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

NASA’s First SLS Mars Rocket Fuel Tank Completes Welding

Welding is complete on the largest piece of the core stage that will provide the fuel for the first flight of NASA's new rocket, the Space Launch System, with the Orion spacecraft in 2018. The core stage liquid hydrogen tank has completed welding on the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: NASA/MAF/Steven Seipel
Welding is complete on the largest piece of the core stage that will provide the fuel for the first flight of NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, with the Orion spacecraft in 2018. The core stage liquid hydrogen tank has completed welding on the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: NASA/MAF/Steven Seipel

The first of the massive fuel tanks that will fly on the maiden launch of NASA’s SLS mega rocket in late 2018 has completed welding at the agency’s rocket manufacturing facility in New Orleans – marking a giant step forward for NASA’s goal of sending astronauts on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

Technicians have just finished welding together the liquid hydrogen (LH2) fuel tank in the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) welder at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans. The VAC is the world’s largest welder.

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 has now  completed welding on the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
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 has now completed welding on the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

This flight version of the hydrogen tank is the largest of the two fuel tanks making up the SLS core stage – the other being the liquid oxygen tank (LOX).

In fact the 130 foot tall hydrogen tank is the biggest cryogenic tank ever built for flight.

“Standing more than 130 feet tall, the liquid hydrogen tank is the largest cryogenic fuel tank for a rocket in the world,” according to NASA.

And it is truly huge – measuring also 27.6 feet (8.4 m) in diameter.

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 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

I recently visited MAF to see this giant tank when it was nearly finished welding in the VAC. I also saw the very first completed test tank version of the hydrogen tank, called the qualification tank which is virtually identical.

The precursor qualification tank was constructed to prove out all the manufacturing techniques and welding tools being utilized at Michoud.

The 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 on July 22, 2016 after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The 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 on July 22, 2016 after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SLS is the most powerful booster the world has even seen and one day soon will propel NASA astronauts in the agency’s Orion crew capsule on exciting missions of exploration to deep space destinations including the Moon, Asteroids and Mars – venturing further out than humans ever have before!

NASA’s agency wide goal is to send humans to Mars by the 2030s with SLS and Orion.

The LH2 and LOX tanks sit on top of one another inside the SLS outer skin. Together the hold over 733,000 gallons of propellant.

The SLS core stage – or first stage – is mostly comprised of the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen cryogenic fuel storage tanks which store the rocket propellants at super chilled temperatures. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage.

The SLS core stage stands some 212 feet tall.

The SLS core stage is comprised of five major structures: the forward skirt, the liquid oxygen tank (LOX), the intertank, the liquid hydrogen tank (LH2) and the engine section.

The LH2 and LOX tanks feed the cryogenic propellants into the first stage engine propulsion section which is powered by a quartet of RS-25 engines – modified space shuttle main engines (SSMEs) – and a pair of enhanced five segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) also derived from the shuttles four segment boosters.

NASA engineers successfully conducted a development test of the RS-25 rocket engine Thursday, Aug. 18 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
NASA engineers successfully conducted a development test of the RS-25 rocket engine Thursday, Aug. 18 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

The vehicle’s four RS-25 engines will produce a total of 2 million pounds of thrust.

The tanks are assembled by joining previously manufactured dome, ring and barrel components together in the Vertical Assembly Center by a process known as friction stir welding. The rings connect and provide stiffness between the domes and barrels.

The LH2 tank is the largest major part of the SLS core stage. It holds 537,000 gallons of super chilled liquid hydrogen. It is comprised of 5 barrels, 2 domes, and 2 rings.

The LOX tank holds 196,000 pounds of liquid oxygen. It is assembled from 2 barrels, 2 domes, and 2 rings and measures over 50 feet long.

The maiden test flight of the SLS/Orion is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured 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.

Although the SLS-1 flight in 2018 will be uncrewed, NASA plans to launch astronauts on the SLS-2/EM-2 mission slated for the 2021 to 2023 timeframe.

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
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

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

Ken Kremer

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 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

NASA Successfully Test Fires Mars Mega Rocket Engine with Modernized ‘Brain’ Controller

NASA engineers successfully conducted a development test of the RS-25 rocket engine Thursday, Aug. 18 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
NASA engineers successfully conducted a development test of the RS-25 rocket engine Thursday, Aug. 18 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

NASA STENNIS SPACE CENTER, MISS – NASA engineers successfully carried out a key developmental test firing of an RS-25 rocket engine along with its modernized ‘brain’ controller at the Stennis Space Center on Thursday, Aug. 18, as part of the ongoing huge development effort coordinating the agency’s SLS Mars mega rocket slated for its maiden blastoff by late 2018.

“Today’s test was very successful,” Steve Wofford, manager of the SLS Liquid Engines Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, told Universe Today in an exclusive interview at the conclusion of the exciting RS-25 engine test gushing a huge miles long plume of steam at NASA Stennis on Aug. 18 under sweltering Gulf Coast heat.

“It was absolutely great!”

Thursday’s full thrust RS-25 engine hot fire test, using engine No. 0528, ran for its planned full duration of 7.5 minutes and met a host of critical test objectives required to confirm and scope out the capabilities and operating margins of the upgraded engines ,which are recycled from the shuttle era.

“We ran a full program duration of 420 seconds . And we had no failure identifications pop up.”

“It looks like we achieved all of our data objectives,” Wofford elaborated to Universe Today, after we witnessed the test from a viewing area just a few hundred meters away, with our ears protected by ear plugs.

A cluster of four RS-25 engines will power the Space Launch System (SLS) at the base of the first stage, also known as the core stage.

