Donald Trump is one step closer to putting men on the moon as he orders NASA to look into sending astronauts on a test flight next year.
The Trump administration has ordered a NASA study into whether it is possible to fly astronauts on the debut flight of the agency’s heavy-lift rocket, a mission currently planned to be unmanned and targeted to launch in late 2018.
If given the green light, the astronauts would fly aboard an Orion capsule, under development by Lockheed Martin Corp, and swing around the moon during an eight- to nine-day mission, similar to what the Apollo 8 crew accomplished in 1968.
Donald Trump vowed to “unlock the mysteries of space” in his inauguration speech and called on NASA to focus on space exploration not climate change during the election campaign.
The president’s request had fuelled speculation that he wishes to put a team of astronauts on the moon during his first term.
The study marks President Donald Trump’s first step in shaping a vision for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NASA officials said they do not feel compelled to fly the test mission with crew aboard but are “encouraged” by the president’s request.
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s head of human space flight, said: ”There’s not pressure to go do this,” Gerstenmaier said. “I find it encouraging that we were asked to go do this feasibility study.”
Mr Gerstenmaier said adding crew to the mission would not be worthwhile if it forced the flight to be delayed more than about a year.
The study is expected to take about a month. Engineers are assessing hardware changes, schedule delays, additional costs and increased risks of flying a two-member crew on the first flight of the Space Launch System rocket.
The rocket is about four times bigger and more powerful than any current US booster.
A NASA safety oversight panel on Thursday cautioned that the agency should have compelling reasons for adding crew to justify the extra cost, risk to human life and schedule delays.
Patricia Sanders, head of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said at a meeting at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said: “If the benefits warrant assumption of additional risk, we expect NASA to clearly and openly articulate their decision-processing rationale.”
The rocket’s second flight, which is to include crew, is targeted for August 2021.
Under former President Barack Obama, the space agency was working on the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion deep-space capsule with the aim of sending astronauts to an asteroid in the mid-2020s, followed by a human expedition to Mars in the 2030s.
Mr Trump’s request comes as NASA makes a huge alien breakthrough after they discovered seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a dwarf star which scientists believe could include at least three worlds on which life may have evolved.