Northrop Grumman Acquires Orbital ATK for $9.2 Billion

Orbital ATK Antares rocket stands erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before a launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Aerospace giant Northrop Grumman will acquire Orbital ATK for approximately $9.2 billion, in a deal the companies announced Monday and they say will “expand capability” is largely “complementary” and involves “little overlap.”

Orbital ATK specializes in a wide variety of launch vehicles, satellites, missiles and munitions that Northrop believes will significantly enhance capabilities it lacks while offering Orbital significantly more technical and financial resources to grow sales and business opportunities.

Under the terms of the huge deal West Falls Church, Virginia based Northrop will dole out approximately $7.8 billion in cash to buy Dulles, Virginia based Orbital ATK and assume $1.4 billion in net debt. Orbital ATK shareholders will receive all-cash consideration of $134.50 per share, which is about a 20% premium above the stock’s price of $110 per share at the close of trading Friday, Sept. 15.

Rumors of the deal first appeared on Sunday.

Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft blasts off on July 13 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission and loaded with over 3000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the crew aboard the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The final purchase is expected to take place around mid-2018, subject to approval by government regulators and Orbital ATK shareholders.

The Boards of Directors of both companies have already given unanimous approval to the mega buyout.

“Our two companies represent a very complementary fit,” Wes Bush, chief executive officer and president of Northrop Grumman said in a conference call on Monday, Sept. 18.

“We have very little overlap, and we fully expect our combined portfolios of leading technologies, along with our aligned and innovation-focused cultures, to yield significant value creation through revenue, cost and operational synergies, accelerating our profitable growth trajectory.”

Northrop indicated that Orbital ATK will operate as a separate fourth unit – at least initially – and that Orbital programs will benefit from the increased financial resources available from Northrup.

“Upon completion of the acquisition, Northrop Grumman plans to establish Orbital ATK as a new, fourth business sector to ensure a strong focus on operating performance and a smooth transition into Northrop Grumman.”

For his part Orbital ATK CEO David Thompson was very pleased with the buyout and future opportunities.

“The agreement reflects the tremendous value that Orbital ATK has created for our customers, our shareholders and our employees,” David Thompson, Orbital ATK president and chief executive officer said at the conference call.

“The combination will allow our team as a new business sector within Northrop Grumman to maintain strong operational performance on existing customer programs and to pursue new opportunities that require greater technical and financial resources than we currently possess.”

“Our collective customers should benefit from the expanded capabilities for innovation, increased speed of delivery and improved affordability of production resulting from the combination.”

“The combination of our companies and human capital will also significantly benefit our customers,” Bush elaborated. “Together, we can offer our customers enhanced mission capabilities and more competitive offerings in areas such as space, missiles and strategic deterrents.

“Our shareholders can expect revenue synergies from these new business opportunities.”

Northrop Grumman sales for 2017 amount to about $25 billion vs. about $4.5 billion for Orbital ATK
Orbital ATK itself is the product of a very recent merger in 2015 of Orbital Sciences and ATK.

The company employs over 13,000 people including over 4,200 scientists and engineers. It holds a heft backlog of contracts worth more than $15 billion.

Northrop Grumman employs over 68,000 people and is the fifth largest defense contractor.

“The agreement will also provide expanded career options for our employees as part of a larger, more diverse aerospace and defense company,” said Thompson.

It will also benefit stockholders.

“The transaction represents a truly compelling financial proposition for our shareholders, valuing the enterprise at about $9.2 billion and providing our investors with more than 120% total return over the 3-year period from the completion of the Orbital ATK merger in early 2015 to the expected closing in the first half of 2018.”

Orbital ATK Minotaur IV rocket streaks to orbit through low hanging clouds that instantly illuminate as the booster engines flames pass through. This first Minotaur launch from the Cape carried the ORS-5 satellite tracker to equatorial orbit for the U.S. Air Force at 2:04 a.m. EDT on August 26, 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK launchers run the gamut from small to medium to large.

The rockets include the massive solid rocket boosters for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket under development, the Antares liquid fueled booster used to launch Cygnus cargo freighters to the International Space Station for NASA, the Minotaur family of medium class solid rocket launchers, as well as sounding rockets for a variety of low weight science missions.

The most recent Orbital ATK launch took place on Aug. 26 when a Minotaur 4 rocket (a retired Peacekeeper ICBM) lifted off from Cape Canaveral with a USAF surveillance satellite.

Orbital ATK also has a thriving satellite manufacturing business building NASA science, commercial, government and military satellites.

Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and designed the optics and spacecraft bus under contract for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The 18-segment gold coated primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The purchase is also estimated to result in $150 million in annual cost savings by 2020.

“We believe that this combination represents a compelling value creation opportunity for the customers, shareholders and employees of both our companies,” stated Bush. “Through our combination, all of our stakeholders will benefit from expanded capabilities, accelerated innovation and greater competitiveness in critical global security domains.”

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NASA mission and launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, and NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Va.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The Orbital ATK Antares rocket, with the Cygnus OA-5 spacecraft onboard, is raised into the vertical position on launch Pad-0A for planned launch on Oct. 17, 2016, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer

Where Will the Space Launch System Take Us? Preparing For The Most Powerful Rocket Ever Built

Where Will the Space Launch System Take Us? Preparing For The Most Powerful Rocket Ever Built

NASA is in an awkward in-between time right now. Since the beginning of the space age, the agency has had the ability to send its astronauts into space. The first American to go to space, Alan Shepard, did a suborbital launch on board a Mercury Redstone rocket in 1961.

Then the rest of the Mercury astronauts went on Atlas rockets, and then the Gemini astronauts flew on various Titan rockets. NASA’s ability to hurl people and their equipment into space took a quantum leap with the enormous Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo program.

It’s difficult to properly comprehend just how powerful the Saturn V was, so I’ll give you some examples of things this monster could launch. A single Saturn V could blast 122,000 kilograms or 269,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit, or send 49,000 kilograms or 107,000 pounds on a transfer orbit to the Moon.

Instead of continuing on with the Saturn program, NASA decided to shift gears and build the mostly reusable space shuttle. Although it was shorter than the Saturn V, the space shuttle with its twin external solid rocket boosters could put 27,500 kilograms or 60,000 pounds into Low Earth orbit. Not too bad.

And then, in 2011, the space shuttle program wrapped up. And with it, the United States’ ability to launch humans into the space. And most importantly, to send astronauts to the continuously inhabited International Space Station. That task has fallen to Russian rockets until the US builds back the capability for human spaceflight.

Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA

Since the cancellation of the shuttle, NASA’s workforce of engineers and rocket scientists has been developing the next heavy lift vehicle in NASA’s line up: the Space Launch System.

The SLS looks like a cross between a Saturn V and the space shuttle. It has the same familiar solid rocket boosters, but instead of the space shuttle orbiter and its orange external fuel tank, the SLS has the central Core Stage. It has 4 of the space shuttle’s RS-25 Liquid Oxygen engines.

Although two shuttle orbiters were lost in disasters, these engines and their liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen performed perfectly for 135 flights. NASA knows how to use them, and how to use them safely.

The very first configuration of the SLS, known as the Block 1, should have the ability to put about 70 metric tonnes into Low Earth Orbit. And that’s just the beginning, and it’s just an estimate. Over time, NASA will increase its capabilities and launch power to match more and more ambitious missions and destinations. With more launches, they’ll get a better sense of what this thing is capable of.

After the Block 1 is launching, NASA will develop the Block 1b, which puts a much larger upper stage on top of the same core stage. This upper stage will have a larger fairing and more powerful second stage engines, capable of putting 97.5 metric tonnes into low Earth orbit.

Graphic shows all the dome, barrel, ring and engine components used to assemble the five major structures of the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) in Block 1 configuration. Credits: NASA/MSFC

Finally, there’s the Block 2, with an even larger launch fairing, and more powerful upper stage. It should blast 143 tonnes into low Earth orbit. Probably. NASA is developing this version as a 130 tonne-class rocket.

With this much launch capacity, what could be done with it? What kinds of missions become possible on a rocket this powerful?

The main goal for SLS is to send humans out, beyond low Earth orbit. Ideally to Mars in the 2030s, but it could also go to asteroids, the Moon, whatever you like. And as you’ll read later on in this article, it could send some amazing scientific missions out there too.

The very first flight for SLS, called Exploration Mission 1, will be to put the new Orion crew module into a trajectory that takes it around the Moon. In a very similar flight to Apollo 8. But there won’t be any humans, just the unmanned Orion module and a bunch of cubesats coming along for the ride. Orion will spend about 3 weeks in space, including about 6 days in a retrograde orbit around the Moon.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA

If all goes well, the first use of the SLS with the Orion crew module will happen some time in 2019. But also, don’t be surprised if it gets pushed back, that’s the name of the game.

After Exploration Mission 1, there’s be EM-2, which should happen a few years after that. This’ll be the first time humans get into an Orion crew module and take a flight to space. They’ll spend 21 days in a lunar orbit, and deliver the first component of the future Deep Space Gateway, which will be the subject of a future article.

From there, the future is unclear, but SLS will provide the capability to put various habitats and space stations into cislunar space, opening up the future of human space exploration of the Solar System.

Now you know where SLS is probably headed. But the key to this hardware is that it gives NASA raw capability to put humans and robots into space. Not just here on Earth, but way across the Solar System. New space telescopes, robotic explorers, rovers, orbiters and even human habitats.

In a recent study called “The Space Launch System Capabilities for Beyond Earth Missions,” a team of engineers mapped out what the SLS should be capable of putting into the Solar System.

For example, Saturn is a difficult planet to reach, and it order to get there, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft needed to do several gravitational slingshots around Earth and one past Jupiter. It took almost 7 years to get to Saturn.

SLS could send missions to Saturn on more direct trajectory, cutting the flight time down to just 4 years. Block 1 could send 2.7 tonnes to Saturn, while Block 1b could loft 5.1 tonnes.

An artist’s interpretation of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1 configuration with an Orion vehicle. Image: NASA

NASA is considering a mission to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids. These are a collection of space rocks trapped in Jupiter’s L4/L5 Lagrange points, and could be a fascinating place to study. Once put into the Trojan region, a mission could visit several different asteroids, sampling a vast range of rocks that detail the Solar System’s early history.

The Block 1 could put almost 3.97 tonnes into these orbits, while the Block 1b could do 7.59 tonnes. That’s 6 times the capability of an Atlas V. A mission like this would have a cruise time of 10 years.

In a previous video, we talked about future Uranus and Neptune missions, and how a single SLS could send spacecraft to both planets simultaneously.

Another idea that I really like is an inflatable habitat from Bigelow Aerospace. The BA-2100 module would be a fully self-contained space habitat. No need for other modules, this monster would be 65 to 100 tonnes, and would go up in a single launch of SLS. Once inflated, it would contain 2,250 cubic meters, which is almost 3 times the total living space of the International Space Station.

One of the most exciting missions, to me, is a next generation space telescope. Something that would be the true spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. There are a few proposals in the works right now, but the idea I like best is the LUVOIR telescope, which would have a mirror that measures 16 meters across.

The SLS Block 1b could put 36.9 tonnes into Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2. Really there’s nothing else out there that could put this much mass into that orbit.

Just for comparison, Hubble has a mirror of 2.4 meters across, and James Webb is 6.5. With LUVOIR, you would have 10 times more resolution than James Webb, and 300 times more power than Hubble. But like Hubble, it would be capable of seeing the Universe in visible and other wavelengths.

A telescope like this could directly image the event horizons of supermassive black holes, see right to the edge of the observable Universe and watch the first galaxies forming their first stars. It could directly observe planets orbiting other stars and help us determine if they have life on them.

An artist's illustration of a 16 meter segmented mirror space telescope. There are no actual images of LUVOIR because the design hasn't been finalized yet. Image: Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems & NASA/STScI
An artist’s illustration of a 16 meter segmented mirror space telescope. There are no actual images of LUVOIR because the design hasn’t been finalized yet. Image: Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems & NASA/STScI

Seriously, I want this telescope.

At this point, I know this is going to set off a big argument about NASA versus SpaceX versus other private launch providers. That’s fine, I get it. And the Falcon Heavy is expected to launch later this year, bringing heavy lift launch capabilities at an affordable price. It’ll be able to loft 54,000 kilograms, which is less than the SLS Block 1, and almost a third of the capability of the Block 2. Blue Origins has its New Glenn, there are heavier rockets in the works from United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, the Russian Space Agency, and even the Chinese. The future of heavy lift has never been more exciting.

If SpaceX does get the Interplanetary Transport Ship going, with 300 tonnes into orbit on a reusable rocket. Well then, everything changes. Everything.

Until then, I’m still looking forward to the SLS.

