NASA will not put a crew on EM-1, cites cost – not safety – as main reason

by Chris Gebhardt

In what is a highly welcomed, if not somewhat surprising decision, NASA has officially announced that they will not place a crew onboard the first SLS flight, the EM-1 mission.  The decision to keep EM-1 uncrewed was based on cost estimates for such a feat, identified as part of a White House initiative that kicked off the feasibility study in February. With the study concluded, NASA can continue to focus on getting SLS ready for its first flight, which is now No Earlier Than 2019.

NOT Crewing the EM-1 mission:

In what was an unexpected decision for those watching the process closely, NASA has officially confirmed that they will not pursue the option of placing a crew on the first flight of their Space Launch System (SLS) rocket – the EM-1 mission.

A letter from Robert Lightfoot Jr. to NASA on Friday afternoon stated that “after evaluating cost, risk, and technical factors in a project of this magnitude, it is difficult to accommodate changes needed for a crewed EM-1 mission at this time.”

The decision is welcomed relief for those that didn’t understand why the feasibility study was ordered in the first place when it was announced in February by Acting Administrator Lightfoot.

Most importantly, the decision to stay the course with EM-1 avoids any conflict with the Astronaut Office and NASA’s various safety and advisory councils – all of which, from the conception of SLS, have been against placing a crew on the first flight.  Per the resulting media briefing, however, costs were cited as a major driver for the White House to concur that EM-1 should remain uncrewed.

The decision avoids a contentious battle for the significant increase in funding ($600 to $900 million) that would have been needed to change the EM-1 plan this late in its development and planning cycle and also keeps NASA to somewhat the same standards they are holding their commercial crew partners to.

However, the second part of the announcement today, which stated that EM-1 is being delayed until 2019 is, while disappointing to some, not a surprise.

The delay to 2019 is largely due to the long-pole items of the Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) at the Kennedy Space Center, the schedule for the Core Stage (that somewhat but not completely reflects the bad news week the Core Stage teams suffered this week), and the Orion/European Service Module (ESM) issues that still need to be worked out.

While GSDO and the Orion/EMS issues have a good chance of being resolved in time for the newly realigned Q4 2019 launch target, the Core Stage might be a different story.

Earlier this week, broke the news that the Liquid Hydrogen (LH2) Structural Test Article (STA) and EM-1 flight tank both suffered from a critical weld issue resulting from a change to the weld machine’s pin.

The change was made after the Weld Confidence Article’s (WCA’s) build, and numerous test panel welds were then performed as part of the routine effort to formally accept the weld machine pin’s design change.

However, schedule pressure caused the SLS Program and its contractor to proceed with the STA and flight tank welds before the new weld machine pin change was completely validated and verified via the test panels.

Testing of those panels revealed an intermittent though extremely critical weakness and defect with the welds from the new pin design – weaknesses and defects now contained within the LH2 STA and flight tank.

It is currently understood that NASA has decided that it is unsafe to use the LH2 flight tank for EM-1, necessitating the use of the yet-to-be-welded LH2 tank that was to be used for the EM-2 mission next decade.

This effectively means that a whole new LH2 tank for EM-1 now needs to be welded.

As if that news wasn’t bad enough, Wednesday brought even more bad news for the Core Stage team as it was learned that the aft dome for the Qualification Article of the Liquid Oxygen (LOX) tank was dropped and damaged beyond use.

While an investigation continues into this incident, a new aft LOX dome Qualification Article now needs to be welded.

Exactly what effect this will have on the new 2019 launch target for EM-1 is unknown, with some sources saying that these missteps and accidents could result in up to an additional full year of delays, pushing EM-1 into 2020.

The disastrous road that would have been a crewed EM-1, had that been the decision:

Had NASA opted for the reverse of what was announced today, the decision to crew EM-1 would have had a considerable knock-on effect to the schedule – with a stream of variables that likely would have pushed the mission far beyond 2019 and into the next decade.

Moreover, crewing EM-1 would have presented a vast technological, financial, and risky landscape for NASA based on the sheer amount of work that would have been needed for Orion, the ESM, and the SLS rocket itself (such as human-rating the non-human-rated ICPS – Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage) to pull off a feat that was never intended from the inception of the program.

The initiative also would have – in reality – required the massive and unprecedented acceleration of the EM-2 mission (which is now still slated to be the first SLS flight to carry crew) from 2023 to 2019/2020.

Specifically, had the crewed option been chosen, a complete and fully-functional Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) and all of the associated human-rating endeavours and alterations to the ESM that were discarded from EM-1 – since it is not designed to carry crew – would have had to have been implemented nearly three years ahead of the EM-2 schedule (the first flight they are all scheduled to fly on).

Because of the time and money associated with the ECLSS and human-rating endeavours, NASA might have found itself in the undesirable position of having to pass and accept numerous waivers and exceptions to justify why non-human-rated systems would be used in an effort to prioritize schedule over safety.

Interestingly, Bill Gerstenmaier in Friday’s briefing stated that a “fully functional EM-2 ECLSS” could have been installed on Orion for an EM-1 2019 mission – a statement and reality that seemed to even surprise him.

Moreover, the atmosphere surrounding funding from the U.S. federal government – which would have had to have authorized a massive increase in SLS funding for a crewed EM-1 mission – was far more than dubious.

While NASA did receive a funding boost that largely accounted for inflationary increases in the 2017 NASA Authorization Act, the extent to which Congress and the Presidential Administration would have been willing to grant the massive infusion of cash needed to pull off a crewed EM-1 flight in the current decade was… uncertain.

Orion and ATV SMAdditionally, crewing EM-1 would have required the complete cooperation and corollary massive increase in funding from the European Space Agency to bring the ESM up to crewed standards for EM-1.

Perhaps more significant was the fact that crewing EM-1 would have required the alarming rewrite of NASA’s own safety guidelines.

NASA, its advisory agencies/councils, and its own Astronaut Office have all repeatedly gone on record as being against the placement of crew on a rocket that has never flown.

In fact, the Astronaut Office is so averse to flying people on unproven rockets that they have openly opposed placing crew on the EM-2 mission if it is the first flight of SLS’s new Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).

That particularly sticky issue appears to have been avoided by notional SLS manifests that show the first flight of the EUS launching the Europa Clipper mission ahead of EM-2 – thus allowing the Astronaut Office to follow its guideline that the EUS fly before putting a crew onboard that version of the SLS.

If NASA had decided to crew EM-1, it would have effectively overridden the Astronaut Office or the Astronaut Office would have had to have made a stunning, startling, and completely out of the blue reversal of their own policy.

Moreover, NASA would also have been saying publicly that it could play by a different set of rules than its contracted commercial crew partners.

NASA is holding SpaceX and Boeing to flying the rockets that will carry their respective crew capsules at least seven times in a locked and unchanging configuration before crew can be placed onboard.

Both SpaceX and Boeing are also beholden to flying uncrewed test flights of their crew capsules first – something which crewing EM-1 would have abandoned for NASA as Orion’s 2014 flight did not include all the necessary systems or equipment the capsule needs to demonstrate a true test flight for crew support capability.

Perhaps, though, the most difficult aspect of a “crew” decision would have been the need to publicly justify what scientific value crew on EM-1 would have achieved and why that achievement would have necessitated the large increase in risk to human lives.

Regardless, crewing EM-1 is not the decision taken, and while NASA cites cost over safety as the reason for the decision, the original schedule and mission architecture has been preserved over potential political pressure.

(Images: NASA, SpaceX, and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)))

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