Dear Editor: The most recent initiative from NASA's Acting Administrator is to upgrade the long-standing Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), which was planned as an unmanned Moon fly-by in 2018. EM-1 will now have a crew aboard, but it will not be launched until 201 9.1 This decision seems to be a political stunt without any solid technical foundation.
The reality is that an interim unmanned re-entry trial before any crewed lunar fly-by is a very necessary step to model the real conditions encountered when returning from deep space. At the time of the space race, NASA claimed successful returns of the Apollo modules via direct re-entry, which is now recognised as fatally risky and therefore unacceptable. NASA is yet to establish a reliable skip re-entry.
Without this preliminary work with unmanned trials, the idea to assess "the feasibility of adding a crew" to the EM-1 flight is yet another example of issuing a statement lacking in substance, with mass-media noise replacing the necessary work.
By adopting such an approach, NASA managers are deliberately introducing a "shortcut"; It will be short lived because based on previous form and following an impression of progress given by NASA, this "heroic" attempt will most likely be abandoned closer to the date, with the current plans being postponed even further. At best, this announcement could be described as another hypocritical move to sustain the Apollo mythology and secure more time for slow-paced research without losing face.
Apparently in response to NASA's announcement, SpaceX claimed that its Dragon 2 spacecraft will now take tourists straight to the Moon by the end of 2018,2 but this is yet another empty marketing stunt.
Indeed, the true preparedness of the necessary hardware is far from satisfactory, and in any case the hardware needs certification for human flight. A NASA report of September 2016 reviewed these problems with human rating and highlighted the slippages in many areas. The NASA Inspector General is not at all optimistic about SpaceX developments, as the company has failed to deliver a craft suitable for human rating. "...SpaceX has also experienced ongoing issues with stress fractures in turbopumps that must be resolved prior to flight.
Additionally, SpaceX has not yet completed parachute system level testing which may reveal issues that would require redesign that could further delay test flights. Accordingly, we anticipate additional schedule slippage and do not expect certified flights by SpaceX earlier than late 2018."3
Is there any evidence of improvement? What about overcoming the re-entry challenges? The authoritative source, the Government Accountability Office, reached its conclusion (ironically, around the same time as the SpaceX ambitious press release) regarding SpaceX and Boeing's abilities to deliver crews to the International Space Station.
"...Both contractors' certification dates have been delayed into 2018, and the program's analysis indicates that neither contractor is likely to be ready until 2019."4
Sober professionals do not expect SpaceX to be capable of manned flights to low-Earth orbit by the end of next year, let alone any deep-space attempts.
On the whole, this recent announcement by SpaceX is an irresponsible game of totally unrealistic promises. It is a travesty which is seemingly a repeat of the space race. But if now we observe a "space race", which was a tragedy when it happened the first time, this second time around, as competition is stirred up by a commercial newcomer to human space exploration, it will be a farce.
Yes, Elon Musk may be able to send people into deep space. The big question is: who will return them home alive?
Phil Kouts, New Zealand
(Author of the Moon Base series published on Aulis.com and NEXUS 21/05, 22/03 and 23/04)
1. NASA, 25 February 2017, http://tinyurl.com/znuatoh
2. SpaceX, 27 February 2017, http://tinyurl.com/hbrjw2b
3. NASA, Office of Inspector General, Report No. IG-16-028, 1 September 2016, p. 15,
4. US Government Accountability Office, Report GAO-17-1 37, February 2017, p. 24,