NASA artist's concept of SLS.

WASHINGTON — A panel of former NASA astronauts and officials offered tentative support Feb. 16 for an agency study announced this week to examine putting a crew on the first flight of the Space Launch System.

The witnesses, which included two former astronauts, a former chief scientist and a former center director, were asked about the issue late in a two-and-a-half-hour hearing on NASA by the House Science Committee. The hearing took place a day after NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced plans to study the feasibility of putting crew on Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), currently scheduled to launch in late 2018 without a crew.

Former astronaut Tom Stafford compared the proposal to the first flight of the space shuttle, which also carried a crew, a decision he said he was involved with while an astronaut in the early 1970s. He noted that many of the elements of the SLS, including its engines and solid rocket boosters, previously flown on the shuttle or other vehicles and thus are fairly well known.

“The powerplants are in pretty good shape,” he said of the SLS’ propulsion systems. “I’d feel better about flying this than we did other things.”

Another former astronaut, Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt, raised the question of safety. “They’re going to have to look at it very closely, whether you can man-rate the system that fast,” he said. “The one thing that will always hurt a space program is an accident.”

Ellen Stofan, who left NASA in December after spending more than three years at the agency as its chief scientist, supported the proposed study. “The approach that Robert [Lightfoot] has taken by asking Bill Gerstenmaier do a study is, I think, the correct one,” she said. “Would I personally love to see the schedule accelerated? Yes, I would love that. The sooner we get to Mars, the better.”

Tom Young, former director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and a retired Lockheed Martin executive, also supported the study, but he added he felt NASA should also look at moving up the second launch so that it could take place as soon as a few months of the first.

“It’s a long time between the first flight and the second flight, today,” he said. “Part B, in my mind, if you’re really going to take a hard look at this overall plan is, how can you accelerate it so that you can do the first one and then, a few months after, you do the second one.”

Those back-to-back tests, he said, would examine issues associated with the vehicle’s flight rate. Young and other witnesses argued that the SLS should fly more frequently than NASA’s current plans of about one mission per year. Young and others said at the hearing they believed that the SLS should launch at least twice a year in order to maintain proficiency and ensure safety.

The study Lightfoot announced Feb. 15 will only review at flying a crew on EM-1, a decision that, if made, would likely push back the mission from late 2018 until 2019 or 2020. That study will look at the technical feasibility of getting both SLS and Orion ready to fly crews on that mission and their costs.

Bob Cabana, director of Kennedy Space Center, told reporters visiting the center Feb. 17 that KSC will have a role on the study to determine what elements of the ground systems supporting SLS and Orion at the center would be affected by that decision. “We’ll be making those inputs so that we fully understand what it is we have to do to be ready, should we be able to support crew on EM-1,” he said.

Should NASA decide to put a crew on EM-1, KSC officials said the additional work on ground systems there would likely be minimal. That work would include accelerated tests of the crew access arm on the mobile launch tower that gives astronauts access to the Orion, as well as software upgrades on various control systems. “There’s not any real significant changes we’ll have to make to launch the crew on EM-1, if we decide to do that,” said Shawn Quinn, associate program manager for the Ground Systems Development and Operations program.

The EM-1 study, Cabana said, should be done by late next month. “We’ll take a look and see if we can’t get Mr. Lightfoot an answer by March about whether that’s feasible,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...