NASA’s SLS rocket may make its first flight with a crew, depending on the results of a feasibility study. Usually, the first time NASA tests out a rocket it does so without astronauts, for obvious reasons. But NASA may break from precedent and send its new SLS (Space Launch System) rocket on its maiden voyage with a crew.
The SLS is the largest and most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, and is designed to get astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit. The rocket will launch the Orion spacecraft, which will eventually take humans to asteroids and to Mars; NASA also plans to use SLS to launch probes to the outer solar system.
SLS: Credit: NASA
NASA hasn’t designed and built a rocket since the Saturn V, which launched Apollo spacecraft from 1967-1973. For the first time in 40 years, a new NASA rocket has passed design review and is in production, which means we’re all counting down to its first launch. That benchmark was originally scheduled for 2018 and was expected to consist of sending an unmanned Orion to orbit the moon for roughly three weeks. Now it’s possible that its first flight will be shorter because the craft may have humans on board.
SLS Illustration. Credit: NASA
Robert Lightfoot, acting Administrator for NASA, has requested a feasibility study to gauge the pros and cons of making the SLS’s first exploration mission a crewed one—a milestone originally slated for 2021. If NASA pursues this ambitious change of plans, it would be in for a challenge that involves adding a life support system to Orion earlier than planned, among numerous other upgrades. That would likely require a budget increase and potentially an additional scheduling delay (the first unmanned flight had already been pushed back to 2019), but it might be worth it, especially if it means speeding up the timeline of a manned mission to Mars.