WASHINGTON : NASA has dropped the idea of putting astronauts aboard the first integrated flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft -- Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1 -- the first in a broad series of exploration missions that will take humans to deep space, and eventually to Mars.
NASA's original plan was to launch the test flight without crew, but in February, reportedly at the request of the Donald Trump administration, NASA began an effort looking at the feasibility of putting crew aboard EM-1.
"After weighing the data and assessing all implications, the agency will continue pursuing the original plan for the first launch, as a rigorous flight test of the integrated systems without crew," NASA said in a statement on Saturday.
However, engineers will apply insights gained from the effort to the first flight test and the integrated systems to strengthen the long-term push to extend human presence deeper into the solar system.
NASA determined it is technically capable of launching crew on EM-1, but after evaluating cost, risk and technical factors in a project of this magnitude, it would be difficult to accommodate changes needed to add crew at this point in mission planning.
The effort confirmed that the baseline plan to fly EM-1 without crew is still the best approach to enable humans to move sustainably beyond low Earth orbit.
"We appreciate the opportunity to evaluate the possibility of this crewed flight," NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said.
"The bi-partisan support of Congress and the President for our efforts to send astronauts deeper into the solar system than we have ever gone before is valued and does not go unnoticed. Presidential support for space has been strong," Lightfoot added.
The US space agency also announced its plan to delay the scheduled launch of EM-1 in 2018.
"NASA will adjust the target launch date for the EM-1 mission to 2019, and will execute its normal process in the coming weeks to determine an official revised launch date," it said.
"NASA will continue to work with the Administration and Congress as we move toward a crewed flight test on EM-2 and, right now, we are very focused on accomplishing the EM-1 flight test," Lightfoot said.