NASA Delays Crewed Orion Tests

The Orion as it will likely look if and when iEXPAND
The Orion as it will likely look if and when i
Image from NASA

NASA has pushed back its first crewed flight of the Orion capsule and, as usual, money is a factor. Originally, NASA was set to launch Orion in a test flight — the fancy kind with astronauts traveling near the moon — in August 2021. Alas, we're going to have to wait a bit longer. NASA just announced that the test flight, Exploration Mission 2 (aka EM-2), the first one in decades that will actually tote real astronauts, has been delayed until April 2023.

The Orion is a spacecraft designed to hopefully one day take four astronauts to low-Earth orbit and beyond (aka to asteroids and eventually Mars.) The craft has done well so far, hitting most of its marks in the testing project, including the uncrewed test flight in December 2014. Orion was originally planned to be a part of President George W. Bush's back-to-the-moon program, Constellation, but President Barack Obama cancelled Constellation and directed NASA to use the private sector to get to the International Space Station (the only part of space astronauts are traveling to these days.) After Constellation was scrapped, NASA re-purposed things and now plans to eventually launch Orion on top of the Space Launch System, the enormous rocket that NASA scientists are planning on using to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. 

But before any of that can happen, there have to be tons of tests — this is NASA after all, where it's all about testing and training — including the crewed tests, and all of that testing costs money. Unfortunately, it appears that NASA may not have enough of that to make the big crewed test happen in time 

NASA reps, ever the diplomatic ones, blamed themselves for the delay. Bill Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for human exploration at NASA, explained that the delays are partly because the Orion team made changes to the craft to do NASA-like things such as make Orion weigh less (always a good idea in space travel.) But a NASA release also acknowledged that the more conservative time table on the crewed test flight fit better with NASA's projected budget for the program. (It's expected to cost $6.77 billion from October 2015 to April 2023.) 

Even though Gerstenmaier made a point of being politically correct about the change in schedule, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has been pointing the finger at Congress over the lack of funding. (He's been particularly irate over the way the Commercial Crew program has failed to get off the ground, so to speak, but Bolden almost always blames Congress for NASA's budget troubles.) "Grounding human spaceflights was always supposed to be temporary as we made the necessary transition to a new generation of spacecraft, operated by American commercial carriers," Bolden wrote in Wired last week. "Had Congress adequately funded President Obama’s Commercial Crew proposal, we could have been making final preparations this year to once again launch American astronauts to space from American soil aboard American spacecraft. "

Of course, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, of Texas, quickly got in on the action, decrying the delay. Smith, Chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, blamed President Obama for the change in Orion plans, stating that Obama's 2016 budget request for NASA cut more than $400 million, according to the Verge.  "Once again, the Obama administration is choosing to delay deep space exploration priorities such as Orion and the Space Launch System that will take U.S. astronauts to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. While this administration has consistently cut funding for these programs and delayed their development, Congress has consistently restored funding as part of our commitment to maintaining American leadership in space," Smith stated. 

But don't lose heart. Even though Orion's crewed test launch is even further away, another uncrewed test flight is scheduled for September 2018 (Exploration Mission 1, aka EM-1). Last December, Orion went about 3,600 miles away from Earth, the farthest any NASA craft has gone since Apollo 17, according to the Washington Post. There's no telling how far it will go the next time around. And after EM-1, comes EM-2, complete with real astronauts finally heading back to space from U.S. soil once more. 


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