NASA considers putting astronauts on first SLS/Orion flight

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Faced with indications that Trump wants a manned lunar mission during his first term, NASA’s acting administrator has asked his engineers and management to look into the possibility of putting humans on the first SLS/Orion launch, now set for late in 2018.

As the Acting Administrator, my perspective is that we are on the verge of even greater discoveries. President Trump said in his inaugural address that we will “unlock the mysteries of space.” Accordingly, it is imperative to the mission of this agency that we are successful in safely and effectively executing both the SLS and Orion programs.

Related to that, I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion. I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date. That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and ORION missions, coupled with those promised from record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock those mysteries and to ensure this nation’s world pre-eminence in exploring the cosmos.

This is incredibly stupid. That first flight will be the very first time SLS will fly. It will also be flying with an upper stage engine that has also never flown before. It will take the Orion capsule to the Moon, when the capsule itself has not yet even done one orbit around the Earth. To put people on it makes no engineering sense at all.



  • jburn

    “I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space.”

    I think it’s a great idea to ASK these questions. It accelerates the entire process dramatically and is probably the type of question which was often asked during the Apollo era versus the last 50 years of the perpetual slow walk. A walk which all to often benefited aerospace cost plus accounting.

  • jburn: Asking the questions is reasonable. That this issue is being raised suggests to me that the SLS/Orion program is feeling intense competition from private space, and is now realizing that if they don’t produce something soon they will be dumped by Trump.

    What they are considering however is still stupid. Look, I wrote a whole book about Apollo 8 (Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, available now as an ebook!) and the decision to accelerate it and turn it from an Earth orbit mission to a mission to orbit the Moon. The risks there were quite high. However, that mission was still the second manned Apollo capsule flight, and the fourth overall Apollo flight. It was also the third Saturn 5 launch. They had at least flown the rocket and the capsules and had worked out some of their bugs.

    What is being considered here is to put humans on the first test flight of SLS and only the second test flight of Orion. Moreover, this Orion flight will really be its first, since they have made gigantic changes to it since that first test flight. The previous test results really don’t apply to it. If they decide to do this they will be definitely taking risks they shouldn’t. In fact, NASA has been very strict with Boeing and SpaceX in connection with their capsules. To not apply the same rules to SLS/Orion is quite hypocritical.

  • Diane Wilson

    I guess this would be an exercise in “all-up testing.” Go fever!

    This is exactly the kind of presidential and managerial pressure that resulted in a teacher put on board Challenger, and launching against engineering recommendations. When I worked at IBM, this was referred to as “get it right the first time,” which in the trenches meant “let the customer find the bugs.” Or the astronauts, in this case.

  • Mitch S

    I had the same thought as Diane.
    Heck why not put a teacher on the mission too.
    Damn the engineers, full speed ahead!

  • Edward

    My read on this is that Trump is looking for a direction for NASA that does not allow the next president (if that is in four years) to willy nilly pull an Obama and set NASA adrift again. The not-invented-here mentality seems to have gripped NASA for the past three administrations.

    Clinton added the Russians to space station Freedom, at great expense and loss of the space station’s name. Bush declared a return to the Moon to be our next mission. Obama declared the Moon would not be the next mission, then had no concrete mission for NASA, leaving it ineffectual and confused.

    Now Trump seems to be focusing on a return to the Moon as a means of regaining America’s leadership role in space, but he does not seem to be abandoning past work.

    From the article: “Rush jobs are not NASA’s way.

    This means that we will not be landing on the Moon as the article tells us Newt Gingrich wrote: “Done properly we can be on the moon in President Trump’s first term and orbiting Mars by the end of his second term.” To do things faster than before is very difficult, as SpaceX has demonstrated with its two years of attempts to increase their launch rate to more than a dozen per year. SpaceX is set up as an organization able to pick up the pace, but NASA is set up as a government organization more willing to avoid bad publicity than to rush a job. I do not think that Gingrich’s vision is possible through NASA.

    From the article: “‘The key is to liberate space from government monopoly and maximize the inventive entrepreneurial spirit of the Wright brothers, Edison, Ford and other classic Americans,’ Gingrich wrote.

    Here Gingrich is correct, however none of those people had to deal with the regulatory environment that we have today.

    The article does suggest, however, that SLS need not be the vehicle of choice for whatever is the new mission or direction taken. “But Walker did not say such a mission would necessarily have to use NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion capsule.” Falcon Heavy may be available by then, but I do not know whether Dragon or CST-100 would be able to perform a week-long voyage to the moon and back.

