SpaceX conducts a static test fire at Pad 39A on February 12, 2017, as filmed from Exploration Tower in Cape Canaveral. Video source: CocoaBeach365 YouTube channel.
Having completed its first static test fire on Pad 39A, SpaceX continues to target Saturday, February 18, at about 10:00 AM EST for its first Falcon 9 launch from Kennedy Space Center.
President Donald Trump may be targeting the launch too.
Florida Today has confirmed that Trump will appear that afternoon at 5:00 PM EST in Melbourne, about forty miles south of KSC.
President Trump's Twitter account tweeted this message today:
About the same time as Trump's Melbourne visit was announced, news broke that acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot had announced NASA will study changes to the Space Launch System schedule. Space News journalist Jeff Foust reports:
“The study will examine the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space,” NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said in a statement to SpaceNews confirming the planned study.
Current plans call for the EM-1 mission to launch in late 2018 without a crew. The first crewed flight would be EM-2, which NASA is planning to launch in 2021. However, an assessment in 2015 performed as Orion reached a development milestone known as Key Decision Point C indicated that there was a 70 percent chance the EM-2 mission would launch no later than April 2023.
Lightfoot, in the memo, said the study will examine the technical and schedule issues of flying a crew on EM-1. “I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed,” he wrote, “and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date.”
The complete memo is in this article by Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach.
Foust quotes the memo as stating this program change “would likely delay the EM-1 launch from its current estimated launch window of September to November 2018. Industry sources said they believe addressing the various issues would delay the mission to 2019 or 2020. That would still be sooner than current NASA schedules for EM-2.”
The announcement comes less than a week after Politico journalist Bryan Bender reported that the Trump administration was considering a “bold and controversial vision for the U.S. space program” that included a crewed return to the Moon by 2020.
The more ambitious administration vision could include new moon landings that “see private American astronauts, on private space ships, circling the Moon by 2020; and private lunar landers staking out de facto 'property rights' for American [companies?! — the word is missing in the article] on the Moon, by 2020 as well,” according to a summary of an “agency action plan” that the transition drew up for NASA late last month.
Such missions would be selected through an “internal competition” between what the summary calls Old Space, or NASA's traditional contractors, and New Space characterized by SpaceX and Blue Origin.
But the summary also suggests a strong predilection toward New Space. “We have to be seen giving 'Old Space' a fair and balanced shot at proving they are better and cheaper than commercial,” it says.
The timing of NASA announcing it's considering a 2020 crewed circumlunar mission seems a bit coincidental.
So does the timing of Trump's visit.
With a 5:00 PM rally down the road in Melbourne, it gives the troubled President lots of time to attend the SpaceX launch earlier in the day at Kennedy Space Center.
Elon Musk meets with Donald Trump and others December 14 at Trump Tower in New York City. Image source: Newsweek.
On December 14, SpaceX founder Elon Musk joined the President's Strategic and Policy Forum. Despite their differences, Musk continues to attend Trump's advisory meetings. Musk said that “engaging on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good,” despite calls that he resign in protest.
This privileged access, of course, gives Musk the opportunity to invite Trump to attend a SpaceX launch. What better opportunity than to attend the first launch of the third generation of spaceflight from Kennedy Space Center?
Given all the bad publicity Trump has received in recent days, he might see this as an opportunity to distract public scrutiny with a big brash announcement that seizes the headlines.
Perhaps he might announce a pivot of SLS away from Mars, back towards the Moon by 2020 in competition with SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin and anyone else who feels up to the challenge.
The immediate question, of course, is who would pay for it.
SpaceX and other NewSpace companies aren't going to divert their business plans just to make Trump look good.
There's also the question of whether all this will pass Congressional scrutiny. After years of acrimony between Congress and the Obama White House, a tenuous compromise existed at the end of President Barack Obama's administration. Congress by and large permitted NewSpace programs to continue so long as Space Launch System directed pork to the districts and states of key representatives, in particular those representing NASA centers.
Congressional porkers might not have the stomach for yet another pivot in NASA direction, although in the end I suspect they can be bought with more dollars directed to their districts. The question is whether the rest of Congress might go along.
The 2010 NASA authorization act directed the agency to have SLS core elements operational by December 31, 2016. That date, of course, quickly became meaningless. The current NASA line is that SLS is scheduled to have its first uncrewed test flight in late 2018, although many observers expect that date to slip. Yet another pivot in the program would buy NASA more time, but Congress as a whole might reach the consensus that enough is enough.
There's also the risk of launching crew on an untested rocket, one billed as the most powerful in history. But NASA did the same with the Space Shuttle in 1981, launching with two test pilot crew members, because the orbiter essentially required people to land it.
Despite the risks, Trump might see himself as acting boldly by proposing the 2020 Moon circumlunar mission, then heading to Melbourne to claim he'd just created more jobs for the Space Coast.
This weekend already was going to be historic. If President Trump attends the launch, history might become a three-ring circus.
UPDATE February 16, 2017 — NASA issued this statement late yesterday about the crewed EM-1 study.
NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot has asked Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. The study will examine the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and Orion missions, coupled with record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock the mysteries of space and to ensure this nation’s world preeminence in exploring the cosmos.
UPDATE February 16, 2017 — James Dean of Florida Today reports:
Bob Walker, a former congressman and adviser to the Trump administration who helped craft the Trump campaign’s space policy, said the administration wants to take a more aggressive posture on human space exploration with at least a lunar flyby as quickly as possible.
“There has been a lot of controversy over whether or not the SLS has a definable mission,” he said. “And I think what you see playing out here is that NASA is trying to find a way to meet the time schedule that they think the administration is on in terms of going back to a flyby mission to the moon.”
UPDATE February 19, 2017 — Mr. Trump said nothing about space in his Space Coast rally last night. Read about the event in this Florida Today article.