When NASA's Space Launch System has its first test launch, sometime in 2019 at the earliest, the flight will occur without astronauts on it, NASA officials announced Monday. Why? Well, NASA officials have their reasons.
Back in February President Donald Trump asked NASA to fly in the face of decades of experience and protocol to put a crew aboard during the first test flight of the federal space agency's enormous new rocket, a heavy lift rocket intended for deep space missions. The president's request put NASA in a tricky situation.
Going back to Project Mercury — the series of flights that first put astronauts into orbit, starting with Alan Shepard in 1961 — NASA officials have always made a point of testing spacecrafts and working out all the bugs long before an actual person would climb aboard.
Before astronauts flew in Mercury, NASA officials conducted several tests, and it's a good thing they did because the first Atlas rocket launched with a Mercury capsule exploded. The first Mercury-Redstone launch only lifted off about four inches into the air. Conducting these unmanned tests helped NASA scientists and engineers work out various kinks which helped ensure that when first the monkeys — there were three launched and all came back safely — and then the astronauts went up, they would all come back down.
In preparation for the Apollo missions, NASA was once again vigilant about testing, but it was later found that the testing wasn't quite stringent enough and this allowed all kinds of issues, from design flaws to shoddy workmanship and human error to creep in.
And then the Apollo I crew entered the module in January 1967 for preflight testing. "We have a fire in the cockpit!" one of the astronauts yelled and a scream rang out. The trio of astronauts were dead within seconds.
The tragedy left the nation stunned and NASA conducted an intensive investigation and went through Congressional hearings in the wake of it. After the fire NASA put together stringent testing protocols, intent on preventing such an accident from ever happening again.
Of course, disasters have still occurred. There was the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the Columbia accident in 2003, but each time something has gone horribly wrong NASA officials have made a point of finding out exactly how it went wrong and putting in testing protocols that will ensure that particular mistake will never happen again.
And then Trump comes along casually asking NASA to change its plans and just throw a crew on willy-nilly.
To their credit, officials at the federal space agency didn't shut the president's idea down immediately. (As we've mentioned before, things go better for NASA when the president is behind them.) Instead, they went through and reviewed what putting astronauts aboard the first SLS launch would actually mean.
Robert Lightfoot Jr., the acting NASA administrator, played it well when he rejected the president's suggestion. Lightfoot didn't go into NASA's own testing protocol or delve into the significant safety concerns that would come with putting astronauts aboard for the first test launch.
Instead, he went with the most practical concerns, noting that while adding a crew to the first SLS launch would have been technically feasible it, it also would have tacked on more than $600 million to the $24 billion-project's price tag.
Plus, the first test flight has already been delayed. The SLS was supposed to launch in 2018 but the project has had some technical challenges. It has also had to contend with plain old bad luck. In February, a tornado hit the factory where parts of the rocket are being built and then earlier this month a massive part that was to become the bottom of a liquid oxygen tank was damaged while it was being moved. Adding a crew would push back the test launch to 2020 at the earliest.
In the end, the extra cost, time and the additional risks outweighed any benefits, Lightfoot concluded, according to the New York Times. “It really reaffirmed the baseline plan we have in place is the best way to go,” he stated.
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