As NASA’s biggest rocket nears launch, they must weigh the risk of adding a crew.
The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will be the largest ever launched by NASA, even bigger than the Saturn V which took man to the moon. NASA is aiming to one day send humans all the way to Mars aboard their new rocket, but before they can do that, they need to test it. NASA’s Human Exploration chief said Friday that the Trump administration has requested a feasibility study, aiming to figure out how to speed up a potential manned mission. At this time, the earliest possible time for astronauts to climb aboard would be 2021, with an unmanned initial flight scheduled for next year.
The space agency reports that if that first flight were manned, it would delay the initial launch and require more money. William H. Gerstenmaier, the current Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said that if adding astronauts delayed the flight beyond 2019, it would probably be a better idea to make the first flight unmanned after all. However, it would require nearly three years and changes to the launch platform to make the rocket ready for human flight later.
The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, which operates independent from NASA, has cautioned the agency that it needs a compelling reason to put humans on the initial flight, considering the risks. The panel was formed after the Apollo 1 disaster which claimed the lives of three astronauts due to an oxygen fire during the test of a space capsule. “We recognize this will be an increased risk” to put astronauts on the initial flight, Gerstenmaier said, but also mentions that the risk is weighed up by having humans present in the rocket and participating in the study of it during launch.
Of course, adding a crew will also make the flight more exciting to the public, but this is something Gerstenmaier isn’t putting too much consideration into: “There are pros and cons both ways, and it’s hard to judge that (public) aspect,” he told reporters. “But I look at it more kind of matter-of-factly. What do I gain technically by putting crew on?”