KSC Director/Shuttle Commander Robert Cabana Talks NASA 2018 Budget- ‘Stay on the path’ with SLS, Orion, Commercial Crew: One-on-One Interview

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL – Following up last week’s announcement of NASA’s proposed Fiscal Year 2018 top line budget of $19.1 Billion by the Trump Administration, Universe Today spoke to NASA’ s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director Robert Cabana to get his perspective on the new budget and what it means for NASA and KSC; “Stay on the path!” – with SLS, Orion, ISS and Commercial Crew was his message in a nutshell.

The highlights of NASA’s $19.1 Billion FY 2018 budget request were outlined last week by NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot during a ‘State of NASA’ speech to agency employees held at NASA HQ, Washington, D.C. and broadcast to the public live on NASA TV on May 23.

In order to get a better idea of the implications of the 2018 NASA budget proposal for KSC, I spoke one-on-one with Robert Cabana – one of NASA’s top officials, who currently serves as Director of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as well as being a former astronaut and Space Shuttle Commander. Cabana is a veteran of four space shuttle missions.

How did NASA and KSC fare with the newly announced 2018 Budget?

“We at KSC and NASA as a whole did very well with the 2018 budget,” KSC Director Robert Cabana explained during an interview with Universe Today by the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) in Florida.

“I think it really solidifies that the President has confidence in us, on the path that we are on,” Cabana noted while attending a student robotics competition at KSCVC sponsored by NASA.

“With only a 1 percent cut – when you look at what other agency’s got cut – this budget allows us to stay on the path that we are on.”

Trump cut NASA’s 2018 budget request by $0.5 Billion compared to the recently enacted FY 2017 budget of $19.6 Billion approved by the US Congress and signed by the President.

Other Federal science agency’s also critically vital to the health of US scientific research such as the NIH, the NSF, the EPA, DOE and NIST suffered terrible double digit slashes of 10 to 20% or more.

KSC is the focal point for NASA’s human spaceflight programs currently under intense development by NASA – namely the Space Launch System (SLS) Mars megarocket, the Orion deep space crew capsule to be launched beyond Earth orbit (BEO) atop SLS, and the duo of Commercial Crew Program (CCP) space taxis being manufactured by Boeing and SpaceX that will ferry our astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS).

Numerous NASA science missions also launch from the Florida Space Coast.

“At KSC the budget keeps us on a path that continues to provide a commercial crew vehicle to fly crews to the ISS in 2018,” Cabana stated.

“The budget also keeps us on track to launch SLS and Orion in 2019.”

“I think that’s really important – along with all the other stuff we are doing here at KSC.”

“From our point of view it’s a good budget. We need to press ahead and continue on with what we promised.”

Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

What’s ahead for commercial crew at KSC?

“We are moving forward with commercial crew,” Cabana told me.

“Within the next calendar year [2018] we are moving ahead with flying the first certification flight with crew to the ISS. So that’s test flights and by the end of the year an actual crewed flight to the ISS. I want to see that happen.”

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2018. Credit: NASA

Industry partners Boeing and SpaceX are building the private CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spaceships respectively, as part of NASA’s commercial crew initiative aimed at restoring America’s human spaceflight capability to launch our astronauts aboard American spaceships on American rockets from American soil.

Commercial Crew is a public/private partnership initiative with commercial contracts valued at $4.2 Billion and signed by Boeing and SpaceX with NASA in September 2014 under the Obama Administration.

The goal of commercial crew is to end our sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronaut flights to the space station since the retirement of the space shuttles back in 2011 – by manufacturing indigenous rockets and human rated spaceships.

However the CCP program suffered severe budget reductions by the US Congress for several years which forced significant work stretch-outs and delays in the maiden crew launches by both companies from 2015 to 2018 – and thus forced additional payments to the Russians for Soyuz seat purchases.

Both the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Dragon crew vehicles can carry 4 or more astronauts to the ISS. This will enable NASA to add another crew member and thereby enlarge the ISS crew from 6 to 7 permanent residents after they become operational.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Meanwhile NASA is focusing on developing the SLS heavy lift rocket and Orion crew capsule with prime contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin in an agency wide effort to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

The European Space Agency(ESA) is also partnered with NASA and providing the service module for Orion.

What’s the status of the delivery of the European Space Agency’s service module?

“The service module will be here sometime next year,” Cabana said.

He noted that the details and exact timing are yet to be determined.

The first integrated launch of SLS and Orion on the unpiloted Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is now slated for sometime in 2019 after NASA recently slipped the date to the right from Fall 2018.

At the request of the Trump Administration, NASA also just completed a detailed study to ascertain the feasibility of adding a crew of two NASA astronauts to the EM-1 flight and launch it by the end of 2019.

In the end, NASA officials decided to stick with the baselined plan of no crew on EM-1 for a variety of technical and safety reasons, as well as cost – as I reported here.

I asked Cabana for his insight and opinion on NASA not adding crew to Orion on the EM-1 flight.

“No we are not launching crew on the first flight [EM-1],” Cabana stated.

“With the budget that we have and what we need to do, this is the answer we got to at the end.”

“You know the crew study was still very important. It allowed us to find some things that we should still do on [EM-1], even though we are not going to launch crew on that flight.

“So we will make some further modifications that will reduce the risk even further when we do fly crew [on the next flight of EM-2].”

The newly assembled first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine (blue) on July 22, 2016. It was lifted out of the welder (top) after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

So for 2017 what are the major milestone you hope to complete here at KSC for SLS and Orion?

“So for me here at the Kennedy Space Center, my goal for the end of this calendar year 2017 we will have completed all of the construction of all of the [ground systems] hardware and facilities that are necessary to process and launch the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion,” Cabana elaborated.

‘We will still have a lot of work to do with the software for the spacecraft command and control systems and the ground systems.”

“But my goal is to have the hardware for the ground systems complete by the end of this year.”

What are those KSC facilities?

“Those facilities include the VAB [Vehicle Assembly Building] which will be complete to accept the mobile launcher in September and pad 39B will be complete in August,” Cabana said.

“The RPSF is already complete. The NPFF is already complete and we are doing testing in there. The LASF [Launch Abort System Facility] is complete – where they put the abort rocket on.”

“The Mobile Launcher will be complete from a structural point of view, with all the systems installed by the end of the year [including the umbilical’s and while room].”

Floor level view of the Mobile Launcher and enlarged exhaust hole with 380 foot-tall launch tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite CRS-11 mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), Launch Control Center and Mobile Launcher from the KSC Launch Complex 39 Press Site. NASA is upgrading the VAB with new platforms to assemble and launch NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

.……….

