NASA has released the complete review of the first launch of its new Space Launch System (SLS) which, once launched, will be the most powerful rocket in the world. The first mission, known as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), won't be crewed and is expected to launch in December 2019.
The review followed an earlier assessment which looked at the costs, risks, and technical factors of the mission. The construction of such a complex vehicle had to overcome several challenges and there were worries that constructions might bring forth severe delays, as well as issues with the European module, and damages to the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans which was hit by a tornado.
“While the review of the possible manufacturing and production schedule risks indicate a launch date of June 2020, the agency is managing to December 2019,” acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement. “Since several of the key risks identified have not been actually realized, we are able to put in place mitigation strategies for those risks to protect the December 2019 date.”
If the 2019 launch date is respected, both the SLS and the ground system would be within the agency's original baseline budget commitment. A launch in 2020 won’t change the cost significantly for the SLS but will increase the one for the ground system. NASA is already planning and budgeting for the second Exploration Mission and is gearing up for a third.
This will be the first integrated launch for the full system as it will also include the Orion capsule, which will carry astronauts in future missions. The EM-1 will still have to achieve the necessary safety requirements for having people on board. In fact, according to the review, NASA will move the launch abort system to April 2019. This test will confirm that if something goes wrong during launch, the crew module should be able to fly to safety.
“Hardware progress continues every day for the early flights of SLS and Orion. EM-1 will mark a significant achievement for NASA, and our nation’s future of human deep space exploration,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington. “Our investments in SLS and Orion will take us to the Moon and beyond, advancing American leadership in space.”
The EM-1 will allow the Orion module to spend three weeks in space including a six-day retrograde orbit around the Moon. The lessons learned from EM-1 will be used in the first crewed mission which is slated to happen in 2023.