NASA studying manned trip around moon

Richard Clough
Bloomberg News

The U.S. is studying a possible manned mission around the moon as early as next year, marking the first such trip since the Apollo era ended in the early 1970s.

Following requests from the White House, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has formed a team to examine accelerating earlier plans to launch a crew by 2021, William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of the agency’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said Friday. Preliminary results of the review should be ready in about a month.

“We have a good, crisp list of all the things we would physically have to change” on the launch vehicle under development, Gerstenmaier said on a conference call with reporters. “We asked the team to take a look at potentially what additional tests would be needed to add crew, what the additional risk would be.”

Resuming manned missions would mark a leap toward deeper exploration of space, including one day putting humans on Mars. President Donald Trump has indicated support for a more-ambitious program, saying in his inaugural address that the U.S. is “ready to unlock the mysteries of space.”

Gerstenmaier’s comments build on a possibility revealed last week when Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, circulated a memo calling for a review of Exploration Mission 1 and 2. Under the original plan, the program’s Space Launch System rocket and companion Orion capsule had been scheduled to make an unmanned flight around the moon in 2018 and carry a crew on the second flight three years later.

NASA hasn’t sent people beyond low-Earth orbit since the final moon missions more than 40 years ago, although it did continue manned flights with the Space Shuttle until 2011. After that program was mothballed, U.S. astronauts have relied on Russian spacecraft to get to and from the International Space Station.

Boeing Co., the primary contractor for Space Launch System, had been planning to use a rocket portion for the first flight that hasn’t been tested for manned missions.Lockheed Martin Corp., which is building the Orion capsule, didn’t plan to incorporate functional life-support systems until the second flight.

NASA is studying the possibility of a two-person crew on the first flight, which would last about eight or nine days on the trip around the moon, William Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, said on the call with reporters.

Gerstenmaier acknowledged that changes required to support humans could push the launch of Exploration Mission 1 back from the late-2018 target. He said NASA probably wouldn’t put a crew on the first flight if it could not be done by 2019.

NASA’s 2017 budget request of about $19 billion includes $8.4 billion for human exploration operations. Gerstenmaier said there was no discussion with the new administration about funding for any changes to the mission.

Megarocket’s 1st flight

NASA is weighing the risk of adding astronauts to the first flight of its new megarocket, designed to eventually send crews to Mars.

The space agency’s human exploration chief said Friday that his boss and the Trump administration asked for the feasibility study. The objective is to see what it would take to speed up a manned mission; under the current plan, astronauts wouldn’t climb aboard until 2021— at best.