Huge plume of steam gushes as NASA engineers successfully conducted a development test of the RS-25 rocket engine Thursday, Aug. 18 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., in this panoramic view.  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
Huge plume of steam gushes as NASA engineers successfully conducted a development test of the RS-25 rocket engine Thursday, Aug. 18 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., in this panoramic view. 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

SLS is the most powerful booster the world has even seen and one day soon will propel NASA astronauts in the agency’s Orion crew capsule on exciting missions of exploration to deep space destinations including the Moon, Asteroids and Mars – venturing further out than humans ever have before!

NASA’s goal is to send humans to Mars by the 2030s with SLS and Orion.

Ignition of the RS-25 engine creates a huge plume of steam gushing out the test stand during successful  hot fire development test on Thursday, Aug. 18 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., in this panoramic view.  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
Ignition of the RS-25 engine creates a huge plume of steam gushing out the test stand during successful hot fire development test on Thursday, Aug. 18 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., in this panoramic view. 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

The primary goal of the development tests is to validate the capabilities of a new controller – or, “brain” – for the engine and to verify the different operating conditions needed for the SLS vehicle.

The test was part of a long continuing and new series aimed at certifying the engines for flight.

“We continue this test series in the fall. Which is a continuing part of our certification series to fly these engines on NASA’s SLS vehicle,” Wofford told me.

What was the primary objective of today’s test?

“Today’s test was mostly about wringing out the new control system. We have a new engine controller on this engine. And we have to certify that new controller for flight.”

“So to certify it we run it through its paces in ground tests. And we put it through a more stringent set of test conditions than it will ever see in flight.”

“The objectives we tested today required 420 seconds of testing to complete.”

Watch this NASA video of the full test:

Video Caption: RS-25 Rocket Engine Test Firing on 18 Aug. 2016: The 7.5-minute test conducted at NASA’s Stennis Space Center is part of a series of tests designed to put the upgraded former space shuttle engines through the rigorous temperature and pressure conditions they will experience during a launch of NASA’s Space Launch System mega rocket. Credit: NASA

What are the additional objectives from today’s test?

“Well you can’t do all of your objectives in one test. So the certification series are all about technical objectives and total accumulated time. So one thing we did was we accumulated time toward the time we need to certify this control system for the SLS engine,” Wofford explained.

“The other thing we did was you pick some technical objectives you want to put the controller through its paces for. And again you can’t do all of those in one test. So you spread them over a series. And we did some of those on this test.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne is the prime contractor for the RS-25 engine work and originally built them during the shuttle era.

The remaining cache of 16 heritage RS-25 engines are being recycled from their previous use as reusable space shuttle main engines (SSMEs). They are now being refurbished, upgraded and tested by NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne to power the core stage of the Space Launch System rocket now under full development.

During launch they will fire at 109 percent thrust level for some eight and a half minutes while generating a combined two million pounds of thrust.

The SLS core stage is augmented with a pair of five segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) generating about 3.3 million pounds of thrust each. NASA and Orbital just completed the QM-2 SRB qualification test on June 28.

Each of the RS-25’s engines generates some 500,000 pounds of thrust. They are fueled by cryogenic liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX).

The first liquid hydrogen (LH2) qualification fuel tank for the core stage was just welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans – as I witnessed exclusively and reported here.

The 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 on July 22, 2016 after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The 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 on July 22, 2016 after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The RS-25 engines measure 14 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter.

For SLS they will be operating at 109% of power – a higher power level compared to a routine usage of 104.5% during the shuttle era.

They have to withstand and survive temperature extremes ranging from -423 degrees F to more than 6000 degrees F.

Why was about five seconds of Thursday’s test run at the 111% power level? Will that continue in future tests?

“We did that because we plan to fly this engine on SLS at 109% of power level. So it’s to demonstrate the feasibility of doing that. On shuttle we were certified to fly these engines at 109%,” Wofford confirmed to Universe Today.

“So to demonstrate the feasibility of doing 109% power level on SLS we ‘overtest’ . So we ran [today’s test] at 2 % above where we are going to fly in flight.”

“We will do more in the future.”

The fully assembled core stage intergrated with all 4 RS-25 flight engines will be tested at the B-2 test stand in Stennis during the first quarter of 2018 – some 6 months or more before the launch in late 2018.

How many more engines tests will be conducted prior to the core stage test?

“After today we will run 7 more tests before the core stage test and the first flight.”

“I’m thrilled. I’ve see a lot of these and it never gets old!” Wofford gushed.

The hardware for SLS and Orion is really coming together now and its becoming more and more real every day.

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
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

These are exciting times for NASA’s human deep space exploration strategy.

The maiden test flight of the SLS/Orion is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured 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.

Although the SLS-1 flight in 2018 will be uncrewed, NASA plans to launch astronauts on the SLS-2/EM-2 mission slated for the 2021 to 2023 timeframe.

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

Ken Kremer

Steve Wofford, manager of the SLS Liquid Engines Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, interviewed by Ken Kremer, Universe Today about the RS-25 hot fire engine test on Aug. 18 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss.  The RS-25 will help power NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Steve Wofford, manager of the SLS Liquid Engines Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, interviewed by Ken Kremer, Universe Today about the RS-25 hot fire engine test on Aug. 18 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss. The RS-25 will help power NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stairway to Heaven! – Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm’s ‘Awesome’ Launch Pad Installation

A crane lifts the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41.  Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A crane lifts the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016. Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — A new ‘Stairway to Heaven’ which American astronauts will soon stride along as “the last place on Earth” departure point aboard our next generation of human spaceships, was at long last hoisted into place at the ULA Atlas rocket launch pad on Florida’s Space Coast on Monday Aug 15, at an “awesome” media event witnessed by space journalists including Universe Today.

