Without a new administrator even nominated yet, NASA’s acting head Robert Lightfoot on Wednesday requested a study of whether next year’s first flight of the Space Launch System rocket, billed as the most powerful NASA has built, could have a crew of astronauts.
“I know the challenges associated with such a proposition,” Lightfoot said in a letter to his agency, citing costs, extra work, and “a different launch date” for the planned 2018 Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). The mission would be launched by the massive SLS, which is still in development, then boosted by a European service module to put three astronauts inside the new Orion space capsule on a three-week trip around the moon.
NASA first sent three astronauts around the moon in 1968 in the Apollo 8 mission. The last astronaut to stand on the moon, the late Gene Cernan (who died last month) returned to Earth in 1972. The new talk of a repeat moon-circling mission, aboard an untested spacecraft, has space policy experts variously thrilled, dismissive, and puzzled.
“I frankly don’t quite know what to say about it,” space policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University told BuzzFeed News.
Writing on NASAWatch, Keith Cowing called the study request a “Hail Mary” pass to save the life of the SLS ahead of Trump installing a budget cutter to head the space agency. The Government Accountability Office estimates the costs of SLS and its two planned launches (a second, crewed mission is planned for 2023) at $23 billion.
“Show me the money,” Cowing wrote, describing the plan to put astronauts on the first flight as “fantasy.”
Others were more cheery: “Hail Mary passes do sometimes work, that’s why people try them,” Jeffrey Kluger, author of the forthcoming book Apollo 8, out in May, told BuzzFeed News. The Apollo 8 mission itself was an aggressive response to the 1967 Apollo 1 tragedy, where three astronauts died in a command module fire.
“We can choose to do it and the payoffs would be enormous. The point would be simply deciding to do something, to get NASA back on track toward the moon,” Kluger said.
At a Congressional space committee hearing on Thursday, former astronauts and space scientists expressed enthusiasm for the plan.
“We all want to go to the moon and Mars,” Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma, who is the most widely rumored name for the empty NASA administrator job, said at the hearing. “The moon, I believe, is necessary.”
Usually, acting agency chiefs don’t get ahead of new administrations, said Logsdon. That suggests that incoming Trump administration, interested in bold moves, might have requested the study of making the EM-1 mission a crewed test of a new rocket.
NASA, chastened by the loss of two space shuttles and 14 astronauts since the moon landings, is famously cautious. But it has taken calculated risks in the past, Logsdon noted. In 1974, for example, NASA decided to make the first space shuttle launch a crewed mission. “That was years in advance of the launch, not a year ahead though,” Logsdon said.
“At some point there has to be a budget,” Logsdon added, suggesting that the study may just be a trial balloon.
“People seem to be jumping to an assumption that a decision has been made because a study has been requested,” he said. “Sometimes studies are requested just to counter a crazy idea.”