    My hope is that Trump and Congress put NASA and its talented people to good use once again. I hope that the result is that commercial space is encouraged to expand beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), just as NASA has encouraged commercial space with its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), Commercial Resupply Services (CRS), CRS2, and Commercial Crew Development (CCDev).

    We seem to be at a fork in the road, and Trump seems to be heeding Yogi Berra’s advice to take it.

  • Edward

    Diane and Mitch,
    You may find the book “The Challenger Launch Decision,” by Diane Vaughan, to be interesting.

    The same Thiokol engineer, Roger Boisjoly, who was saying that they should not launch under the weather conditions had given a written report to NASA, only ten months earlier, saying that it was OK to launch under those same conditions. A confused NASA explicitly and rightly asked Thiokol: which was the case, could they launch or couldn’t they? The answer came back from Thiokol that they could. Thus, NASA’s decision to launch Challenger was according to the recommendation of their engineering company.

    The first couple of chapters of Vaughan’s book reviews what we learned from the news media and contrasts it to the reality of the situation.

    Amazingly, Challenger and Columbia had something in common. Vaughan, when writing about Challenger, called it “normalization of deviance.” The hardware did not behave as expected, the behavior deviated from expectation. For Challenger, Shuttle O-rings had signs of burn-through for some launches. For Columbia, External Tank insulation came off during some launches. In neither case was the deviance seen as a reason to stop launches until fixes were made.

    So the question is, how many cases of deviance from expected behavior are not being fixed on New Shepard, Dragon, Falcon, and Orion?

  • Sandra Warren

    In my career, I’ve had more than one “new boss.” Like the famous strategy of moving the furniture, new bosses think that making the staff stretch for a ridiculous goal will bring everyone to heel. Sometimes the old employees just have to tell the new guy that they will do it, and then go back to their desks to plan how they will tell him later it can’t happen. Or more likely, plan how they will modify it, like … “Well, we ought not to kill people on the FIRST test of this new design, but assuming the unmanned test is successful, here’s our plan for how we might be able to do a lunar mission in this decade.” More than anyone, government employees are trained to deal with unwelcome ideas from interlopers.

  • wayne

    Good stuff. -Totally forgot the Challenger anniversary was a few weeks ago.
    Ran across a fairly good video on Boisjoly:

    “In memoriam Roger Boisjoly.”

  • Edward

    Speaking of dealing with unwelcome ideas, here Robert Zubrin and David Baker describe the two reactions they received from NASA for their Mars Direct idea, in the early 1990s: (watch the next 2-1/2 minutes)

  • Mitch S.

    About the Challenger book – very interesting!

    First off, when tragedies like this happen, people tend to think “Something really bad happened so there must be someone bad at fault” and this leads to the (comforting) thought “Once we get rid of the bad guy the tragedy won’t happen again”.
    This applies to other areas such as politics/public policy, business etc.
    (“Saddam, Khadafy, Mubarak, is bad so if we get rid of him the country will be good” “Obamacare is bad so if we get rid of it the healthcare system will be fixed”)
    Yeah there are some real evil types whose removal from history would probably be beneficial, Hitler being the primary example, but for the most part the causes (and therefore solutions) are more complex.
    Still, there has to be responsibility and that comes with consequences.

    Hard for me to imagine a similar scenario with say American Airlines and a Boeing engineer issuing the warning. Perhaps there wouldn’t be criminal convictions but there would be serious civil damages as well as public image loss.

    So I do understand how the culture and outside pressures drag an org and individuals into making bad decisions – and I think it’s important to know that.
    But I’ll have to check out her book – I have a hard time accepting that the night before the launch, when knowledgeable engineers warn that a faulty , temp sensitive system is in a state outside of any previous launch situation (colder than any launch by a significant degree) making a decision to launch anyway – even though it required threats to get the engineers/contractor to sign off, is just a case of “normalization of deviance”.

  • Mitch S.

    I’ll have to read the (Challenger) book, but I did find a NY Times review from the time.
    (Note it’s from 1996 – before Columbia)
    In it:
    “Has the appalling mismanagement that destroyed Challenger been purged from the space agency? Mr. Jensen offers no opinion. Ms. Vaughan warns of ”the relentless inevitability of mistake in organizations.” The successes of the shuttle in its last 49 flights offers some grounds for optimism. But space flight is a risky business. At the time of Challenger, NASA was estimating that one shuttle flight in 100,000 would fail; the Air Force was guessing one in 28. After the Challenger accident, NASA accepted an estimate of one in 78. Another failure is therefore likely before the space station is completed. A reformed NASA can only reduce the risk, not eliminate it.”

