NASA may have decided to fly humans on first SLS test flight

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Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc has a story today suggesting that there are rumors at NASA that the agency has decided that it will put astronauts in Orion for SLS’s first test flight, now tentatively scheduled for sometime in 2019.

At he notes, this will only be the second time in history humans will have flown on a untested rocket, the first being the space shuttle, where they had no choice as the vehicle needed people to fly it.

NASA’s arguments in favor of this manned test flight will probably rest on noting how much of the rocket is based on previously flown equipment. For example, the upper stage for this flight will be a modified Delta upper stage, a well tested and frequently flown stage. The first stage will be made of side-mounted first stage solid rocket boosters that are essentially upgrades of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. And the first stage engines are actual shuttle engines salvaged from the shuttle’s themselves. In addition, NASA will note that Orion will have a launch abort system, though it appears that there will be no test of this system prior to the flight.

These arguments don’t carry much weight. The Delta upper stage will also be modified for this flight, and this will be that version’s first use. Similarly, the solid rocket boosters have been modified as well, and this will be their first flight. And as I noted, the Orion launch abort system will not have been tested in flight.

Finally, and most important, the goal of this test flight is to see if these different parts have been integrated together properly. As a unit, none of them has ever flown together. To put humans on such a flight is very foolish indeed.

Messier sums this up quite well:

The flight might come off just fine. But, I fear that NASA’s concern about keeping the program funded, and Donald Trump’s desire for some space spectacular to boost his re-election chances, could combine to produce something very unfortunate.

I pray that people in the Trump administration put a stop to this silliness, as soon as possible.



  • Des

    I agree absolutely. This is putting astronauts at risk for no benefit. Putting astronauts on this flight does nothing to advance the SLS program. The next scheduled flight after this one, em-2 is supposed to have a completely new upper stage. The only reason I can see for doing it is to attempt to save SLS/Orion from cancellation by having first human flight occurring earlier.

  • Mitch S.

    So NASA says to not worry about SLS working because it’s made up of already proven components.
    Hey NASA, if that’s the case why is the dang thing taking so long and costing so much?!

  • Mitch S: Note please that NASA has not yet said this. I am anticipating them saying this.

    Nonetheless, your point is very well taken, and will be exactly the right response, when (or if) NASA makes this argument.

  • Diane Wilson

    Do I remember correctly that the Orion capsule scheduled for this flight does not have life support integrated into it? Will the service module be ready (finally) and will it have flown before as a “flight-proven” component? (rhetorical question)

    Well-instrumented crash dummies would be more appropriate. As I think about it, that’s probably a good description of any human passengers on this flight…..

    At least when Musk states that he will fly two paying tourists around the moon in 2018 (now definitely before any SLS launch), at least he’s open about the fact that they will be nothing more or less than passengers.

  • Diane Wilson

    The hypocrisy does burn that NASA is bypassing all the safety requirements that they press heavily on SpaceX and Boeing. And all these “flight-proven” components have been cobbled together from systems designed for very different usage.

    Yes, SpaceX has a number of requirements to meet before flying tourists to the moon, and his date may slip also. In 18 months, they needs FH to fly, in-flight abort test, Dragon 2 first flight, and first crewed flight. At least SpaceX has plans and tentative schedules to do these things.

  • LocalFluff

    This is how high cost and low launch frequence also compromises safety. Funny that Congress has decided that the Europa mission will fly on SLS. One would’ve thought that it would be used as the premier flight. But then the real upper stage is like a new premier flight anyway, more of a new rocket than EM-1 with a proven but modified Delta upper stage. This intermediate stage stuff is good for nothing.

    The Oreo space raft racket has made a pad abort system:

  • Mike Borgelt

    If Trump defunded NASA entirely it would be a good thing. Bunch of hypocrites insisting on all sorts of safety requirements for SpaceX and Boeing (although Boeing don’t have to do an in flight abort test)and then coming up with a plan like this?

  • ken anthony

    What can’t continue eventually won’t. FH needs to fly soon.

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