Click the arrow to watch the interview. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.
I've written many times this year about how, despite insistence by the NASA bureaucracy that the Space Launch System will fly its first uncrewed test flight in 2018, informal remarks by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden have suggested it will be later.
Bolden testified before Congress in March that although SLS itself may be ready by late 2018, the Orion capsule it's to launch won't be ready until “sometime after 2018, to be precise.”
In September, two NASA executives were a bit evasive about when the first test flight, called Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, might actually launch. During a media teleconference, they insisted the actual EM-1 launch date wasn't important because people wouldn't be on board. The true important date they said was for EM-2, the first with people, which they announced was slipping into the 2021-2023 time frame.
NASA announced in late October that Orion had completed its Critical Design Review, but did not indicate if it was on schedule for late 2018. The press release simply stated, “The results of this review, known as a Critical Design Review, at the Program level will be briefed to agency leaders in the coming months.”
Earlier this month, NASA announced on November 19 that a coating would need to be applied to the Orion shell's heat shield tiles to protect it during re-entry.
For these future Orion missions, a silver, metallic-based thermal control coating will also be bonded to the crew module’s thermal protection system back shell tiles. The coating, similar to what is used on the main heat shield, will reduce heat loss during phases when Orion is pointed to space and therefore experiencing cold temperatures, as well as limit the high temperatures the crew module will be subjected to when the spacecraft faces the sun. The coating will help Orion’s back shell maintain a temperature range from approximately -150 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit prior to entry and also will protect against electrical surface charges in space and during re-entry.
The release did not state if this coating will delay the Orion schedule.
The latest hint that the launch date may slip comes from a video NASA released on November 24. Administrator Bolden was interviewed by a nine-year old who wants to be a reporter. The complete interview is above. Bolden says at the 1:25 mark:
... It's going to be the largest rocket we've ever built, and then it's going to carry on top of it a capsule that will have the crew, and that capsule is called Orion. Orion flew for the first time last year with no people in it, very successfully, so we're hoping to launch that sometime in the 2018 to 2020 timeframe.