Learn more about the SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

May 30/31: “SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Robert Cabana, Director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and former Space Shuttle Commander, and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss the newly proposed NASA FY2018 budget backdropped by the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, FL in May 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Trump Proposes $19.1 Billion 2018 NASA Budget, Cuts Earth Science and Education

NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot outlines NASA’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal during a ‘State of NASA’ speech to agency employees held at NASA HQ on May 23, 2017. Credit: NASA TV/Ken Kremer

The Trump Administration has proposed a $19.1 Billion NASA budget request for Fiscal Year 2018, which amounts to a $0.5 Billion reduction compared to the recently enacted FY 2017 NASA Budget. Although it maintains many programs such as human spaceflight, planetary science and the Webb telescope, the budget also specifies significant cuts and terminations to NASA’s Earth Science and manned Asteroid redirect mission as well as the complete elimination of the Education Office.

Overall NASA’s FY 2018 budget is cut approximately 3%, or $560 million, for the upcoming fiscal year starting in October 2017 as part of the Trump Administration’s US Federal Budget proposal rolled out on May 23, and quite similar to the initial outline released in March.

The cuts to NASA are smaller compared to other Federal science agencies also absolutely vital to the health of US scientific research – such as the NIH, the NSF, the EPA, DOE and NIST which suffer unconscionable double digit slashes of 10 to 20% or more.

The highlights of NASA’s FY 2018 Budget were announced by NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot during a ‘State of NASA’ speech to agency employees held at NASA HQ, Washington, D.C. and broadcast to the public live on NASA TV.

Lightfoot’s message to NASA and space enthusiasts was upbeat overall.

“What this budget tells us to do is to keep going!” NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said.

“Keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s very important for us to maintain that course and move forward as an agency with all the great things we’re doing.”

“I want to reiterate how proud I am of all of you for your hard work – which is making a real difference around the world. NASA is leading the world in space exploration, and that is only possible through all of your efforts, every day.”

“We’re pleased by our top line number of $19.1 billion, which reflects the President’s confidence in our direction and the importance of everything we’ve been achieving.”

Lightfoot recalled the recent White House phone call from President Trump to NASA astronaut & ISS Station Commander Peggy Whitson marking her record breaking flight for the longest cumulative time in space by an American astronaut.

Thus Lightfoot’s vision for NASA has three great purposes – Discover, Explore, and Develop.

“NASA has a historic and enduring purpose. It can be summarized in three major strategic thrusts: Discover, Explore, and Develop. These correspond to our missions of scientific discovery, missions of exploration, and missions of new technology development in aeronautics and space systems.”

Lightfoot further recounted the outstanding scientific accomplishments of NASA’s Mars rover and orbiters paving the path for the agencies plans to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

“We’ve had a horizon goal for some time now of reaching Mars, and this budget sustains that work and also provides the resources to keep exploring our solar system and look beyond it.”

Lightfoot also pointed to upcoming near term science missions- highlighting a pair of Mars landers – InSIGHT launching next year as well as the Mars 2020 rover. Also NASA’s next great astronomical observatory – the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

“In science, this budget supports approximately 100 missions: 40 missions currently preparing for launch & 60 operating missions.”

“The James Webb Space Telescope is built!” Lightfoot gleefully announced.

“It’s done testing at Goddard and now has moved to Johnson for tests to simulate the vacuum of space.”

JWST is the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and slated for launch in Oct. 2018. The budget maintains steady support for Webb.

The 18-segment gold coated primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Planetary Sciences division receives excellent support with a $1.9 Billion budget request. It includes solid support for the two flagship missions – Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper as well as the two new Discovery class missions selected -Lucy and Psyche.

“The budget keeps us on track for the next selection for the New Frontiers program, and includes formulation of a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.”

SLS and Orion are making great progress. They are far beyond concepts, and as I mentioned, components are being tested in multiple ways right now as we move toward the first flight of that integrated system.”

NASA is currently targeting the first integrated launch of SLS and Orion on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) for sometime in 2019.

Top NASA managers recently decided against adding a crew of two astronauts to the flight after conducting detailed agency wide studies at the request of the Trump Administration.

NASA would have needed an additional $600 to $900 to upgrade EM-1 with humans.

Unfortunately Trump’s FY 2018 NASA budget calls for a slight reduction in development funding for both SLS and Orion – thus making a crewed EM-1 flight fiscally unviable.

The newly assembled first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine (blue) on July 22, 2016. It was lifted out of the welder (top) after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The budget request does maintain full funding for both of NASA’s commercial crew vehicles planned to restore launching astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the ISS from US soil on US rockets – namely the crewed Dragon and CST-100 Starliner – currently under development by SpaceX and Boeing – thus ending our sole reliance on Russian Soyuz for manned launches.

“Working with commercial partners, NASA will fly astronauts from American soil on the first new crew transportation systems in a generation in the next couple of years.”

“We need commercial partners to succeed in low-Earth orbit, and we also need the SLS and Orion to take us deeper into space than ever before.”

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

However the Trump Administration has terminated NASA’s somewhat controversial plans for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) – initiated under the Obama Administration – to robotically retrieve a near Earth asteroid and redirect it to lunar orbit for a visit by a crewed Orion to gather unique asteroidal samples.

“While we are ending formulation of a mission to an asteroid, known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, many of the central technologies in development for that mission will continue, as they constitute vital capabilities needed for future human deep space missions.”

Key among those vital capabilities to be retained and funded going forward is Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP).

“Solar electric propulsion (SEP) for our deep space missions is moving ahead as a key lynchpin.”

The Trump Administration’s well known dislike for Earth science and disdain of climate change has manifested itself in the form of the termination of 5 current and upcoming science missions.

NASA’s FY 2018 Earth Science budget suffers a $171 million cut to $1.8 Billion.

“While we are not proposing to move forward with Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE), Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder (CLARREO PF), and the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), this budget still includes significant Earth Science efforts, including 18 Earth observing missions in space as well as airborne missions.”

The DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments will also be shut down.

NASA’s Office of Education will also be terminated completely under the proposed FY 2018 budget and the $115 million of funding excised.

“While this budget no longer supports the formal Office of Education, NASA will continue to inspire the next generation through its missions and the many ways that our work excites and encourages discovery by learners and educators. Let me tell you, we are as committed to inspiring the next generation as ever.”

Congress will now have its say and a number of Senators, including Republicans says Trumps budget is DOA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA Nixes Proposal Adding Crew to First SLS/Orion Deep Space Flight

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration on the Mobile Launcher at KSC. Credit: NASA/MSFC

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – After conducting a thorough review examining the feasibility of adding a two person crew to the first integrated launch of America’s new Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion capsule on a mission that would propel two astronauts to the Moon and back by late 2019, NASA nixed the proposal during a media briefing held Friday.

