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Why NASA is pushing back Orion first manned spaceflight

Astronauts will get their first spin in the new deep-space capsule by the spring of 2023, two years later than previously anticipated, NASA announced Wednesday.

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Lockheed Martin engineers at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, La., perform the first weld on the Orion spacecraft pressure vessel for Exploration Mission-1, Sept. 5. This is the third Orion pressure vessel built. On Wednesday, top NASA officials said there isn't much confidence in the original 2021 launch date. That's because of the space agency's history of running into unexpected problems in new programs, like Orion. Managers set 2023 as the new official launch date, although they said they haven’t given up yet on 2021.

Radislav Sinyak/NASA/AP

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Facing a series of budget problems and design issues, NASA is delaying the first manned test flight of its deep-space Orion capsule by two years, from the summer of 2021 to as late as the spring of 2023, agency officials said Wednesday.

The capsule and its heavy-lift launcher would be the first manned spacecraft to venture into deep space beyond the moon, eventually leading to what NASA hopes will be a crew landing on Mars by the early 2030s.

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Orion is already a multibillion dollar project, but NASA plans to spend another $6.77 billion between 2015 and 2023 producing two new capsules, with the first crewed test flight now scheduled for April of 2023.

“Our work to send humans out into the solar system is progressing,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement released by the agency. “Orion is a key piece of the flexible architecture that will enable humanity to set foot on the Red Planet, and we are committed to building the spacecraft and other elements necessary to make this a reality.”

But management, technical, and budgetary hurdles have forced several delays in the agency’s plan to eventually send humans into deep space.

Before the first manned flight, the agency is also working toward launching an unmanned Orion capsule in December 2018, which will be carried by a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

The SLS rocket, which is costing the agency $7 billion, was previously scheduled for launch in November 2017, but NASA announced that it would be delayed last year.That capsule would first fly in a lunar orbit, followed by a mission where it will rendezvous with a boulder selected robotically from the surface of an asteroid and positioned in orbit farther from the moon.

The agency is currently conducting a technical review to determine whether the Orion capsules will be able to meet the April 2023 launch date, though the agency says its engineers will also work toward the possibility of launching the manned flight earlier if possible. 

NASA has not released any further cost estimates beyond the first Orion test flight, a Government Accountability Office report found in July, but the agency says it is committed to a long-term investment in deep-space exploration.

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"We're really trying to build a program," William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told the Associated Press. "Ultimately, we'd like to get where we're flying these missions about once per year."

This report incorporates material from the Associated Press.