May 14 (UPI) — Astronauts won’t fly on the first launch of the deep space exploration rocket scheduled for 2019, and a crewed mission has been delayed until at least 2022, NASA announced.
In February, the federal agency launched a feasibility study for the Space Launch System after the Trump administration asked NASA whether two astronauts could be part of the first test flight, originally scheduled for late 2018.
“We appreciate the opportunity to evaluate the possibility of this crewed flight,” NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoott said Friday at a news conference. “The bi-partisan support of Congress and the president for our efforts to send astronauts deeper into the solar system than we have ever gone before is valued and does not go unnoticed. Presidential support for space has been strong.”
Bill Gerstenmaier, head of human spaceflight programs at NASA, said at the news conference: The risk was reasonable, but it was additional risk. It was going to cost more.”
The study estimated that the SLS and Orion — the module that would contain the astronauts — might be ready to carry astronauts on their first launch together by the first half of 2020 if NASA received an extra $600 million to $900 million. The funding was needed to finish Orion’s heat shield, life support systems and launch abort system.
NASA has already spent more than $26 billion on the program, according to the agency’s inspector general.
NASA also said the inaugural, unmanned SLS launch has been pushed back to 2019.
In 2022, a second planned SLS launch will send astronauts into orbit around the moon. They will be carried by an upgraded version of the rocket equipped with a more powerful upper stage.
Last month during a convention with International Space Station astronauts, President Donald Trump said he envisions a Mars mission flown “during my first term, or at worst during my second term.”
On Friday, Lightfoot said NASA wasn’t asked to have a Mars expedition by that time and the goal is to reach the planet in the 2030s.
“Taking folks farther than we ever have before just isn’t necessarily the most easy proposition in the world,” Lightfoot said. “We’re looking for a sustainable program here, more than just one mission.”
Two private companies plan to send humans into orbit in the near future.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who owns Telsa, wants to fly people around the moon in two years and wants to colonize Mars. Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, would like to to ship cargo to the moon.
Boeing and SpaceX plan to ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station by the end of next year.
“It’s going to take really all of us, frankly, to get this done,” Lightfoot said.
“This really isn’t about NASA versus SpaceX, or NASA versus Blue Origin, it’s more about the past way of doing business versus how do we run the government more like a business,” Phil Larson, the space policy adviser for President Donald Trump, said to The Washington Post.
NASA’s was forced to delay deep space plans after a tornado seriously damaged the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in February. Earlier this month, workers at Michoud accidentally damaged beyond repair a large dome that’s part of a liquid oxygen fuel tank.
“This was a significant event for us,” Gerstenmaier said.
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