The announcement to forgo adding crew to the flight dubbed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) was made by NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot during a briefing with reporters on May 13.

“We appreciate the opportunity to evaluate the possibility of this crewed flight,” said NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot during the briefing.

“The bi-partisan support of Congress and the President for our efforts to send astronauts deeper into the solar system than we have ever gone before is valued and does not go unnoticed. Presidential support for space has been strong.”

Although the outcome of the study determined that NASA could be “technically capable of launching crew on EM-1,” top agency leaders decided that there was too much additional cost and technical risk to accommodate and retire in the limited time span allowed.

Lightfoot said it would cost in the range of $600 to $900 million to add the life support systems, display panels and other gear required to Orion and SLS in order to enable adding astronauts to EM-1.

“It would be difficult to accommodate changes needed to add crew at this point in mission planning.”

Thus NASA will continue implementing the current baseline plan for EM-1 that will eventually lead to deep space human exploration missions starting with the follow on EM-2 mission which will be crewed.

At the request of the new Trump Administration in February, NASA initiated a comprehensive two month long study to determine the feasibility of converting the first integrated SLS/Orion flight from its baselined uncrewed mission to cislunar space into a crewed mission looping around the Moon.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Had the crewed lunar SLS/Orion flight been approved it would have roughly coincided with the 50th anniversary the first human lunar landing by NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.

Instead NASA will keep to the agencies current flight plan.

The first SLS/Orion crewed flight is slated for Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) launching no earlier than 2021.

If crew had been added to EM-1 it would have essentially adopted the mission profile currently planned for Orion EM-2.

“If the agency decides to put crew on the first flight, the mission profile for Exploration Mission-2 would likely replace it, which is an approximately eight-day mission with a multi-translunar injection with a free return trajectory,” said NASA earlier. It would be similar to Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.

Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA is developing SLS and Orion for sending humans initially to cislunar space and eventually on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

They are but the first hardware elements required to carry out such an ambitious initiative.

Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA Test Fires New Engine Controlling ‘Brain’ for First SLS MegaRocket Mission

NASA engineers conduct a test of the first RS-25 engine controller that will be used on an actual Space Launch System flight on the A-2 Test Stand at Stennis Space Center on March 23, 2017. The RS-25 engine, with the flight controller, was test fired for a full-duration 500 seconds. Credits: NASA/SSC

Engineers carried out a critical hot fire engine test firing with the first new engine controlling ‘brain’ that will command the shuttle-era liquid fueled engines powering the inaugural mission of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket.

The first integrated SLS launch combining the SLS-1 rocket and Orion EM-1 deep space crew capsule could liftoff as soon as late 2018 on a mission around the Moon and back.

The full duration static fire test involved an RS-25 engine integrated with the first engine controller flight unit that will actually fly on the maiden SLS launch and took place on Thursday, March 23 at the agency’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

The 500 second-long test firing was conducted with the engine controller flight unit installed on RS-25 development engine no. 0528 on the A-2 Test Stand at Stennis.

The RS-25 engine controller is the ‘brain’ that commands the RS-25 engine and communicates between the engine and the SLS rocket. It is about the size of a dorm refrigerator.

RS-25 new engine controller. Credit: NASA/SSC

The newly developed engine controller is a modern version from the RS-25 controller that helped propel all 135 space shuttle missions to space.

“This an important – and exciting – step in our return to deep space missions,” Stennis Director Rick Gilbrech said. “With every test of flight hardware, we get closer and closer to launching humans deeper into space than we ever have traveled before.”

The modernized RS-25 engine controller was funded by NASA and created in a collaborative effort of engineers from NASA, RS-25 prime contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, and subcontractor Honeywell of Clearwater, Florida.

“The controller manages the engine by regulating the thrust and fuel mixture ratio and monitors the engine’s health and status – much like the computer in your car,” say NASA officials.

“The controller then communicates the performance specifications programmed into the controller and monitors engine conditions to ensure they are being met, controlling such factors as propellant mixture ratio and thrust level.”

A quartet of RS-25 engines, leftover from the space shuttle era and repeatedly reused, will be installed at the base of the core stage to power the SLS at liftoff, along with a pair of extended solid rocket boosters.

The four RS-25 core stage engine will provide a combined 2 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

In addition to being commanded by the new engine controller, the engines are being upgraded in multiple ways for SLS. For example they will operate at a higher thrust level and under different operating conditions compared to shuttle times.

To achieve the higher thrust level required, the RS-25 engines must fire at 109 percent of capability for SLS compared to operating at 104.5 percent of power level capability for shuttle flights.

The RS-25 engines “also will operate with colder liquid oxygen and engine compartment temperatures, higher propellant pressure and greater exhaust nozzle heating.”
SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket and send astronauts on journeys into deep space, further than human have ever travelled before.

For SLS-1 the mammoth booster will launch in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) Block 1 configuration with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds – more powerful than NASA’s Saturn V moon landing rocket.

NASA engineers conduct a test of the first RS-25 engine controller that will be used on an actual Space Launch System flight on the A-2 Test Stand at Stennis Space Center on March 23, 2017. The RS-25 engine, with the flight controller, was test fired for a full-duration 500 seconds. Credits: NASA/SSC

The next step is evaluating the engine firing test results, confirming that all test objectives were met and certifying that the engine controller can be removed from the RS-25 development engine and then be installed on one of four flight engines that will help power SLS-1.

During 2017, two additional engine controllers for SLS-1 will be tested on the same development engine at Stennis and then be installed on flight engines after certification.

Finally, “the fourth controller will be tested when NASA tests the entire core stage during a “green run” on the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis. That testing will involve installing the core stage on the stand and firing its four RS-25 flight engines simultaneously, as during a mission launch,” says NASA.

Numerous RS-25 engine tests have been conducted at Stennis over more than 4 decades to certify them as flight worthy for the human rated shuttle and SLS rockets.

NASA engineers successfully conducted a development test of the RS-25 rocket engine Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss. The RS-25 will help power the core stage of the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for the journey to Mars. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Although NASA is still targeting SLS-1 for launch in Fall 2018 on an uncrewed mission, the agency is currently conducting a high level evaluation to determine whether the Orion EM-1 capsule can be upgraded in time to instead fly a human crewed mission with two astronauts before the end of 2019 – as I reported here.

