The first test flight of NASA's Orion capsule, created to one day carry people to Mars, has been delayed until 2019 at the earliest due to high costs, the USA space agency said Friday. 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.
Lightfoot said Friday there have been no discussions with the administration about near-term astronaut flights to Mars. The SLS and Orion systems are what NASA intends to use to launch humans to Mars, and EM-1 was originally scheduled for November of 2018.
Gerstenmaier and Lightfoot said that the feasibility study is not in a report format and some of the information is ITAR-sensitive, so there will no public release of what they based their decision on. "It really reaffirmed the baseline plan we have in place is the best way to go", Lightfoot told the Times. He continued to say that by not having a crew on EM-1, NASA will be able to push the Orion spacecraft and propulsion systems harder and longer, targeting a mission of between 21 and 25 days. NASA does not operate with the kind of budgets available during the Apollo era. Production problems with liquid oxygen tanks and a February tornado that hit a production facility in Louisiana added to the need for delay. The group determined relatively quickly that changing the existing strategy would likely cost several hundred million dollars and disrupt schedules for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, according to a person familiar with the study.
A crunch to make the Orion module astronaut-worthy on its first flight could also collide with other White House budget priorities, many of which will cost tens of billions of dollars: a wall on the Mexican border, an infrastructure-renewal plan, and a large increase in USA military spending.
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".
NASA is testing its most powerful rocket booster ever built.
"After weighing the data and assessing all implications, the agency will continue pursuing the original plan for the first launch, as a rigorous flight test of the integrated systems without crew", NASA said in a statement on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk's SpaceX still plans to launch its own jumbo Falcon Heavy rocket late this summer for the first time. We're building a flexible, reusable and sustainable capability and infrastructure that will last multiple decades and support missions of increasing complexity.
It would have cost an extra $600 million to $900 million to outfit the system for astronauts on the initial flight, Gerstenmaier said.
Reading between the lines, it seems that the additional funding and time needed outstripped any desire to send humans into space during Trump's first term.
Lightfoot, asked about that comment, said of the White House, "They have not asked us to go to Mars by 2024".