“This is awesome,” Chris Ferguson, a former shuttle commander who is now Boeing’s deputy program manager for the company’s Commercial Crew Program told Universe Today in an exclusive interview at the launch pad – after workers finished installing the spanking new Crew Access Arm walkway for astronauts leading to the hatch of Boeing’s Starliner ‘Space Taxi.’

Starliner will ferry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) as soon as 2018.

“It’s great to see the arm up there,” Ferguson elaborated to Universe Today. “I know it’s probably a small part of the overall access tower. But it’s the most significant part!”

“We used to joke about the 195 foot level on the shuttle pad as being ‘the last place on Earth.”

“This will now be the new ‘last place on Earth’! So we are pretty charged up about it!” Ferguson gushed.

Up close view of Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room craned into place at Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016.   Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor
Up close view of Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room craned into place at Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

Under hot sunny skies portending the upcoming restoration of America’s ability to once again launch American astronauts from American soil when American rockets ignite, the newly constructed 50-foot-long, 90,000-pound ‘Crew Access Arm and White Room’ was lifted and mated to the newly built ‘Crew Access Tower’ at Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) on Monday morning, Aug. 15.

“We talked about how the skyline is changing here and this is one of the more visible changes.”

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew capsule stacked atop the venerable United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida will launch crews to the massive orbiting science outpost continuously soaring some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

Space workers, enthusiasts and dreamers alike have been waiting years for this momentous day to happen. And I was thrilled to observe all the action firsthand along with the people who made it happen from NASA, United Launch Alliance, Boeing, the contractors – as well as to experience it with my space media colleagues.

“All the elements that we talked about the last few years are now reality,” Ferguson told me.

The Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft approaches the notch for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 at level 13 on Aug. 15, 2016, as workers observe from upper tower level.  Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft approaches the notch for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 at level 13 on Aug. 15, 2016, as workers observe from upper tower level. Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Attaching the access arm is vital and visual proof that at long last America means business and that a renaissance in human spaceflight will commence in some 18 months or less when commercially built American crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX take flight to the heavens above – and a new space era of regular, robust and lower cost space flights begins.

It took about an hour for workers to delicately hoist the gleaming grey steel and aluminum white ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by crane into place at the top of the tower – at one of the busiest launch pads in the world!

It’s about 130 feet above the pad surface since it’s located at the 13th level of the tower.

The install work began at about 7:30 a.m. EDT as we watched a work crew lower a giant grappling hook and attach cables. Then they carefully raised the arm off the launch pad surface by crane. The arm had been trucked to the launch pad on Aug. 11.

The tower itself is comprised of segmented tiers that were built in segments just south of the pad. They were stacked on the pad over the past few months – in between launches. Altogether they form a nearly 200-foot-tall steel structure.

Another crew stationed in the tower about 160 feet above ground waited as the arm was delicately craned into the designated notch. The workers then spent several more hours methodically bolting and welding the arm to the tower to finish the assembly process.

Indeed Monday’s installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room at pad 41 basically completes the construction of the first new Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the Apollo moon landing era of the 1960s.

“It is the first new crew access structure at the Florida spaceport since the space shuttle’s Fixed Service Structures were put in place before Columbia’s first flight in 1981,” say NASA officials.

Overall the steel frame of the massive tower weighs over a million pounds. For perspective, destination ISS now weighs in at about a million pounds in low Earth orbit.

Construction of the tower began about 18 months ago.

“You think about when we started building this 18 months ago and now it’s one of the most visible changes to the Cape’s horizon since the 1960s,” said Ferguson at Monday’s momentous media event. “It’s a fantastic day.”

The White Room is an enclosed area at the end of the Crew Access Arm. It big enough for astronauts to make final adjustments to their suits and is spacious enough for technicians to assist the astronauts climbing aboard the spacecraft and get tucked into their seats in the final hours before liftoff.

“You have to stop and celebrate these moments in the craziness of all the things we do,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, at the event. “It’s going to be so cool when our astronauts are walking out across this access arm to get on the spacecraft and go to the space station.”

The Crew Access Arm was built by Saur at NASA’s nearby off site facility at Oak Hill.

And when Starliner takes flight it will hearken back to the dawn of the Space Age.

“John Glenn was the first to fly on an Atlas, now our next leap into the future will be to have astronauts launch from here on Atlas V,” said Barb Egan, program manager for Commercial Crew for ULA.

Boeing is manufacturing Starliner in what is officially known as Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida under contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

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
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

The Boeing CST 100 Starliner is one of two private astronaut capsules – along with the SpaceX Crew Dragon – being developed under a CCP commercial partnership contract with NASA to end our sole reliance on Russia for crew launches back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program since its inception in 2010 is to restore America’s capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the ISS, as soon as possible.

Furthermore when the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon become operational the permanent resident ISS crew will grow to 7 – enabling a doubling of science output aboard the science laboratory.

This significant growth in research capabilities will invaluably assist NASA in testing technologies and human endurance in its agency wide goal of sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s with the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion deep space capsule concurrently under full scale development by the agency.

The next key SLS milestone is a trest firing of the RS-25 main engines at NASA Stennis this Thursday, Aug. 18 – watch for my onsite reports!

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 Starliner space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, the US was been 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronauts rides to the ISS at a cost exceeding $70 million per seat.

When will Ferguson actually set foot inside the walkway?

“I am hoping to get up there and walk through there in a couple of weeks or so when it’s all strapped in and done. I want to see how they are doing and walk around.”

How does the White Room fit around Starliner and keep it climate controlled?

“The end of the white room has a part that slides up and down and moves over and slides on top of the spacecraft when it’s in place.”

“There is an inflatable seal that forms the final seal to the spacecraft so that you have all the appropriate humidity control and the purge without the Florida atmosphere inside the crew module,” Ferguson replied.