    Actually I find the Columbia loss less alarming than Challenger’s.
    To an extent the ice hitting and damaging the leading edge tiles was a bit of a “freak event”.
    I do question whether they should have withheld the info from the astronauts – they were professionals and deserved to know in my opinion.
    If Challenger launched in sub-zero temps without joint blow through it would have been a freak event (though if the flame jet was directed away from the tank the crew probably could have made it back – just the way it seems to me, I haven’t seen a professional opinion on this)

    I used to occasionally pick up an issue of Flying magazine.
    Here was a mag that promoted private aviation, but in the back of every issue was a true story of a serious aviation mishap, often with fatal consequences.
    In my opinion aviation is as safe as it is today because the industry studies the failures rather than brushing them off as history.

  • Chris R

    A great piece from the 2015 CineSpace competition, worth a watch:

  • Garry

    Mitch S, wrote,

    “I used to occasionally pick up an issue of Flying magazine.
    Here was a mag that promoted private aviation, but in the back of every issue was a true story of a serious aviation mishap, often with fatal consequences.
    In my opinion aviation is as safe as it is today because the industry studies the failures rather than brushing them off as history.”

    A similar case can be made for skydiving (although it is not nearly as safe as aviation in general).

    Back in the day when I used to skydive, to qualify for a license one had to join the US Parachute Association, which meant a subscription to their monthly magazine. The only part of the magazine I ever read was the monthly mishap reports.

    In 3 years, I counted only 2 fatalities that weren’t the direct result of either a plane crash (not the jumper’s fault), or a completely reckless action by the jumper. The 2 exceptions were due to irresponsible actions by the jumpmasters, which led directly to the deaths of two complete novices.

    Just reading of accidents every month reinforced the dead seriousness of my hobby, made me aware of seemingly harmless actions that can lead to problems, and even inspired me to avoid jumping with certain individuals who I saw as reckless.

  • LocalFluff

    Three years since they decided to not human rate the intermediate upper stage for the SLS, and to build only one of them:
    Sounds like they decided to not use it, but that they could save time (and face) by finishing off one of them. The one and only intermediate upper stage could be used for the Europa mission to be launched 2022-25, if it is worthwhile to ever fly it.

    The advantage of Orion is said to be a long enough life support for a Moon mission. But I would think that Dragon and Starliner both are designed with a version with Lunar life support in mind. And NASA is letting ESA build Orion’s service module. ESA’s only experience is from the 5 flights to ISS with ATV’s service module, an uncrewed cargo vehicle. And haven’t they already started to talk about delays? In order to finance this service module, ESA’s political leaders decided to cancel their half of the DART/AIM asteroid impactor and orbiter mission, making NASA’s remaining half useless. Was that a political punishment of NASA?

    Maybe a delay is what motivates this suggestion (to simply skip EM-1) because it is a more ambitious sounding way to beg for more time.

  • Insomnius

    “Damn the engineers, full speed ahead!” With more stupidity and beyond!
    Yea! Let’s keep gambling, America is the richest nation in the solar system and if we fail we can just fall in line and blame Russia!

  • Localfluff

    One might argue that the Shuttle flew with a crew on its first launch. And SLS building upon the Shuttle makes most of its risks better understood. The SLS will launch so rarely that one can’t get any useful launch failure statistics anyway, not like ULA’s 110+ successful launches in a row now. I think NASA is prepared to do it, but (or because) it would have to be delayed.

  • Steve Earle

    February 16, 2017 at 9:26 am
    One might argue that the Shuttle flew with a crew on its first launch.


    Good point. IIRC, the Shuttle first flight was an all-up launch with a minimal crew (just 2 I think). I know they had tested the engines, the solid rockets, and of course the drop tests of the Enterprise, but I don’t recall any unmanned launch tests….. And the Space Shuttle is and was billed as the “Most Complex Machine Ever Built”.

  • wayne

    Don’t want to go all tangential, but… ran across this database. Covers launches since 1957, with predicted & actual failure rates.
    Can I rely on these factoids?

  • Wayne: Spacelaunchreport is a good source of information.

  • Edward

    Mitch S. wrote: “this leads to the (comforting) thought “Once we get rid of the bad guy the tragedy won’t happen again”. … there are some real evil types whose removal from history would probably be beneficial, Hitler being the primary example, but for the most part the causes (and therefore solutions) are more complex.

    The movie “Valkyrie” points out that there were three other bad guys running NAZI Germany, and they had to be dealt with as soon as Hitler was assassinated. Solving that problem took up a good portion of the movie.

    Healthcare will never be fixed, just as restaurants will never be fixed. Many people cannot eat solely in restaurants, because they are just too expensive. But our right to eat does not (yet) require that restaurant meals be subsidized.

