One of the criticisms of the modern #NASA is that the space agency is a little too timid and risk adverse, which has had the effect of making human space flight more expensive. According to Ars Technica, that stance may be about to change. A group of high-level NASA managers is considering an option to make the first flight of the #Orion on top of a heavy lift #space launch system a crewed mission. Such a decision would cause the flight to slip from 2018 to 2019, which it may anyway, a serendipitous event as it would make the first flight of humans beyond low Earth orbit in more than a generation occur on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.
Call it the Trump effect. The new administration seems to be oriented toward building hardware and flying it, the sooner, the better. Hitherto the first crewed flight of Orion was previously scheduled for somewhere between 2021 and 2023 after an uncrewed flight in 2018. Precedence exists in that the first flight of the space shuttle also carried astronauts. The flight of Apollo 8, which also circled the moon, was put together at virtually the last moment as a way to satisfy multiple testing requirements and as a way to show the Soviets that America really meant it when it proposed to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
Of course, the suspicion has arisen that the proposal is in response to the Trump administration’s interest in bringing in the commercial sector as partners in space exploration. NASA, it is suggested, is anxious to show off what the Orion/SLS can do to make the spacecraft harder to cancel for cheaper commercial alternatives such as the Falcon Heavy and the New Glenn. The Orion and the Space Launch System enjoy lots of support in Congress, including from Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Oklahoma, the frontrunner to be the next NASA administrator.
The idea is not without its critics. NASA critic and Space Launch System Rand Simberg denounced the proposal in a tweet that read, “The hubris and hypocrisy of this is breathtaking.” Ironically Simberg is the author of a book “Safe is not an Option” that calls for more risk taking in crewed spaceflight.
To be sure, launching a crewed mission around the moon two years from now would involve more risk that NASA has been comfortable with for the past few decades. And the flight would require more money. The Trump administration will have to figure out whether the risk and money are worth it.
Needless to say, a successful lunar orbit mission in 2019 would be a great warmup for a return to the lunar surface a couple of years later,