The Orion EM-1 capsule is currently being manufactured at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Aerojet Rocketdyne technicians inspect the engine controller that will be used for the first integrated flight of NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion in late 2018. The engine controller was installed on RS-25 development engine no. 0528 for testing at Stennis Space Center on the A-2 Test Stand on March 23, 2017. The RS-25 engine, with the flight controller, was test fired for a full-duration 500 seconds. Credits: NASA/SSC

1st SLS 2nd Stage Arrives at Cape for NASA’s Orion Megarocket Moon Launch in 2018

Composite view of the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) for first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at United Launch Alliance manufacturing facility in Decatur, Alabama in December 2016 (left) and arrival of ICPS in a canister aboard the firm’s Delta Mariner barge on March 7, 2017 (right). Credits: ULA (left) and Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com (right)

PORT CANAVERAL – Bit by bit, piece by piece, the first of NASA’s SLS megarockets designed to propel American astronauts on deep space missions back to the Moon and beyond to Mars is at last coming together on the Florida Space Coast. And the first big integrated piece of actual flight hardware – the powerful second stage named the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) – has just arrived by way of barge today (Mar. 7) at Port Canaveral, Fl.

The ICPS will propel NASA’s new Orion crew capsule on its maiden uncrewed mission around the Moon – currently slated for blastoff on the inaugural SLS monster rocket on the Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) mission late next year.

SLS-1/Orion EM-1 will launch from pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in late 2018. The SLS will be the most powerful rocket in world history.

NASA is currently evaluating whether to add a crew of 2 astronauts to the SLS-1 launch which would result in postponing the inaugural liftoff into 2019 – as I reported here.

The interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) for first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket arrived at Port Canaveral, Florida on March 7, 2017 loaded inside a shipping canister (right) aboard the ULA Delta Mariner barge that set sail from Decatur, Alabama a week ago. The ICPS shared the shipping voyage along with a ULA Delta IV first stage rocket core seen at left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SLS upper stage – designed and built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Boeing – arrived safely by way of the specially-designed ship called the Delta Mariner early Tuesday morning, Mar. 7, into the channel of Port Canaveral, Florida – as witnessed by this author.

“We are proud to be working with The Boeing Company and NASA to further deep space exploration!” ULA said in a statement.

Major assembly of the ICPS was completed at ULA’s Decatur, Alabama, manufacturing facility in December 2016.

The interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) for the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket has arrived by way of barge at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 7, 2017. The ICPS will be moved to United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Operation Center at the Cape for processing for the SLS-1/Orion EM-1 launch currently slated for late 2018 launch from pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: ULA

The ICPS is the designated upper stage for the first maiden launch of the initial Block 1 version of the SLS.

It is based on ULA’s Delta Cryogenic Second Stage which has successfully flown numerous times on the firm’s Delta IV family of rockets.

In the event that NASA decides to add a two person crew to the EM-1 mission, Bill Hill, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development in Washington, D.C., stated that the agency would maintain the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion stage for the first flight, and not switch to the more advanced and powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) planned for first use on the EM-2 mission.

The ULA Delta Mariner barge arriving in Port Canaveral, Florida on March 7, 2017 after transporting the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) hardware for the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from Decatur, Alabama. SLS-1 launch from the Kennedy Space Center is slated for late 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The ICPS was loaded onto the Delta Mariner and departed Decatur last week to began its sea going voyage of more than 2,100 miles (3300 km). The barge trip normally takes 8 to 10 days.

“ULA has completed production on the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) flight hardware for NASA’s Space Launch System and it’s on the way to Cape Canaveral aboard the Mariner,” ULA noted in a statement last week.

The 312-foot-long (95-meter-long) ULA ship docked Tuesday morning at the wharf at Port Canaveral to prepare for off loading from the roll-on, roll-off vessel.

The Delta Mariner can travel on both rivers and open seas and navigate in waters as shallow as nine feet.

“ICPS, the first integrated SLS hardware to arrive at the Cape, will provide in-space propulsion for the SLS rocket on its Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) mission,” according to ULA.

The next step for the upper stage is ground transport to United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Operation Center on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida for further testing and processing before being moved to the Kennedy Space Center.

ULA will deliver the ICPS to NASA in mid-2017.

“It will be the first integrated piece of SLS hardware to arrive at the Cape and undergo final processing and testing before being moved to Ground Systems Development Operations at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center,” said NASA officials.

“The ICPS is a liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen-based system that will provide the thrust needed to send the Orion spacecraft and 13 secondary payloads beyond the moon before Orion returns to Earth.”

The upper stage is powered by a single RL-10B-2 engine fueled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen and generates 24,750 pounds of thrust. It measures 44 ft 11 in (13.7 m ) in length and 16 ft 5 in (5 m) in width.

The interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) for the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket as it completed major assembly at United Launch Alliance in Decatur, Alabama in December 2016. The ICPS just arrived by way of barge at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 7, 2017. It will propel the Orion EM-1 crew module around the Moon. The SLS-1/Orion EM-1 launch is currently slated for late 2018 launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: ULA

All major elements of the SLS will be assembled for flight inside the high bay of NASA’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building which is undergoing a major overhaul to accommodate the SLS. The VAB high bay was extensively refurbished to convert it from Space Shuttle to SLS assembly and launch operations.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

For SLS-1 the mammoth booster will launch in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) Block 1 configuration with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds – more powerful than NASA’s Saturn V moon landing rocket.

Components of the SLS-1 rocket are being manufactured at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility and elsewhere around the country by numerous suppliers.

Michoud is building the huge liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen SLS core stage fuel tank, derived from the Space Shuttle External Tank (ET) – as I detailed here.

The liquid hydrogen tank qualification test article for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally after final welding was completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in July 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The ICPS sits on top of the SLS core stage.

The next Delta IV rocket launching with a Delta Cryogenic Second Stage is tentatively slated for March 14 from pad 37 at the Cape.

The Orion EM-1 capsule is currently being manufactured at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

File photo of the ULA Delta Mariner barge arriving in Port Canaveral, Florida after transporting rocket hardware from Decatur, Alabama

NASA Studies Whether to Add Crew to 1st SLS Megarocket Moon Launch in 2019

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket will be the most powerful rocket in the world and, with the agency’s Orion spacecraft, will launch America into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond Earth’s orbit. Their first integrated mission is planned as uncrewed, but NASA now is assessing the feasibility of adding crew. Credits: NASA/MSFC

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – At the request of the new Trump Administration, NASA has initiated a month long study to determine the feasibility of converting the first integrated unmanned launch of the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion capsule into a crewed mission that would propel two astronauts to the Moon and back by 2019 – 50 years after the first human lunar landing.