Up close, mid-air view of Crew Access Tower and front of White Room during installation.  The White Room will fit snugly against Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft with inflatable seal to maintain climate control and clean conditions as astronauts board capsule atop Atlas rocket hours before launch on  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close, mid-air view of Crew Access Arm and front of White Room during installation. The White Room will fit snugly against Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft with inflatable seal to maintain climate control and clean conditions as astronauts board capsule atop Atlas rocket hours before launch on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Boeing and NASA are targeting Feb. 2018 for launch of the first crewed orbital test flight on the Atlas V rocket. The Atlas will be augmented with two solid rocket motors on the first stage and a dual engine Centaur upper stage.

How confident is Ferguson about meeting the 2018 launch target?

“The first crew flight is scheduled for February 2018. I am confident.” Ferguson responded.

“And we have a lot of qualification to get through between now and then. But barring any large unforeseen issues we can make it.”

The Crew Access Tower after installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Aug. 15, 2016 at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Crew Access Tower after installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Aug. 15, 2016 at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

As the Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room are bolted into place behind us at Space Launch Complex 41, Chris Ferguson, former shuttle commander and current Boeing deputy program manager for Commercial Crew, and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss the details and future of human spaceflight on Aug. 15, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: Jeff Seibert
As the Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room are bolted into place behind us at Space Launch Complex 41, Chris Ferguson, former shuttle commander and current Boeing deputy program manager for Commercial Crew, and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss the future of human spaceflight on Aug. 15, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Major Overhaul of VAB for NASA’s SLS Mars Rocket Reaches Halfway Point With Platform Installation

Looking up to the 5 pairs of newly installed massive work platforms inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building required to assemble NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking up to the 5 pairs of newly installed massive work platforms inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on July 28, 2016 during exclusive facility visit by Universe Today. The new platforms give technicians access to assemble NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A major overhaul of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) readying it for launches of NASA’s SLS Mars rocket by 2018 has reached the halfway point with installation of massive new access platforms required to enable assembly of the mammoth booster at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) – as seen firsthand during an exclusive up close facility tour by Universe Today.

“We are in the full development stage right now and roughly 50% complete with the platforms on this job,” David Sumner, GSDO Deputy Sr. project manager for VAB development work at KSC, told Universe Today in an exclusive interview inside the VAB’s High Bay 3 on July 28, amidst workers actively turning NASA’s deep space dreams into full blown reality. See our exclusive up close photos herein – detailing the huge ongoing effort.

Upgrading and renovating the VAB is specifically the responsibility of NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program (GSDO) at Kennedy.

Inside VAB High Bay 3 – where previous generations of space workers proudly assembled NASA’s Saturn V Moon rocket and the Space Shuttle Orbiter launch stacks – today’s crews of workers were actively installing the newly manufactured work platforms needed to process and build the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that will soon propel our astronauts back to exciting deep space destinations.

“We are very excited. We are at the beginning of a new program!” Sumner told me. “We have the infrastructure and are getting into operations soon.”

A heavy-lift crane lifts the first half of the F-level work platforms, F south, for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, into position for installation July 15, in High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Bill White
A heavy-lift crane lifts the first half of the F-level work platforms, F south, for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, into position for installation July 15, in High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Bill White

It’s certainly an exciting time as NASA pushes forward on all fronts in a coordinated nationwide effort to get the SLS rocket with the Orion EM-1 crew vehicle bolted on top ready and rolled out to Kennedy’s pad 39B for their planned maiden integrated blastoff by Fall 2018.

SLS and Orion are at the heart of NASA’s agency wide strategy to send astronauts on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s.

SLS is the most powerful booster the world has even seen and is designed to boost NASA astronauts in the agency’s Orion crew capsule on exciting missions of exploration to deep space destinations including the Moon, Asteroids and Mars – venturing further out than humans ever have before!

I walked into High Bay 3, scanned all around and up to the ceiling some 525 feet away and was thrilled to see a bustling construction site – the future of human voyages in deep space unfolding before my eyes. As I looked up to see the newly installed work platforms, I was surrounded by the constant hum of plenty of hammering, cutting, welding, hoisting, fastening, banging and clanging and workers moving equipment and gear around.

Welding work in progress by workers in the VAB transfer aisle for installation of huge work platforms inside High Bay 3 at KSC on July 28, 2016.  Credit: Julian Leek
Welding work in progress by workers in the VAB transfer aisle for installation of huge work platforms inside High Bay 3 at KSC on July 28, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

Altogether a total of 10 levels of work platform levels will be installed in High Bay 3 – labeled K to A, from bottom to top. Each level consists of two platform halves, denoted as the North and South side platforms.

Looking up to the 5 pairs of newly installed massive work platforms inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on July 28, 2016.  Heavy duty cranes are used to install the new platforms which will enable access to assemble NASA’s SLS rocket at KSC in Florida.  Credit: Julian Leek
Looking up to the 5 pairs of newly installed massive work platforms inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on July 28, 2016. Heavy duty cranes are used to install the new platforms which will enable access to assemble NASA’s SLS rocket at KSC in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

What’s the status today?

“We are looking up at 5 of 10 platform levels with 10 of 20 platform halves installed here. A total of ten levels are being installed,” Sumner explained.

“We are installing them from the bottom up. The bottom five levels are installed so far.”

“We are up to about the 190 foot level right now with Platform F installation. Then we are going up to about the 325 foot level with the 10th platform [Platform A].

“So there are 10 levels for EM-1.”

