NASA may crew astronauts on first test launch of new Mars rocket

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Feb 19, 2017, 2:02 PM EST (Updated)

If we want to put humans on Mars, we're going to need a rocket powerful enough to get us there. So NASA is thinking about accelerating its testing plans for the new Space Launch System (SLS).

The Verge reports the U.S. space agency is exploring the possibility of putting a crew of astronauts on the first test launch of the SLS currently scheduled for late 2018, a mission that was originally scheduled to be uncrewed. Along with testing out the SLS system, the launch will also put the new Orion crew capsule through its paces. The mission is set to send the Orion capsule into orbit around the moon for a three-week journey. NASA had initially planned to not have astronauts on board until a follow-up launch planned for 2021.

Here's what NASA’s acting administrator Robert Lightfoot wrote in an internal memo about the potential change:

"I have asked … to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion. I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date. That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space."

Though it would obviously be cool to get humans back out into space sooner rather than later (the flight will mark the farthest humans have flown since the Apollo missions), there are still a whole lot of questions that need to be answered. First off, it's not likely NASA could still hit that 2018 target date with a crewed mission (they still have to build the life support system), meaning that initial launch could slip into 2019. There's also the fact that the Government Accountability Office has already expressed concerns about NASA's original timeline due to its speed and the agency's limited budget. Accelerating it even further? Yeah, that could prove risky.

For now, it seems NASA is just trying to figure out if ramping up the schedule is even possible. So sit tight, armchair astronauts.

(via The Verge)