NASA Plans to Delay First SLS/Orion Mission to 2019

space launch system
NASA now expects the first Space Launch System flight, Exploration Mission 1, to slip to some time in 2019 regardless of whether or not it carries a crew. (Image credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON — NASA now expects the first launch of the Space Launch System to slip to 2019, regardless of any decision to put a crew on that mission, given ongoing issues with development of the launch vehicle and the Orion spacecraft.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administration for human exploration and operations, acknowledged the delay in a letter included in a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released April 27 that concluded that Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) would not meet its current November 2018 launch date.

"We agree with the GAO that maintaining a November 2018 launch readiness date is not in the best interest in the program, and we are in the process of establishing a new target in 2019," Gerstenmaier wrote in the letter, dated April 12 and included as an appendix in the GAO report. [Behind the Scenes Look: NASA's Orion Spacecraft (Video)]

Gerstenmaier said, in response to one recommendation in the GAO report, that NASA would develop a new launch readiness date by the end of September. "NASA is assessing the EM-1 schedule in light of a number of ongoing activities," he said, which include the tornado that damaged the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in February, disrupting work on the core stage of the SLS, and the ongoing development of the administration's fiscal year 2018 budget request.

The GAO, in its examination of progress NASA was making on EM-1 requested by Congress in the report accompanying the fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill, had already concluded that the mission would not be ready for launch in late 2018 as planned. "With little to no schedule or cost reserves remaining as the programs finalize production and enter integration and testing activities, the EM-1 launch readiness date is in a precarious position," the report stated.

The GAO noted in the report progress made in the development of SLS, Orion and ground systems, but added that all faced serious challenges with little margin. "The magnitude of the schedule delays that the programs have experienced amid this progress, however, foreshadows a likely schedule slip for the November 2018 EM-1 launch readiness date," the report concluded.

One example is the delivery of the European-built service module for Orion, which is on the critical path for EM-1. Once scheduled for delivery in January, it has been delayed until at least August. Once delivered, the program requires 12 months of work to integrate it with the crew capsule and perform testing before delivering it to the Kennedy Space Center for final launch preparations.

"NASA officials stated that they would not be able to maintain a launch readiness date of November 2018 if Kennedy Space Center receives the Orion spacecraft after July 2018," the report noted. "As a result, the November 2018 launch readiness date is likely unachievable unless NASA identifies further mitigation steps to accommodate delays." The conclusion of the report added that the service module is now expected to be delivered in September, with the possibility of an additional two-month delay.

The report is the second in two weeks to conclude that delays in the SLS/Orion program were all but certain. An April 13 report by NASA's Office of Inspector General concluded that both EM-1 and EM-2, the first launch to carry a crew, faced schedule slips. "NASA's first exploration missions – EM-1 and EM-2 – face multiple technical challenges that will likely delay their launch," that report stated.

Delays in the EM-1 schedule don't take into account the possibility of placing a crew on that flight. NASA announced in February it was studying adding a crew to that mission. That report has been completed and briefed to both NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot and White House officials. The agency has not announced a decision, although one is expected by the time the White House releases its detailed fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, expected by mid-May.

One condition on that study, Gerstenmaier said in February, was that adding crew not delay EM-1 past the end of 2019. "I didn't want to go much beyond 2019," he said in a Feb. 24 briefing. "I felt that if we went much beyond 2019, then we might as well fly EM-2 and actually do the plan we're on."

That study had its origins in expected delays in EM-1. Chris Shank, who led the NASA transition team for the incoming Trump administration, said during a panel session at the Goddard Memorial Symposium March 8 that the study had its origins at a meeting where Gerstenmaier said the delivery of the Orion service module would likely be delayed.

"We asked, if given more time, if there are some additional things that you could do with the mission," he recalled. "This is genuinely a study on how to get the best bang for the buck."

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.