Up close view looking out to the edge of Platform F showing the outer mold line snaking around the SLS core stage and a solid rocket booster from the 190 foot level under construction inside the VAB High Bay 3 on July 28, 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view looking out to the edge of Platform F showing the outer mold line snaking around the SLS core stage and a solid rocket booster from the 190 foot level under construction inside the VAB High Bay 3 on July 28, 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

So much work was visible and actively in progress I definitely got the feeling from the ground up that NASA is now rapidly moving into the new post shuttle Era – dominated by the mammoth new SLS making its assembly debut inside these hallowed walls some 18 months or so from today.

“The work today is some outfitting on the platforms overhead here, as well as more work on the platform halves sitting in the transfer aisle and High Bay 4 to get them ready to lift and install into High Bay 3.”

“Overhead steel work is also ongoing here in High Bay 3 with additional steel work going vertical for reinforcement and mounting brackets for all the platforms going vertically.”

“So quite a few work locations are active with different crews and different groups.”

Two additional new platform halves are sitting in the VAB transfer aisle and are next in line for installation. With two more awaiting in VAB High Bay 4. Fabrication of additional platform halves is ongoing at KSC’s nearby Oak Hill facility.

“The rest are being fabricated in our Oak Hill facility. So we have almost everything on site so far.”

Two halves of Platform D sit in the VAB transfer aisle on July 28, 2016 awaiting installation into High Bay 3.   The new platforms give technicians access to assemble NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Two halves of Platform D sit in the VAB transfer aisle on July 28, 2016 awaiting installation into High Bay 3. The new platforms give technicians access to assemble NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Hensel Phelps is the general contractor for the VAB transformation. Subcontractors include S&R, Steel LLC, Sauer Inc., Jacobs and Beyel Bros Crane and Rigging.

The work platforms enable access to the SLS rocket at different levels up and down the over 300 foot tall rocket topped by the Orion crew capsule. They will fit around the outer mold line of SLS – including the twin solid rocket boosters, the core stage, and upper stage – and Orion.

The SLS core stage is being manufactured at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where I recently inspected the first completed liquid hydrogen tank test article – as reported here. Orion EM-1 is being manufactured here at Kennedy – as I reported here.

The 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 on July 22, 2016 after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The 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 on July 22, 2016 after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The platforms will provide access for workers to assemble, process and test all the SLS and Orion components before rolling out to Launch Complex 39B atop the 380 foot tall Mobile Launcher – which is also undergoing a concurrent major renovation and overhaul.

As of today, five of the ten levels of platforms are in place.

Each of the giant platforms made of steel measures about 38 feet long and close to 62 feet wide. They weigh between 300,000 and 325,000 pounds.

The most recently installed F North and South platforms were put in place on the north and south walls of the high bay on July 15 and 19, respectively.

Here’s the view looking out to Platform F:

View looking out to both halves of Platform F and down to Platform G showing the outer mold line snaking around the SLS core stage and a solid rocket booster from the 190 foot level under construction inside the VAB High Bay 3 on July 28, 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View looking out to both halves of Platform F and down to Platform G showing the outer mold line snaking around the SLS core stage and a solid rocket booster from the 190 foot level under construction inside the VAB High Bay 3 on July 28, 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

How are the platforms installed ?

The platforms are carefully lifted into place by workers during a process that lasts about four hours.

“The 325 and 250 ton overhead facility cranes are used to [slowly] lift and move the platform halves back and forth between the VAB transfer aisle and High Bay 4 and into the SLS High Bay 3.”

Then they are attached to rail beams on the north and south walls of the high bay.

Construction workers from Beyel Bros Crane and Rigging also use a Grove 40 ton all terrain crane. It is also outfitted with man baskets to get to the places that cannot be reached by scaffolding in High Bay 3.

Installation of the remaining five levels of platforms should be completed by mid-2017.

“The job will be done by the middle of 2017. All the construction work will be done,” Sumner explained.

“Then we will get into our verification and validations with the Mobile Launcher (ML). Then the ML will roll in here around middle to late 2017 [for checkouts and testing] and then roll out to the pad [for more testing]. After that it will roll back in here. Then we will be ready to stack the SLS starting after that!”

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
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

The platforms will be tested beginning later this year, starting with the lowest platforms at the K-level, and working all the way up to the top, the A-level.

The platforms are attached to a system of rail beams that “provide structural support and contain the drive mechanisms to retract and extend the platforms,” according to a NASA fact sheet.

“Each platform will reside on four Hillman roller systems on each side – much like a kitchen drawer slides in and out. A mechanical articulated tray also moves in and out with each platform.”

The F-level platforms are located about 192 feet above the VAB floor.

“They will provide access to the SLS core stage (CS) intertank for umbilical mate operations. The “F-1” multi-level ground support equipment access platform will be used to access the booster forward assemblies and the CS to booster forward attach points. The upper level of F-1 will be used to remove the lifting sling used to support forward assembly mate for booster stacking operations.”

“Using the five platforms that are now installed, workers will have access to all of the Space Launch System rocket’s booster field joints and forward skirts, the core stage intertank umbilical and interface plates,” says Mike Bolger, GSDO program manager at Kennedy.

Looking190 feet down from Platform F to the VAB floor along all five newly installed access platforms in High Bay 3. Construction worker on Platform G below is working near the outer mold line for the SLS rocket that will fill this space by early 2018 at KSC in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking 190 feet down from Platform F to the VAB floor along all five newly installed access platforms in High Bay 3. Construction worker on Platform G below is working near the outer mold line for the SLS rocket that will fill this space by early 2018 at KSC in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

‘NASA is transforming KSC into a launch complex for the 21st Century,’ as KSC Center Director and former shuttle commander Bob Cabana often explains.

So it was out with the old and in with the new to carry out that daunting task.

“We took the old shuttle platforms out, went down to the [building] structure over the past few years and are now putting up the new SLS platforms,” Sumner elaborated.

