Back at the beginning of the current Trump administration, the White House requested that NASA study the idea of putting a crew on the first flight of the Orion spacecraft on a Space Launch System around the moon. The space agency ultimately rejected the idea for cost and safety reasons and the Trump administration accepted the assessment. However, NASA has released a summary of the report that, at the very least, suggests that its rejection of putting a Crew on the flight designated Exploration Mission-1 is debatable.

Putting astronauts on the first mission would have increased cost

The report notes that the Orion would have to be upgraded to accommodate a crew, increasing its cost. The systems it would require are life support systems, control displays, an active abort system, and other crew support systems such as the ability to open the hatch from the inside. These enhancements would likely have not only increased the cost of the mission but pushed it into early 2020.

A crewed Orion would have increased risk

NASA is not usually inclined to put people in a new spaceflight system. The exception was the space shuttle because the orbiter needed a crew on board to operate it. Putting a crew on EM-1 would have required some level of risk, particularly in regard to the heat shield which needs to stand up to immense heat as the Orion enters the Earth’s atmosphere after coming home from lunar orbit.

However, the key sentence in the document reads, “The testing, and adherence to normal safety processes, would have made the risk associated with crew on EM-1 acceptable.”

The benefits of adding crew to EM-1

The report states that the benefits of adding a crew to the EM-1 mission would have been considerable. The change would have heightened focus and enthusiasm for resolving problems and making technical decisions.

A crew on the mission would have solved a great many engineering problems earlier than the current plan, creating momentum and reducing the cost of NASA’s proposed deep space exploration program going forward. The document does not state the matter explicitly, but the implication is that the long term savings might compensate for the extra upfront costs.

Could the matter be revisited?

If the decision not to fly with a crew were to be reconsidered, it would have to be soon. Not only will NASA and its contractors have to quickly adjust to the new mission, but the extra money will have to be requested from Congress. Such a reconsideration would also have to be made by a new NASA Administrator, whenever he or she is nominated and confirmed -- the sooner the better.