NASA Making Strides with the New Space Launch System

In 2011, America lost the ability to send humans into space when NASA retired the shuttle program.   Lately, there has been a burst of news about the commercial side of spaceflight and how private companies such as SpaceX and VirginGalatic will soon be able to take over where the shuttle left off.  But that doesn’t mean NASA has given up the ability to send people into space forever and recently the agency has taken a few steps toward regaining that ability.

The Space Launch System (SLS) is NASA’s new platform for launching both humans and cargo into Earth orbit and beyond.  With an eventual expected payload capacity of 130 metric tons it will theoretically be the most powerful rocket ever built.  On July 25th, it hit a major milestone when it was officially upgraded by an independent review board from the “concept development“ phase of the project to the “preliminary design“ phase.

“The in-depth assessment confirm the basic vehicle concepts of the SLS, allowing the team to move forward and start more detailed engineering design.“ William Gerstenmaier of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate said.  This puts the system on the path to the next milestone: the preliminary design review expected late next year.

That design review will cover a system that will likely be comprised of two five-stage rocket boosters like those that were used on the space shuttle.  Since those boosters were only capable of achieving low-Earth orbit, NASA needed to add some extra power to the SLS in order to reach deep space where many of its missions will take place.  Their solution is what is known as an “advanced booster“, essentially a late-stage chemical rocket that will fire well into in the ascent of the craft and carry it out of Earth’s gravity well.

The design process of the advanced boosters hit its own milestone on July 13th when NASA announced it had selected the proposals it will use to begin contract negotiations for the development of the system.  This is the first step of NASA’s procurement process, with a possible total contract of $200 million spread between the companies that receive finalized contracts. Those companies will likely come from the pool of those selected in this first step.  They include, Aerojet General Corp, ATK Launch Systems Inc, Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation – Aerospace Systems and Dynetics, Inc.   Dynetics, based out of Huntsville, Alabama, came out the winner for this round of the contract competition, with three of its proposals moved on to the contract negotiation phase while ATK, Aerojet and Northrop had one each.  The names of the proposals are:

–        “Subscale Composite Tank Set“ – Northrop Grumman

–        “F-1 Engine Risk Reduction Task“ – Aerojet General Corp

–        “F-1 Engine Risk Reduction Task“ – Dynetics Inc.

–        “Main Propulsion System Risk Reduction Task“ – Dynetics Inc.

–        “Structures Risk Reduction Task“ – Dynetics Inc.

–        “Integrated Booster Static Test“ – ATK Launch Systems Inc.

The next step of the process will require the awardees to come up with engineering demonstrations and risk reduction concepts for their proposals.  Over a 30-month period, the companies will have to demonstrate their technology prior to completion of the competition for contracts in 2015.  Engineers at NASA will then have some time to integrate the advanced booster system with the other SLS modules before the first test launch of the entire system in 2017.  While NASA might not be able to take humans to the stars for the next few years, they are making strides towards that goal.


Lead image caption: Components of the Space Launch System, highlighting the advanced boosters. Credit: NASA

18 Replies to “NASA Making Strides with the New Space Launch System”

  1. Yay. Welcome back the mighty Saturn era F1 Kerosene/LOX engines. It shouldn’t take too long or be too expensive to reinvent the wheel here. So-long ATK and the death trap solid rocket motors.

    The F1 boosters will no-doubt be recoverable from splash-down rather than flying back to base.

    Additionally, it should become possible to cross-feed LOX from the with liquid fueled boosters to the 1st stage SSME engines for increased endurance. Will they eventually go for it?

    1. SLS is costing over $1Billion per year to develop and they are using solid rocket boosters to start with. Liquid boosters are for the future. The main engines are ex shuttle main engines and they are not looking at cross feed, you are thinking of Falcon Heavy there. Falcon Heavy 50 tonns to LEO should be flying next year no need for SLS.
      SLS is simply pork.

      1. Hi Robert,

        We agree. Pork anyway you look at it. But….

        Even in pork it’s possible to find signs of improvement. 1) Before the announcement of the Advanced Booster, ATK had a sole source contract for 5-segment SRBs. Now there’s a search for alternatives and a the introduction of competition e.g. Dynetics, AeroJet etc. 2) If the SLS Block II does ever fly with crew, they’ll safer with an all liquid fueled rocket.The $L$ is still pork but what can one do…apart from count the occasional blessing such as the Advanced Booster competition?

        We also agree about the F9 Heavy. IIRC there are customers for the first three flights so far. Looking
        forward to that.


  2. Funny, I though US (not America, I think, the rest of the two continents are channeled through international seats) had the ability to send humans into space all the time. It is called “buying tickets” and is a trait of advanced market economy. =D

    The only change with private companies is increased competition on ticket prices (no subsidies) and flexibility (backup). SLS will not be used for LEO only missions (say ISS) because as a resurrected Constellation it is too expensive to be used much, if at all.