Top NASA officials outlined the details of the study at a hastily arranged media teleconference briefing on Friday, Feb 24. It will examine the feasibility of what it would take to add a crew of 2 astronauts to significantly modified maiden SLS/Orion mission hardware and whether a launch could be accomplished technically and safely by the end of 2019.

On Feb. 15, Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that he had asked Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, to start detailed studies of what it would take to host astronauts inside the Orion capsule on what the agency calls Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1.

Gerstenmaier, joined by Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development in Washington, at the briefing said a team was quickly assembled and the study is already underway.

They expect the study to be completed in early spring, possibly by late March and it will focus on assessing the possibilities – but not making a conclusion on whether to actually implement changes to the current uncrewed EM-1 flight profile targeted for blastoff later in 2018.

“I want to stress to you this is a feasibility study. So when we get done with this we won’t come out with a hard recommendation, one way or the other,” Gerstenmaier stated.

“We’re going to talk about essentially the advantages and disadvantages of adding crew to EM-1.”

“We were given this task a week ago, appointed a team and have held one telecon.”

“Our priority is to ensure the safe and effective execution of all our planned exploration missions with the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket,” said Gerstenmaier.

“This is an assessment and not a decision as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an uncrewed flight test.”

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration on the Mobile Launcher at KSC. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Gerstenmaier further stipulated that the study should focus on determining if a crewed EM-1 could liftoff by the end of 2019. The study team includes one astronaut.

If a change resulted in a maiden SLS/Orion launch date stretching beyond 2019 it has little value – and NASA is best to stick to the current EM-1 flight plan.

The first SLS/Orion crewed flight is slated for Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) launching in 2021.

“I felt that if we went much beyond 2019, then we might as well fly EM-2 and actually do the plan we’re on,” Gerstenmaier said.

NASA’s current plans call for the unmanned blastoff of Orion EM-1 on the SLS-1 rocket later next year on its first test flight on a 3 week long mission to a distant lunar retrograde orbit. It is slated to occur roughly in the September to November timeframe from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.

Lightfoot initially revealed the study in a speech to the Space Launch System/Orion Suppliers Conference in Washington, D.C. and an agency wide memo circulated to NASA employees on Feb. 15 – as I reported here.

The Orion EM-1 capsule is currently being manufactured at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To launch astronauts, Orion EM-1 would require very significant upgrades since it will not have the life support systems, display panels, abort systems and more needed to safely support humans on board.

“We know there are certain systems that needed to be added to EM-1 to add crew,” Gerstenmaier elaborated. “So we have a good, crisp list of all the things we would physically have to change from a hardware standpoint.

In fact since EM-1 assembly is already well underway, some hardware already installed would have to be pulled out in order to allow access behind to add the life support hardware and other systems, Hill explained.

The EM-1 pressure shell arrived last February as I witnessed and reported here.

Thus adding crew at this latter date in the manufacturing cycle is no easy task and would absolutely require additional time and additional funding to the NASA budget – which as everyone knows is difficult in these tough fiscal times.

“Then we asked the team to take a look at what additional tests would be needed to add crew, what the additional risk would be, and then we also wanted the teams to talk about the benefits of having crew on the first flight,” Gerstenmaier explained.

“It’s going to take a significant amount of money, and money that will be required fairly quickly to implement what we need to do,” Hill stated. “So it’s a question of how we refine the funding levels and the phasing of the funding for the next three years and see where it comes out.”

Hill also stated that NASA would maintain the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion stage for the first flight, and not switch to the more advanced and powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) planned for first use on EM-2.

Furthermore NASA would move up the AA-2 ascent abort test for Orion to take place before crewed EM-1 mission.

Components of the SLS-1 rocket are being manufactured at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility and elsewhere around the country by numerous suppliers.

Michoud is building the huge fuel liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen SLS core stage fuel tank, derived from the Space Shuttle External Tank (ET) – as I detailed here.

The liquid hydrogen tank qualification test article for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally after final welding was completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in July 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Gerstenmaier noted that Michoud did suffer some damage during the recent tornado strike which will necessitate several months worth of repairs.

The newly assembled first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine (blue) on July 22, 2016. It was lifted out of the welder (top) after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on the unpiloted EM-1 mission counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago.

SLS is the most powerful booster the world has even seen – even more powerful than NASA’s Saturn V moon landing rocket of the 1960s and 1970s.

For SLS-1 the mammoth booster will launch in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) Block 1 configuration with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds.

If NASA can pull off a 2019 EM-1 human launch it will coincide with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 – NASA’s first lunar landing mission manned by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, along with Michael Collins.

If crew are added to EM-1 it would essentially adopt the mission profile currently planned for Orion EM-2.

“If the agency decides to put crew on the first flight, the mission profile for Exploration Mission-2 would likely replace it, which is an approximately eight-day mission with a multi-translunar injection with a free return trajectory,” said NASA. It would be similar to Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.

This artist concept depicts the Space Launch System rocket rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will launch the agency’s Orion spacecraft into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Credits: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

NASA is developing SLS and Orion for sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

They are but the first hardware elements required to carry out such an ambitious initiative.

Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

An artist’s interpretation of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1 configuration with an Orion vehicle. Image: NASA

NASA To Study Launching Astronauts on 1st SLS/Orion Flight

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – In a potentially major change in direction for NASA’s human spaceflight architecture, the agency is officially studying the possibility of adding a crew of astronauts to the first flight of the Orion deep space crew capsule and the heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket currently in development, announced Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot.

Lightfoot made the announcement in a speech to the Space Launch System/Orion Suppliers Conference in Washington, D.C. as well as an agency wide memo circulated to NASA employees on Wednesday, Feb. 15.

The move, if implemented, for the first joint SLS/Orion flight on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) would advance the date for sending American astronauts back to the Moon by several years – from the next decade into this decade.

Lightfoot has directed Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, to start detailed studies of what it would take to host astronauts inside the Orion EM-1 crew capsule.

“I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion,” Lightfoot said.

NASA’s current plans call for the unmanned blastoff of Orion EM-1 on the SLS-1 rocket later next year on the first test flight – roughly in the September to November timeframe from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.

“The study will examine the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space,” NASA officials added in a statement.

But because of all the extra work required to upgrade a host of systems for both Orion and SLS for humans ahead of schedule, liftoff of that inaugural mission would have to slip by at least a year or more.

