Washington: The first manned flight of the ambitious Orion spacecraft that will help humans land on Mars and other distant worlds may be delayed by two years to 2023, the US space agency announced.
The mission, known as Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2) which can support four astronauts for up to 21 days, was initially planned for launch in August 2021. After conducting a recent mission review, NASA officials found it may not be ready by then.
“Engineers and technicians are still working toward the August 2021 goal but hitting that target is unlikely,” Space.com reported, quoting NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot.
“NASA will spend $6.77 billion to get Orion ready for EM-2 from October 2015 through the mission's completion,” Lightfoot said in a news conference on Wednesday.
“A commitment of more funding could conceivably allow the agency to accelerate EM-2's schedule,” he noted.
To send Orion into space, NASA is developing a super-rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) to enable the manned deep space exploration.
“The capsule will get astronauts to space and back to Earth, and it will carry them on missions in Earth-moon space,” the report said.
Last year in December, Orion blasted off on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket for a successful unmanned mission called Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1).
In 2018, SLS is scheduled to send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to Moon on the week-long Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1).
While EM-2's destination is yet to be finalised, Exploration Mission 3 (EM-3) may send astronauts on a near-Earth asteroid.
“A possible delay for EM-2 will not necessarily affect the schedules for either EM-1 or EM-3,” Lightfoot noted.
Earlier this month, NASA engineers welded together the first two segments of the Orion crew module.
"Every day, teams around the country are moving at full speed to get ready for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) when we will flight test Orion and SLS together in the proving ground of space, far away from the safety of Earth," said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.
"We are progressing toward eventually sending astronauts deep into space," he said in a NASA statement.
Once completed, the structure will be shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida where it will be assembled with the other elements of the spacecraft, integrated with SLS and processed before launch.
SLS is one of the most experienced large rocket engines in the world, with more than a million seconds of ground test and flight operations time.
The megarocket will enable astronauts to begin their journey to explore destinations far into the solar system.