Concerns have again been raised about NASA’s shaky exploration roadmap, with the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) claiming the Agency has elected to go down the “indecision-is-the-key-to-flexibility” path. Although only two missions have been manifested, the panel cited concerns about launching a crew into deep space on what would be the debut of Orion’s life support system.
Roadmap – or lack thereof:
Uncertainty over NASA’s return to Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration is nothing new.
Most of the issues are casualty of politics, with NASA’s budget constantly under negotiation, without a long-term funding cycle that would be required for a concerted push towards human missions to Mars.
NASA’s budget is also spread over numerous objectives, usually resulting in starved flagship programs, sometimes the cause of delays and additional costs.
Billions of dollars have been secured to build NASA’s next flagship launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS) – a very capable Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) that utilizes flight proven hardware.
However, the current NASA budget has resulted in SLS window shopping for payloads, with a credit card that’s maxed out.
SLS will debut in 2017, a test flight that employs the 70mT Block 1 version of the HLV, lofting an Orion on a mission that will send the spacecraft 70,000 km past the Moon on a 25 day flight.
The Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1) launch date is fallout from a previous political requirement to be ready to launch a crew to the International Space Station (ISS), in the event NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) suffered a major schedule issue.
As a result of this 2017 target, the monster rocket would then spend four years waiting for her next mission, a near-repeat of EM-1, but this time with a crew, potentially hooking up with a captured asteroid near the Moon. However, this mission continues to be portrayed with a number of worrying caveats.
One problem relates to the large effort that will be required to actually target and capture an asteroid. A lot will depend on identifying a suitable space rock, ahead of a 2019 mission to capture it and transport it into the region targeted for EM-2 two years later.
Another problem relates to the current scenario where the ambitious deep space mission would be the debut crew mission on Orion.
Key to the safety of the astronauts on EM-2 is the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), as noted at the latest ASAP meeting at the Johnson Space Center (JSC).
“A topic of energetic discussion and interest was the December 2017 EM-1 mission and the EM-2 crewed mission, targeted for August 2021. EM-1 is an uncrewed, full-system launch and extended duration flight, but it may launch without a working Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS),” noted the meeting’s minutes.
“The first crewed mission (EM-2 in August 2021) would be the first flight of the full-up ECLSS, and it is being examined in terms of options. The baseline is a high lunar orbit (HLO), but there are discussions about stretching that mission to send two crew members on an asteroid sample return mission.
“The Panel’s concern is: Should we take on that aggressive an approach on the first crewed mission on a new system?”
Panel member Dr. Donald McErlean provided an interesting response, noting there are evaluations into “some intermediary missions,” cited as “in addition” to EM-1 and EM-2.
Few details were provided, other than a reference to “one of which involves several orbits around the Earth to do ECLSS check-out before doing a HLO.” Dr. McErlean noted none of these have been selected, but they are being considered.
It has previously been noted that the first crewed mission could combine those objectives, spending 30 hours in a High Elliptical Orbit (HEO), prior to heading out into deep space, allowing for a confidence checkout of the ECLSS.
With the ECLSS question providing another consideration to when the first crew will launch on Orion, along with the potential it won’t be on the EM-2 asteroid mission, the ASAP chair stepped in to talk about the uncertainty surrounding the opening salvo of NASA’s exploration roadmap.
VADM (Ret.) Joseph Dyer noted that while the incremental aspect of SLS and ESD (Exploration Systems) is interesting, “it is easy to see where it comes from.”
“When under budget pressure and attempting to do a lot with limited resources, NASA has elected to go down the ‘indecision-is-the-key-to-flexibility’ path.”
Claiming the design intent misses the focus that is part of a classic program, the chair noted the ASAP has expressed some concern the system development is proceeding ahead of requirements.
“This is not the most efficient approach and there is some concern whether it is the safest one.”
The roadmap past EM-2 continues to be a one line sound byte, citing President Obama’s wish to visit an asteroid by 2025 – which is increasingly being tagged as something that will be achieved when EM-2 completes its mission – and Mars by “the mid-2030s“.
Numerous Design Reference Missions (DRMs) have been created over recent years. However, NASA managers continue to avoid committing to any of them, partly due to budget uncertainty and partly due to negotiations with international partners.
Sources continue to note that the lack of a long-term exploration roadmap is on purpose, with NASA managers holding back on going public until they have secured international involvement that will spread the cost and incorporate additional technology.
Concentrating on SLS and Orion will allow NASA to bring that strong capability to the negotiating table, it’s claimed.
This week will also involve discussions about changing EM-2 into a Mars fly-by mission, via a full committee hearing in Washington, DC.
However, the issue of crew safety will likely bring up the issue of a capable ECLSS – along with required radiation shielding – as major concerns.
(Images: Via L2 content from L2’s SLS specific L2 section, which includes, presentations, videos, graphics and internal – interactive with actual SLS engineers – updates on the SLS and HLV, available on no other site. Other images via NASA)
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