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Trump asks NASA to explore putting astronauts on rocket's debut flight

The capsule that will carry the astronauts, NASA's new Orion, already has flown on a space demo.

Initiated in 2011 to take the place of the over-budget and behind-schedule Constellation program as a shuttle replacement, the new super rocket SLS is now scheduled to fly its maiden Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) in late 2018 or early 2019, launching an Orion space capsule on a trajectory that would take it around the moon and back to Earth.

NASA officials said they do not feel compelled to fly the test mission with crew aboard, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's head of human space flight, told reporters on a conference call.

The White House has asked the space agency to take around a month to assess how much additional time, money and risk would be added to the SLS' debut flight if a two-member crew is put on board.

During a midday teleconference, NASA officials discussed the feasibility plans of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of NASA's Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft.

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Commenting on the new interest in taking astronauts on board, Bob Walker, space policy adviser to the Trump administration, said an aggressive posture on human space exploration is what the administration is looking at. "At the moment, NASA has no estimate on the additional costs of adding life support, an abort system and other hardware that would be needed for EM-1 to fly with a crew".

However, delays could push those dates back so much that a crew launch might not occur until late in the next presidential term.

After discussions with NASA leadership, Sanders said "the panel has confidence in the approach that NASA is taking for this assessment", and was not pre-judging its outcome. "But in the assessment, we strongly advise that NASA carefully and cautiously weigh the value proposition for flying crew on EM-1".

Developing the the two vehicles costs $3 billion a year, and the rosiest projections suggest annual costs of $2 billion, assuming one launch each year. "If the benefits warrant assumption of additional risk, we expect NASA to clearly and openly articulate their decision process and rationale". NASA has described it as the "most powerful rocket in the world".

Echoing that sentiment was William Hill, a deputy associate administrator: "We will let the identified risk and benefits drive this, as well as the data".

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