“All the demolition work was done a few years ago. So we are in the full development stage right now and roughly 50% complete with the platforms on this job.”

And after NASA launches EM-1, significantly more VAB work lies ahead to prepare for the first manned Orion launch on the EM-2 mission set for as soon as 2021 – because it will feature an upgraded and taller version of the SLS rocket – including a new upper stage.

“For EM-2, the plan right now is we will add two more levels and relocate three more. So we will do some adjustments and new installations in the upper levels for EM-2.”

“It’s been an honor to be here and work here in the VAB every day – and prepare for the next 50 years of its life.”

“We are at the beginning of a new program. We have the infrastructure and are getting into operations soon,” Sumner said. “We have hopefully got a long way to go on the future of space exploration, with many decades of exploration ahead.”

“We are on a ‘Journey to Mars’ and elsewhere. So this is the beginning of all that. It’s very exciting!”

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
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

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

Ken Kremer

Looking down from newly installed VAB High Bay 3 Platform F to Platform G on July 28, 2016.  New platforms enable access to assemble NASA’s SLS rocket at KSC in Florida.  Credit: Julian Leek
Looking down from newly installed VAB High Bay 3 Platform F to Platform G on July 28, 2016. New platforms enable access to assemble NASA’s SLS rocket at KSC in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek
Two halves of Platform D sit in the VAB transfer aisle on July 28, 2016 awaiting installation into High Bay 3.   The new platforms give technicians access to assemble NASA’s SLS rocket at KSC in Florida.  Credit: Julian Leek
Two halves of Platform D sit in the VAB transfer aisle on July 28, 2016 awaiting installation into High Bay 3. The new platforms give technicians access to assemble NASA’s SLS rocket at KSC in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek
Looking up to the 5 pairs of newly installed massive work platforms inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on July 28, 2016 during exclusive facility visit by Universe Today.  The new platforms are required to give technicians access to assemble NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking up to the 5 pairs of newly installed massive work platforms inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on July 28, 2016 during exclusive facility visit by Universe Today. The new platforms are required to give technicians access to assemble NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
US Flag hangs proudly inside the VAB - America’s Premier Spaceport to Deep Space.  Credit: Lane Hermann
US Flag hangs proudly inside the VAB – America’s Premier Spaceport to Deep Space. Credit: Lane Hermann
View of the VAB 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
View of the VAB 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
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
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

NASA Welds Together 1st SLS Hydrogen Test Tank for America’s Moon/Mars Rocket – Flight Unit in Progress

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

MICHOUD ASSEMBLY FACILITY, NEW ORLEANS, LA – NASA has just finished welding together the very first fuel tank for America’s humongous Space Launch System (SLS) deep space rocket currently under development – and Universe Today had an exclusive up close look at the liquid hydrogen (LH2) test tank shortly after its birth as well as the first flight tank, during a tour of NASA’s New Orleans rocket manufacturing facility on Friday, July 22, shortly after completion of the milestone assembly operation.

“We have just finished welding the first liquid hydrogen qualification tank article …. and are in the middle of production welding of the first liquid hydrogen flight hardware tank [for SLS-1] in the big Vertical Assembly Center welder!” explained Patrick Whipps, NASA SLS Stages Element Manager, in an exclusive hardware tour and interview with Universe Today on July 22, 2016 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans.

“We are literally putting the SLS rocket hardware together here at last. All five elements to put the SLS stages together [at Michoud].”

This first fully welded SLS liquid hydrogen tank is known as a ‘qualification test article’ and it was assembled using basically the same components and processing procedures as an actual flight tank, says Whipps.

“We just completed the liquid hydrogen qualification tank article and lifted it out of the welding machine and put it into some cradles. We will put it into a newly designed straddle carrier article next week to transport it around safely and reliably for further work.”

And welding of the liquid hydrogen flight tank is moving along well.

“We will be complete with all SLS core stage flight tank welding in the VAC by the end of September,” added Jackie Nesselroad, SLS Boeing manager at Michoud. “It’s coming up very quickly!”

“The welding of the forward dome to barrel 1 on the liquid hydrogen flight tank is complete. And we are doing phased array ultrasonic testing right now!”

SLS is the most powerful booster the world has even seen and one day soon will propel NASA astronauts in the agency’s Orion crew capsule on exciting missions of exploration to deep space destinations including the Moon, Asteroids and Mars – venturing further out than humans ever have before!

The LH2 ‘qualification test article’ was welded together using the world’s largest welder – known as the Vertical Assembly Center, or VAC, at Michoud.

And it’s a giant! – measuring approximately 130-feet in length and 27.6 feet (8.4 m) in diameter.

See my exclusive up close photos herein documenting the newly completed tank as the first media to visit the first SLS tank. I saw the big tank shortly after it was carefully lifted out of the welder and placed horizontally on a storage cradle on Michoud’s factory floor.

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 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

Finishing its assembly after years of meticulous planning and hard work paves the path to enabling the maiden test launch of the SLS heavy lifter in the fall of 2018 from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

The qual test article is the immediate precursor to the actual first LH2 flight tank now being welded.

“We will finish welding the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen flight tanks by September,” Whipps told Universe Today.

Up close view of the dome of the newly assembled first ever liquid hydrogen test tank for NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket on July 22, 2016  after it was welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Sensors will be attached to both ends for upcoming structural loads and proof testing.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of the dome of the newly assembled first ever liquid hydrogen test tank for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket on July 22, 2016 after it was welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Sensors will be attached to both ends for upcoming structural loads and proof testing. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Technicians assembled the LH2 tank by feeding the individual metallic components into NASA’s gigantic “Welding Wonder” machine – as its affectionately known – at Michoud, thus creating a rigid 13 story tall structure.

