NASA’s EM-1 Mission Could Slip 4-6 Months From December 2019 Date


By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s plan for the maiden flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) faces a potential delay of up to six months, the space agency announced today.

“While the review of the possible manufacturing and production schedule risks indicate a launch date of June 2020, the agency is managing to December 2019,” said acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot in a press release. “Since several of the key risks identified have not been actually realized, we are able to put in place mitigation strategies for those risks to protect the December 2019 date.”

The flight, known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), will involve an uncrewed test of the new booster and the second flight of the Orion crew vehicle. Orion will feature an European-built service module for the first time.

First completed Orion capsule. (Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak)

Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, said the December 2019 date was challenging but achievable in an internal email obtained by Parabolic Arc.

“I know we have approximately 4 to 6 months of risk to this schedule and are working daily to mitigate the challenges that comprise that risk,” Hill wrote. “The 4 to 6 months of identified risk is represented in the announcement in terms of the ‘possible risks’ that would result in a June 2020 launch date; however, that date should be viewed internally as a ‘worst case’ rather than as a stretched schedule; a date that if we do nothing, might come to pass. However, we are not a do-nothing organization. Working as a team, we will overcome these challenges….

An expanded view of the next configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, including the four RL10 engines. (Credit: NASA)

“The decision to manage to a December 2019 target launch date is based on critical, in-depth analyses performed over the last year and is also informed by the risks that we have identified, which we are attacking daily,” Hill added.

“The ‘first-time’ manufacturing challenges we have been presented with throughout the assembly of vehicle elements is the greatest contributing factor to the new launch window. This is no surprise. We anticipated that we would have these challenges, we will continue to be presented with more challenges as we complete element assembly. We expect to address these with focus, energy, and innovation as we drive toward the December 2019 date,” he wrote.

The email is reproduced below.

From: Hill, William C. (HQ-CM000)
Sent: Wednesday, November 08, 2017
Subject: Announcement of the EM-1 Launch Window

Today, Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that our EM-1 target launch window is now in December 2019; it is what the enterprise and programs are now managing to. Robert’s statement follows:

“While the review of the possible manufacturing and production schedule risks indicate a launch date of June 2020, the agency is managing to December 2019,” said acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “Since several of the key risks identified have not been actually realized, we are able to put in place mitigation strategies for those risks to protect the December 2019 date.”

I know we have approximately 4 to 6 months of risk to this schedule and are working daily to mitigate the challenges that comprise that risk. The 4 to 6 months of identified risk is represented in the announcement in terms of the “possible risks” that would result in a June 2020 launch date; however, that date should be viewed internally as a “worst case” rather than as a stretched schedule; a date that if we do nothing, might come to pass. However, we are not a do-nothing organization. Working as a team, we will overcome these challenges. I believe the December 2019 date is achievable given sufficient attention at all levels of the Team, and I plan to manage to that date with the Agency’s agreement and support. I know that everyone on the team has put forth an outstanding effort and will do what is needed to mitigate the known risks and tackle the unknown challenges as they are presented. As always we need to be schedule aware and not totally schedule driven, if circumstances change we will move the date to build a better program.

The Exploration Systems Development NASA, Industry, and International Team, comprising Orion, Space Launch System, Exploration Ground Systems, the European Space Agency providing the Orion Service Module, and Program and Systems Integration and Engineering have collectively made great progress leading to a flight test of the integrated launch vehicle on EM-1. The majority of the elements needed for EM-1 have several months of margin to the needed delivery date to KSC, and some are ready for integration now. These elements should stay on their own delivery dates even if launch moves as this ‘margin’ can be used to mitigate unknown unknowns if they materialize. Actively taking about risk and gain in delivery schedules results in a healthy program.

The decision to manage to a December 2019 target launch date is based on critical, in-depth analyses performed over the last year and is also informed by the risks that we have identified, which we are attacking daily. The ‘first-time’ manufacturing challenges we have been presented with throughout the assembly of vehicle elements is the greatest contributing factor to the new launch window. This is no surprise. We anticipated that we would have these challenges, we will continue to be presented with more challenges as we complete element assembly. We expect to address these with focus, energy, and innovation as we drive toward the December 2019 date.

Some of us have already moved ahead to our next challenge; the manufacturing of EM-2 elements. Vigilance and attention to detail is even more important since EM-2 will be our first flight test mission with crew. I know each of you understand the importance of setting a high bar for job performance in order to take our astronauts further into space than ever before.

I am proud to lead the ESD Team and even more proud of the accomplishments and contributions that each of you have made. Thank you for your dedication to the mission of extending human presence into deep space.

Please share this with broadly with our extended NASA/Industry Team.

v/r

Bill Hill
Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development
Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Good move! A spectular failure in the middle of a Presidential election could well make NASA an issue. I could see the Congressional Hearings now!

  • Jeff2Space

    In the meantime, we’ll throw several more billions of dollars down this worthless rat hole. Argh!

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Dec 2019 sounds a lot like 2020. Sort of like how $99.99 isn’t 100 bucks

  • duheagle

    State-supported space agencies have come to seem almost like purpose-built museums of multiple ways to embody Parkinson’s Law. SLS-Orion and JWST are the flagship examples at NASA. In Russia, I’d say it’s a tie between Angara development and the construction of Vostochny Spaceport. For ESA, it’s Ariane 6.

  • publiusr

    Musk blows up an engine–and folks still dog SLS. Typical New Spacers