    1. I share your cynical view and more, I expect each development procurement phase will become an industry in its own right with the money being eaten up by non-job appointments, sales lunches and endless committee meetings in holiday destinations. At the end of it all will be a shelf of ring binders that say nothing. God forbid you should actually roll your sleeves up and achieve something.

      1. I suspect the US needs a serious contender in order to stir it into action to do something substantial here. China seems likely to take on that role of serious contender at some point in the future, though it’s likely that will be via a process of endless committee meetings in holiday destinations too.

  3. So the Block 1 version of the SLS will use solid rocket boosters. Later versions will use liquid fueled boosters. Am wondering if both types of booster are to be made recoverable?

  4. Whoa, some pretty slap-dash review and correcting efforts there Andy! Second last paragraph: its shouldnèt have an apostrophe. (Sorry, keyboard wonèt let me type the stupid apostrophe), Negotiations has two tès and pool only has two Oès. We understand if you were all exciterated (: about the confirmation of forward movement on NASAès space program but REALLY!

  5. I’m just not sure. When a people have no vision, they go no where fast. Apollo gave us a vision and it was full steam, with no looking back. I was and still am scratching my head at the “New” remade Apollo modules for man flights again, when/if that actually ever happens. I guess I saw the next generation of Space Shuttles ‘going there’, with the moon decent vech. being in the payload area of the Next Generation Shuttle. But going backwards? The shuttle offered a lot more room, payload. Heck I even saw the possibility of “payload’ storage ‘cans’ being sent down first so the men could send them back FULL to the shuttle, iamagine all the samples that could be aqquired, within reason. Heck they could even have a better/larger lunar rover landed on it’s own to cut down weight limits on the man lunar lander. But until we get a President that doesn’t see America as #3 and actually has a VISION … we are going to go no where … (like we are) real ‘fast’…..

    1. “Apollo gave us a vision and it was full steam, with no looking back.”

      But once we got there…

      1. The sad truth is, we expect BIG STEPS, space travel does not work that way. It’s small steps, especially when human lives are in the equation. Yes, Robotics play a big roll in Space Expoloration, I do not even remotely question this …. But we need the human equation, also. This needs small steps. First the Moon and establish an actual BASE there. Even an International Moon Base, like the ISS.
        Then Mars … then …..
        But we also cannot be afraid of “bloody noses” and yes, sadily even loss of life. It’s going to happen. If we are afraid of bloody noses and loss of life. Then, well … we better crawl back into our cribs and play with our little safe squeeky toys and go back to being ‘spoon fed’ jar food.

  6. If this goes on any further, we’re going to be right back where we started from 20 years later. There’s just no permanency to the planned missions for this vehicle. When the ISS was built, there was a place to go to, there was a commitment. They weren’t just going to LEO, staying in their spacecraft, and returning home after few months. If that was the case Congress would’ve found it much more easier to slash funding YEARS ago.

    This is why we need bases, small and primitive at first of course. If we place 2 modules on the moon, at the poles perhaps, they would have a goddamned destination! The whole program wouldn’t seem so muddled. Just as with the space station, Congress would find it harder to cancel any programs and cut funding. At least that’s how I look at it.

    From 2020 to 2030: Get a small lunar base up and running, make a couple of NEO trips to test out long-duration deep-space crewed missions, send more unmanned missions to Mars, possibly a sample return.
    Post-2030: You now have a good foundation for a Mars trip.

    I think such a plan is doable with the current budget.

    1. If such facilities can’t be supported more economically than via the SLS, cancellation/retirement is *always* an option. (Even ISS came within one vote, in 1993)

      Less single-customer uber-launchers that aren’t yet necessary, and are Congressionally ‘specified’ for their pork value, than for their economy, and more infrastructure with existing, multiple-user (and the manufacturing economies of scale that come with that) launchers, like this:

      1. I’m no fan of $L$, I’m just trying to reconcile with it now that it’s here and moving along. NASA doesn’t even *need* the Senate Launch System, but if its there, then it should be put to a purposeful use.

        As far as your first point goes, I think that such nearby (think lunar or HEO) facilities should be able to be supported by more economic options via space taxis. Having some additional business can only fare well for this new industry.

      2. Ah, but SLS is not yet ‘here’ in any real sense, and many, including myself, think it will only be a matter of how *much* money gets poured into it before cancellation.

        And the upcoming ‘sequestration’ issue, doesn’t help…

      3. Yea this entire ordeal is rather unfortunate. If SLS stays, its budget and schedule is going to balloon itself into oblivion. If its cancelled, public opinion on space exploration is going to get further degraded (if that’s even possible in today’s largely uninspired American public).

  7. Ripley worked for the corporation. Private companies will take over if there is a profit to be had. NASA will only be allowed to exist to provide corporate wellfare by doing the research and development. Until there is a profit to be made expect things to limp along. When they can finally make a profit, do what Ripley did.

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