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The competition heats up? NASA has revised their plans for the 2017 and 2021 flights of its Orion capsule, making both flights more ambitious.
[M]anifests have always pointed towards the first SLS/Orion launch being an uncrewed Exploration Mission (EM-1), which was baselined a validation flight that would send Orion on a 7-10 day mission around the Moon.
SLS and Orion would then endure a four year gap – again, mainly due to the advanced 2017 debut relating to ISS crew back up – before repeating a version of EM-1, this time as a CLO (Crewed Lunar Orbit) flight, with four astronauts spending three to four days orbiting our nearest neighbor, as opposed to heading directly home after passing around the Moon – a flight known as Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2).
Much to the surprise of some people deeply involved with SLS and Orion, the order came down from NASA HQ to realign EM-2, based around a 2019 mission tasked with hunting down and capturing an asteroid that would then be placed in the vicinity of the Moon within one to two years. EM-2 is also known as the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM). [emphasis mine]
It has been my understanding that the plans for the 2017 unmanned test flight have previously described it as sending the Orion capsule into a high several thousand mile orbit, not to the Moon, in order to simulate a re-entry from lunar distances. Making that unmanned mission a lunar orbital mission makes it far more challenging. Similarly, it is incredibly risky to turn the next flight, the first manned flight for Orion, into a duplicate of this mission, or a flight to an asteroid. This will be the first time humans will have ever flown on Orion, and only the second time the capsule has been used. To then send those humans to the Moon or an asteroid seems downright foolish. Even the 1960s NASA, which was quite willing to run risks, would not have attempted such a plan.
It is my guess that the White House has recognized that SLS can’t survive politically with a launch rate once every four years and planned test flights that aren’t very exciting. They are therefore pushing NASA to accelerate the second mission (and first manned flight) from 2021 to 2019, while also making both flights more ambitious and therefore more salable to the public.
Whether this is possible, given NASA’s bloated bureaucracy, is the main question. Moreover, even at this accelerated pace SLS will be competing directly against the private sector, which I expect will continue to do things far faster and, more importantly, far cheaper. Against that competition SLS will be hard put to survive.