NASA has revealed that it has had to delay the first manned mission of its Orion spacecraft by up to two years, the latest setback in its goal to get humans to Mars.
Orion is a key component of NASA’s program to take humans beyond Earth orbit. It is outsourcing journeys to low Earth orbit, such as the International Space Station (ISS), to private companies SpaceX and Boeing. But Orion – together with the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket – will be used for missions to the Moon, an asteroid and, ultimately, Mars.
This latest delay is therefore a significant setback for the agency. Orion has already completed an unmanned test flight, in December 2014, on a Delta IV rocket. The next flight, again unmanned but this time on the new giant SLS rocket, is due for November 2018 – itself delayed from 2017. The first manned flight had been due “no earlier” than August 2021, with a mission to an asteroid later that decade and Mars the next, but will now be "no later" than April 2023.
The delay has arisen after a reassessment of the Orion program as a whole, namely its hardware and software. Speaking at a teleconference yesterday, NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot said: “Right now we’re not seeing any issues in those areas, but we have to account for those because we’ve got a lot of runway in front of us before we get there and those things could pop up.”
One component that is essential is the ESA-built service module, which will provide thrust and life support for Orion. But although it is due for completion in 2018, any number of problems between the service module and Orion could hamper the timeline.
NASA's ultimate goal is to land humans on Mars. NASA/Pat Rawlings, SAIC.
Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate at NASA, added that “if you look at the complexities of what we’re doing building this spacecraft, there will be some unknowns that show up, and to protect for those we went with the later date, the 2023.” He noted they were being "somewhat conservative" with the new date.
NASA is already in the process of building the Orion spacecraft that will be used in the 2018 flight, so it’s not clear yet if that mission will be delayed. But in its continuing efforts to send humans to Mars and return them to Earth, NASA will be hoping for smoother sailing than experienced so far. Orion itself was born out of the cancelled Constellation program to send humans back to the Moon, scrapped in 2010 in favour of this Mars-centric program.
NASA is confident we will eventually get to Mars, provided funding for the program continues, but all this goes to show just how difficult it is going to be. It is rocket science, after all.