    However, the system that we had before Obamacare was far, far better than the turd that we have now.

    It was not outside pressure that led to the Challenger launch decision. The main problem was that the engineers who best understood the problem were unable to be convincing that night, because Boisjoly had successfully convinced everyone that they could launch when temperatures were as low as the contract required.

    Vaughan’s book gets into a lot of areas that relate to the decision, such as underlings not feeling empowered to speak up and their supervisors not knowing enough to speak with confidence. There was a plot of temperatures and O-ring damage that was created after the fact, but had it been available that night, I think everyone would have agreed that a launch was extremely risky. Add even more emphasis on extremely.

    My main takeaway was that NASA was given conflicting information, asked for clarity, then made their decision based upon the poor input from their vendor. After the fact, the stupidity of the decision was made clear. I believe that NASA would have chosen differently had they been told that the O-ring performance did not allow for safe launches at temperatures as low as those required by the contractual requirements.

    Here was a mag that promoted private aviation, but in the back of every issue was a true story of a serious aviation mishap, often with fatal consequences. In my opinion aviation is as safe as it is today because the industry studies the failures rather than brushing them off as history.

    Back when I subscribed, that was my favorite part of Flying magazine.

    I agree. Bill Whittle has a YouTube called “The Deal,” which I have linked too many times, on this site, and he explains how it took a lot of failure to learn how to fly right. Three decades ago, airlines realized that at the rate of increase in the number of flights, if they continued having accidents at the same rate then there would be an accident in the headlines each week, by now. So they hunkered down and became focused on safety in operations and design. They have been especially successful in the US.

    Localfluff wrote: “One might argue that the Shuttle flew with a crew on its first launch.

    They did, but they only went into LEO, installed ejection seats for the crew of 2, and planned for this for several years in advance. One would hope that NASA learned that even their routine, shirt-sleeve-environment spacecraft can be dangerous.

    The video that you linked was interesting. It implied that no one took the O-ring problem seriously, but the summer before the tragic Challenger launch, at Biosjoly’s request, Thiokol started redesigning the booster sections to correct the O-ring problem. My conclusion is that his concerns were heard and responded to. Why he and a few others were unable to convince his managers at Thiokol, that night, is not entirely clear to me, but the managers were the ones responsible for telling NASA that launch was recommended. It was a Thiokol manager who infamously said “put on your management hat.”

    The important quote from the video: “They know NASA would not go against a contractor’s recommendation.” And NASA didn’t.

    Unfortunately, NASA continues to be blamed for Thiokol’s recommendation. Keep in mind, while watching that video, that NASA had a report from ten months earlier that confirmed the safety of launching at cold temperatures. The video makes it sound as though NASA is stubbornly demanding proof that the O-rings are unsafe, but the fact is that they are suddenly being told a very different story than the well thought out and researched story that they have in writing. Indeed, many of the same charts that were used to show that it was safe to launch were now being used to say that it was unsafe.

    This is where “normalization of deviance” comes in. It was already accepted that the Shuttle could launch when the primary O-ring had some blow-by, including at the low temperature at which they had launched the previous January. Thus Feynman was correct, NASA was not being told the importance of the O-ring problem, but was told — by the experts — that it was OK to launch despite the now-accepted problem. Now Thiokol was changing the story.

    NASA was asking for clarification, as to which story is correct. NASA was rightly confused. Indeed, NASA wondered why the arbitrary 53 degree cutoff was chosen rather than the 75 degrees, where O-ring blow-by had once also been observed, and why was the cutoff so high when so many launches succeeded at much lower temperatures, including the temperature at which they eventually launched. NASA was rightly shocked that Thiokol was, without any warning, telling them that the Space Shuttle was virtually useless, much of the year, when they had previously been assured that it was a year-round vehicle.

    Thiokol has chosen the wrong strategy for convincing their customer that launch was unsafe. Instead of honesty, they chose to confuse their customer, making it sound as though the Shuttle was unsafe at virtually any temperature. Thiokol had no new information, so NASA was rightly confused as to what had so suddenly changed.

    If it was unsafe at those low temperatures, Thiokol needed to come clean and say so. Thiokol needed to say, “don’t launch tomorrow, and we will discuss this with you in the morning,” then put together the report that they should have given to NASA ten months earlier.

    I have concluded that no one at Thiokol was willing to tell NASA that they had lied, ten months earlier, when they assured NASA that the Shuttle was safe at those low temperatures.

  • wayne

    Good stuff.

  • BSJ

    Iron Sky, Now that’s a real NAZI movie!

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