The welding work was just completed this past week on the massive silver colored structure. It was removed from the VAC welder and placed horizontally on a cradle.

I watched along as the team was also already hard at work fabricating SLS’s first liquid hydrogen flight article tank in the VAC, right beside the qualification tank resting on the floor.

Welding of the other big fuel tank, the liquid oxygen (LOX) qualification and flight article tanks will follow quickly inside the impressive ‘Welding Wonder’ machine, Nesselroad explained.

The LH2 and LOX tanks sit on top of one another inside the SLS outer skin.

The SLS core stage – or first stage – is mostly comprised of the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen cryogenic fuel storage tanks which store the rocket propellants at super chilled temperatures. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage.

To prove that the new welding machines would work as designed, NASA opted “for a 3 stage assembly philosophy,” Whipps explained.

Engineers first “welded confidence articles for each of the tank sections” to prove out the welding techniques “and establish a learning curve for the team and test out the software and new weld tools. We learned a lot from the weld confidence articles!”

“On the heels of that followed the qualification weld articles” for tank loads testing.

“The qualification articles are as ‘flight-like’ as we can get them! With the expectation that there are still some tweaks coming.”

“And finally that leads into our flight hardware production welding and manufacturing the actual flight unit tanks for launches.”

“All the confidence articles and the LH2 qualification article are complete!”

What’s the next step for the LH2 tank?

The test article tank will be outfitted with special sensors and simulators attached to each end to record reams of important engineering data, thereby extending it to about 185 feet in length.

Thereafter it will loaded onto the Pegasus barge and shipped to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for structural loads testing on one of two new test stands currently under construction for the tanks. The tests are done to prove that the tanks can withstand the extreme stresses of spaceflight and safely carry our astronauts to space.

“We are manufacturing the simulators for each of the SLS elements now for destructive tests – for shipment to Marshall. It will test all the stress modes, and finally to failure to see the process margins.”

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
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

The SLS core stage builds on heritage from NASA’s Space Shuttle Program and is based on the shuttle’s External Tank (ET). All 135 ET flight units were built at Michoud during the thirty year long shuttle program by Lockheed Martin.

“We saved billions of dollars and years of development effort vs. starting from a clean sheet of paper design, by taking aspects of the shuttle … and created an External Tank type generic structure – with the forward avionics on top and the complex engine section with 4 engines (vs. 3 for shuttle) on the bottom,” Whipps elaborated.

“This is truly an engineering marvel like the External Tank was – with its strength that it had and carrying the weight that it did. If you made our ET the equivalent of a Coke can, our thickness was about 1/5 of a coke can.”

“It’s a tremendous engineering job. But the ullage pressures in the LOX and LH2 tanks are significantly more and the systems running down the side of the SLS tank are much more sophisticated. Its all significantly more complex with the feed lines than what we did for the ET. But we brought forward the aspects and designs that let us save time and money and we knew were effective and reliable.”

The Vertical Weld Center tool used to fabricate barrel segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks via vertical friction stir welding operations at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Vertical Weld Center tool used to fabricate barrel segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks via vertical friction stir welding operations at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SLS core stage is comprised of five major structures: the forward skirt, the liquid oxygen tank (LOX), the intertank, the liquid hydrogen tank (LH2) and the engine section.

The LH2 and LOX tanks feed the cryogenic propellants into the first stage engine propulsion section which is powered by a quartet of RS-25 engines – modified space shuttle main engines (SSMEs) – and a pair of enhanced five segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) also derived from the shuttles four segment boosters.

The tanks are assembled by joining previously manufactured dome, ring and barrel components together in the Vertical Assembly Center by a process known as friction stir welding. The rings connect and provide stiffness between the domes and barrels.

The LH2 tank is the largest major part of the SLS core stage. It holds 537,000 gallons of super chilled liquid hydrogen. It is comprised of 5 barrels, 2 domes, and 2 rings.

The LOX tank holds 196,000 pounds of liquid oxygen. It is assembled from 2 barrels, 2 domes, and 2 rings and measures over 50 feet long.

The material of construction of the tanks has changed compared to the ET.

“The tanks are constructed of a material called the Aluminum 2219 alloy,” said Whipps. “It’s a ubiquosly used aerospace alloy with some copper but no lithium, unlike the shuttle superlightweight ET tanks that used Aluminum 2195. The 2219 has been a success story for the welding. This alloy is heavier but does not affect our payload potential.”

“The intertanks are the only non welded structure. They are bolted together and we are manufacturing them also. It’s much heavier and thicker.”

Overall, the SLS core stage towers over 212 feet (64.6 meters) tall and sports a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 m).

NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Center is the world’s largest robotic weld tool. The domes and barrels are assembled from smaller panels and piece parts using other dedicated robotic welding machines at Michoud.

The total weight of the whole core stage empty is 188,000 pounds and 2.3 million pounds when fully loaded with propellant. The empty ET weighed some 55,000 pounds.

Considering that the entire Shuttle ET was 154-feet long, the 130-foot long LH2 tank alone isn’t much smaller and gives perspective on just how big it really is as the largest rocket fuel tank ever built.

“So far all the parts of the SLS rocket are coming along well.”

“The Michoud SLS workforce totals about 1000 to 1500 people between NASA and the contractors.”

Every fuel tank welded together from now on after this series of confidence and qualification LOX and LH2 tanks will be actual flight article tanks for SLS launches.

“There are no plans to weld another qualification tank after this,” Nesselroad confirmed to me.

What’s ahead for the SLS-2 core stage?

“We start building the second SLS flight tanks in October of this year – 2016!” Nesselroad stated.

The world’s largest welder was specifically designed to manufacture the core stage of the world’s most powerful rocket – NASA’s SLS.

