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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.