“This earlier launch date is reasonable and challenges the teams to stay focused on tasks without creating undue pressure,” William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a hearing of the House space subcommittee on Thursday. “Furthermore, NASA is taking additional steps to reduce schedule risks for both known and unknown issues and protect for the earliest possible launch date.”
At the request of the Trump administration, NASA examined the possibility of putting astronauts aboard the rocket’s first flight. But that would have further pushed back the launch date and added as much as $900 million to the program’s price tag. NASA and the administration decided to stick with the original plan.
A crewless flight also allows more thorough testing, closer to the edge of the capabilities of the Orion capsule, the separate spacecraft carried by the rocket where astronauts will eventually be seated.
Credit Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Mr. Gerstenmaier told Congress that the additional delay for the first flight adds less than 15 percent to the cost of the rocket and slightly more than that for ground systems.
The delays have been caused in part by technological hiccups as well as factors out of NASA’s control, like a tornado striking the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana, where parts of the rocket are being built, in February.
He said that NASA is still on track for the first flight with astronauts in 2023. The rocket could also be used in the early 2020s to propel a robotic probe to Jupiter to study Europa, a moon with a vast ocean under its icy crust that is thought to be one of the most promising places in the solar system to look for life.
Mr. Gerstenmaier said the agency would soon a provide a framework of NASA’s plans beyond 2023.
A report this week from NASA’s inspector general highlighted problems that the program still faces including very tight budget reserves.
NASA also remains without a permanent leader since Charles F. Bolden Jr. stepped down as administrator on President Trump’s Inauguration Day. The 293 days that have passed since are the longest that NASA has been without a permanent administrator.