzes for long enough. Also, the having the goal of a crewed Orion mission in 2018 or 2019 makes a lot of sense. This will be humanity’s first true spacecraft designed for use beyond the Earth-Moon system, and I’m excited to see it happen.
You know, safety first and all that, but still, I’m sure the astronauts are eager to go for a spin, too.