NASA Says No To Crewed Maiden SLS Flight

On the afternoon of May 12, NASA held a teleconference to inform reporters on the status of the White House’s inquiry on whether or not it would be possible to include a crew on the maiden flight of the Space Launch System rocket on the EM-1 (Exploration Mission-1).  NASA has decided to stay the course and keep the EM-1 mission with no crew on board.  The major reason that was given was due to the expense on changing the mission this late in the game.  It was also made official that there will be a year slip in the maiden flight of the SLS rocket until the 4th quarter of 2019.

Keeping EM-1 without a crew was the best choice for NASA.

Adding crew to the Orion capsule and changing the mission now would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the price of launching the next mission.  The Orion capsule was planned to fly without life support systems, so NASA would have had to accelerate the development and certification processes for the next mission.  Crew is expected to be included on the EM-2 mission that is now expected to be no earlier than 2023.  The Astronaut office is so averse to flying astronauts on a rocket that has never flown before, it is known that they are also against putting astronauts on the EM-2 flight because of the first flight of the SLS’s new Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).  This issue of the EUS being a no-go for the Astronaut Office may have been put to rest because on the SLS mission manifests show the first use of the EUS to be on the launching of the Europa Clipper Mission ahead of EM-2, therefore allowing the Astronaut Office to follow its guidelines of the EUS flying before putting astronauts onboard that version of the SLS.  Also putting crew onboard Orion would put NASA on another set of rules that it has imposed on its commercial partners on their commercial crew program.  NASA would be seemed to be playing on their own set of rules while everyone else has a more strict and rigid set of guidelines that were imposed upon them.

SLS being delayed until 2019.

The teleconference also let reporters know that due to hardware issues, the SLS rocket will not be able to make it’s 4th quarter 2018 launch date.  The reasons are mostly due to problems with the core stage and the European Service Module that will be attached to the Orion spacecraft.  Issues with the core stem from welding flaws in the liquid hydrogen tank.  Substandard welds were discovered in both the qualification and flight version of the tanks due resulting from a change in the weld machine’s pin.  Those tanks were made before the weld pin’s change due to schedule pressure.  Due to those weaknesses in the welds, a new liquid hydrogen tank will have to be welded.

On top of that issue, on Wednesday, the dome of the Qualification Article of the Liquid Oxygen (LOX) tank was dropped and damaged beyond use.  An investigation is being conducted on the incident and another one now needs to be welded as well.  Hopefully the core stage won’t push the launch into 2020.  With the tornado in LA and the series of bad luck that has come upon the Core Stage team, hopefully things will turn around and no more incidents will get things back on track.

The Service Module being built by the European Space Agency has been causing delays for at least a year now.  The Structural Test Article is now being tested but was behind schedule, and the flight article is behind schedule as well.  Delivery of the EM-1 service module would arrive at Kennedy Space Center toward the end of 2017, and a year is required to check out the systems and also testing of Orion and the SM (Service Module) together as a unit.

While the decision of NASA not to include crew was not that unexpected, at least from my point of view, but it is disappointing of yet another year of delay of launch of the SLS rocket.  In hind sight, the same thing happened with the Space Shuttle.  The Shuttle was years behind schedule due to budget cuts and with very little money on hand for problems that arise will ultimately cause delays and increased price for the program.