“I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date” Lighfoot elaborated.

“That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space.”

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Orion EM-1 capsule is currently being manufactured at the Kennedy Space Center.

Components of the SLS-1 rocket are being manufactured at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility and elsewhere around the country by numerous suppliers.

Welding is nearly complete on the liquid hydrogen tank will provide the fuel for the first flight of NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, with the Orion spacecraft in 2018. The tank has now completed welding on the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on the unpiloted EM-1 mission counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago.

Now it might actually include humans.

Details to follow.

An artist’s interpretation of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1 configuration with an Orion vehicle. Image: NASA

Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

The liquid hydrogen tank qualification test article for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally after final welding was completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in July 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

This artist concept depicts the Space Launch System rocket rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will launch the agency’s Orion spacecraft into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Credits: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

Revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R Geostationary Weather Satellite Awesome Night Launch

Blastoff of revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite - R Series) on a ULA Atlas V from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016 - as seen from the VAB roof.  GOES-R will soon deliver a quantum leap in America’s weather forecasting capabilities. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) on a ULA Atlas V from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016 – as seen from the VAB roof. GOES-R will soon deliver a quantum leap in America’s weather forecasting capabilities. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – GOES-R, the first in a new series of revolutionary NASA/NOAA geostationary weather satellites blasted off on an awesome nighttime launch to orbit this evening from the Florida Space Coast.

Liftoff of the highly advanced Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) weather observatory bolted atop a ULA Atlas V rocket came at 6:42 p.m. EST on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The launch was delayed for an hour until the very end of the launch window to deal with unexpected technical and Eastern range issues, that only added more drama and changed the sunset launch into a night launch for the hordes of spectators who gathered here from around the world – appropriate since this probe will touch the lives of humans world wide.

“It’s a dramatic leap in capability – like moving from black and white TV to HDTV,” explained Greg Mandt, the NOAA GOES-R program manager during a prelaunch media briefing in the cleanroom processing facility at Astrotech.

“This is a very exciting time,” explained Greg Mandt, the NOAA GOES-R program manager during the Astrotech cleanroom briefing.

“This is the culmination of about 15 years of intense work for the great team of NOAA and NASA and our contractors Lockheed Martin and Harris.”

“We are bringing the nation a new capability. The GOES program has been around for about 40 years and most every American sees it every night on the weather broadcasts when they see go to the satellite imagery. And what’s really exciting is that for the first time in that 40 years we are really end to end replacing the entire GOES system. The weather community is really excited about what we are bringing.”

GOES-R will bring about a “quantum leap” in weather forecasting capabilities that will soon lead to more accurate and timely forecasts, watches and warnings for the Earth’s Western Hemisphere when it becomes fully operational in about a year.

But the first images are expected within weeks! And both researchers and weather forecasters can’t wait to see, analyze and put to practical use the sophisticated new images and data that will improve forecasts and save lives during extreme weather events that are occurring with increasing frequency.

Blastoff of revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite - R Series) on ULA Atlas V from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016.  GOES-R will deliver a quantum leap in America’s weather forecasting capabilities. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) on ULA Atlas V from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016. GOES-R will deliver a quantum leap in America’s weather forecasting capabilities. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

GOES-R will be renamed GOES-16 after it reaches its final orbit 22,000 above Earth about two weeks from now.

Over the next year, teams of engineers and scientists will check out and validate the state of the art suite of six science instruments that also includes the first operational lightning mapper in geostationary orbit – dubbed the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM).

“The launch of GOES-R represents a major step forward in terms of our ability to provide more timely and accurate information that is critical for life-saving weather forecasts and warnings,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“It also continues a decades-long partnership between NASA and NOAA to successfully build and launch geostationary environmental satellites.”
GOES-R, which stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series – is a new and advanced transformational weather satellite that will vastly enhance the quality, speed and accuracy of weather forecasting available to forecasters for Earth’s Western Hemisphere.

The science suite includes the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), Solar Ultraviolet Imager (SUVI), Extreme Ultraviolet and X-Ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS), Space Environment In-Situ Suite (SEISS), and the Magnetometer (MAG).

ABI is the primary instrument and will collect 3 times more spectral data with 4 times greater resolution and scans 5 times faster than ever before – via the primary Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument – compared to the current GOES satellites.

So instead of seeing weather as it was, viewers will see weather as it is.

Whereas the current GOES-NOP imagers scan the full hemispheric disk in 26 minutes, the new GOES-ABI can simultaneously scan the Western Hemisphere every 15 minutes, the Continental U.S. every 5 minutes and areas of severe weather every 30-60 seconds.

Launch of NASA/NOAA GOES-R weather observatory on ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016 from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of NASA/NOAA GOES-R weather observatory on ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016 from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

“The next generation of weather satellites is finally here,” said NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan.

“GOES-R will strengthen NOAA’s ability to issue life-saving forecasts and warnings and make the United States an even stronger, more resilient weather-ready nation.”

Blastoff of revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite - R Series) on a ULA Atlas V from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016 - as seen from the VAB roof.  GOES-R will soon deliver a quantum leap in America’s weather forecasting capabilities. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) on a ULA Atlas V from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016 – as seen from the VAB roof. GOES-R will soon deliver a quantum leap in America’s weather forecasting capabilities. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It is designed to last for a 15 year orbital lifetime.

The 11,000 pound satellite was built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin and is the first of a quartet of four identical satellites – comprising GOES-R, S, T, and U – at an overall cost of about $11 Billion. This will keep the GOES satellite system operational through 2036.

Today’s launch was the 10th of the year for ULA and the 113th straight successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006.

GOES-R launched on the Atlas V 541 configuration vehicle, augmented by four solid rocket boosters on the first stage. The payload fairing is 5 meters (16.4 feet) in diameter. The first stage is powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine. And the Centaur upper stage is powered by a single-engine Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C engine.

This was only the fourth Atlas V launch employing the 541 configuration.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite - R Series) is poised for launch on a ULA Atlas V from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016.  GOES-R will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) is poised for launch on a ULA Atlas V from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016. GOES-R will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of NASA/NOAA GOES-R weather observatory on ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016 from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, as seen from Playalinda beach. Credit: Jillian Laudick
Launch of NASA/NOAA GOES-R weather observatory on ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016 from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, as seen from Playalinda beach. Credit: Jillian Laudick

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Learn more about GOES-R weather satellite, Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, OSIRIS-REx, InSight Mars lander, ULA, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX AMOS-6 & CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Nov 19-20: “GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions to the ISS, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings