NASA Hopes to Launch a Rocket to Mars in 2019 Despite Safety Warnings
What makes this particularly interesting is that a safety review of the mission strongly advises against this, warning that the mission will be potentially, dangerously risky at this time, and won't actually be ready for a safe launch until the following year, in June 2020.
In response, NASA insists that no, they're going to stick with their proposed launch date, but in deference to the safety review, key safety strategies will be put into place between now and the launch in order to monitor potential problems, and avoid catastrophe when December 2019 rolls around. NASA has already been forced to delay this launch once, and it seems that the agency is not keen to do so again.
According to acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot:
What's really interesting about all this is the fact that NASA is historically incredibly risk averse. In order to even gain the chance to send an unmanned NASA payload up to the International Space Station, private company SpaceX has had to prove itself by delivering an exemplary safety record on test flights and trials.
The fact that NASA is so willing to ignore this new safety review suggests that the agency doesn't consider the review's results to be all that much of a concern. The engineering team at NASA clearly feels that they can overcome a lot of those safety challenges that currently beset the mission in plenty of time for the December 2019 launch.
After review, the 1st launch of @NASA_SLS rocket w/ @NASA_Orion spacecraft on top could become June 2020, while program management works to protect earlier date of Dec 2019: https://t.co/sXtoUbIDl4 pic.twitter.com/cZWUrxok6k— NASA (@NASA) November 8, 2017
It's probably not insignificant that for the first time in decades, NASA is facing competition from others who are hoping to reach key milestones first. The space race to Mars is beginning to heat up, and this time around, NASA's big competition is private companies - including, of course, SpaceX itself.
Frankly, it seems awfully convenient for NASA to require a lengthy testing period for SpaceX before the company can be awarded government contracts, while the agency's own rocket is able to fly to Mars while actively ignoring safety warnings. The good news, at least, is that NASA isn't risking any human lives in their rush to get to Mars.
The mission that will launch in December 2019 will be unmanned, so if something goes horribly wrong, it'll only mean losing money, rather than killing astronauts. That said, part of the reason why NASA is rushing the 2019 launch, which will kick off Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), is that the agency is aiming for a second similar mission (EM-2) in 2023 that will involve sending humans to Mars.
Another problem is the timing of Mars' position relative to the Earth. December 2019 is a good launch window, when the Red Planet will be relatively close to Earth, before the two planets' orbits take them further apart from each other. A delay of even six months could make the EM-1 mission unfeasible for a long time to come, which may explain why NASA feels comfortable risking the launch to squeeze into an upcoming orbital window.
Fingers crossed the mission does go off as well as NASA is hoping, and that the agency can deal with all of the big nagging safety concerns in order to operate a smooth flight once 2019 rolls around. If the agency drops the ball on this, the first human being on Mars might well be wearing a spacesuit sponsored by Tesla.