The Vertical Assembly Center welder was officially opened for business at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was personally on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the base of the huge VAC welder.

The state-of-the-art welding giant stands 170 feet tall and 78 feet wide. It complements the world-class welding toolkit being used to assemble various pieces of the SLS core stage including the domes, rings and barrels that have been previously manufactured.

The Gore Weld Tool (foreground) and  Circumferential Dome Weld Tool (background) Center tool used to fabricate dome segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks via vertical friction stir welding operations at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Gore Weld Tool (foreground) and Circumferential Dome Weld Tool (background) used to fabricate dome segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks via vertical friction stir welding operations at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The maiden test flight of the SLS/Orion is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured 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.

Although the SLS-1 flight in 2018 will be uncrewed, NASA plans to launch astronauts on the SLS-2/EM-2 mission slated for the 2021 to 2023 timeframe.

The exact launch dates fully depend on the budget NASA receives from Congress and who is elected President in the November 2016 election – and whether they maintain or modify NASA’s objectives.

“If we can keep our focus and keep delivering, and deliver to the schedules, the budgets and the promise of what we’ve got, I think we’ve got a very capable vision that actually moves the nation very far forward in moving human presence into space,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, during the post QM-2 SRB test media briefing in Utah last month.

“This is a very capable system. It’s not built for just one or two flights. It is actually built for multiple decades of use that will enable us to eventually allow humans to go to Mars in the 2030s.”

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
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

………….

Learn more about SLS and Orion crew vehicle, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Juno at Jupiter, Orbital ATK Antares & Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

July 27-28: “ULA Atlas V NRO Spysat launch July 28, SpaceX launch to ISS on CRS-9, SLS, Orion, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy NRO spy satellite, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

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
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
At NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Patrick Whipps/NASA SLS Stages Element Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss details of SLS manufacture by the Circumferential Dome Weld Tool used to fabricate dome segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
At NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Patrick Whipps/NASA SLS Stages Element Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss details of SLS manufacture by the Circumferential Dome Weld Tool used to fabricate dome segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC
Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC

NASA Completes Awesome Test Firing of World’s Most Powerful Booster for Human Mission to Mars – Gallery

Ignition of the qualification motor (QM-2) booster during test firing for NASA’s Space Launch System as seen on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion System's (SLS) test facilities in Promontory, Utah.  Credit: Julian Leek
Ignition of the qualification motor (QM-2) booster during test firing for NASA’s Space Launch System as seen on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion System’s (SLS) test facilities in Promontory, Utah. Credit: Julian Leek

The world’s most powerful booster that will one day propel NASA astronauts on exciting missions of exploration to deep space destinations including the Moon and Mars was successfully ignited this morning, June 28, during an awesome ground test firing on a remote mountainside in Utah, that qualifies it for an inaugural blastoff in late 2018.

The two-minute-long, full-duration static test for NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket involved firing the new five-segment solid rocket booster for its second and final qualification ground test as it sat restrained in a horizontal configuration at Orbital ATK’s test facilities at a desert site in Promontory, Utah.

The purpose was to provide NASA and prime contractor Orbital ATK with critical data on 82 qualification objectives. Engineers will use the data gathered by more than 530 instrumentation channels on the booster to certify the booster for flight.

The 154-foot-long (47-meter) booster was fired up on the test stand by the Orbital ATK operations team at 11:05 a.m. EDT (9:05 a.m. MT) for what is called the Qualification Motor-2 (QM-2) test.

“We have ignition of NASA’s Space Launch System motor powering us on our Journey to Mars,” said NASA commentator Kim Henry at ignition!

A gigantic plume of black smoke and intense yellow fire erupted at ignition spewing a withering cloud of ash into the Utah air and barren mountainside while consuming propellant at a rate of 5.5 tons per second.

It also sent out a shock wave reverberating back to excited company, NASA and media spectators witnessing the event from about a mile away as well as to another 10,000 or so space enthusiasts and members of the general public gathered to watch from about 2 miles away.

Ignition of the qualification motor (QM-2) booster during test firing for NASA’s Space Launch System as seen on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion System's (SLS) test facilities in Promontory, Utah.  Credit: Julian Leek
Ignition of the qualification motor (QM-2) booster during test firing for NASA’s Space Launch System as seen on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion System’s (SLS) test facilities in Promontory, Utah. Credit: Julian Leek

“What an absolutely amazing day today for all of us here to witness this test firing. And it’s not just a test firing. It’s really a qualification motor test firing that says this design is ready to go fly and ready to go do the mission which it’s designed to go do,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, during the post QM-2 test media briefing today.

Thrilled spectators witness the Qualification Motor-2 (QM-2) test firing on June 28, 2016 at Orbital ATK test facilities in Promontory, Utah.  Credit: Jean Leek
Thrilled spectators witness the Qualification Motor-2 (QM-2) test firing on June 28, 2016 at Orbital ATK test facilities in Promontory, Utah. Credit: Jean Leek

The critically important test marks a major milestone clearing the path to the first SLS launch that could happen as soon as September 2018, noted Gerstenmaier

“The team did a tremendous professional job to get all this ready for the firing. We will get over 500 channels of data on this rocket. They will pour over the data to ensure it will perform exactly the way we intended it to at these cold conditions.”

Qualification motor (QM-2) booster fires up erupting massive smoke cloud during test of NASA’s Space Launch System on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK test facilities in Promontory, Utah.  Credit: Dawn Taylor
Qualification motor (QM-2) booster fires up erupting massive smoke cloud during test of NASA’s Space Launch System on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK test facilities in Promontory, Utah. Credit: Dawn Taylor

The QM-2 booster had been pre-chilled for several weeks inside a huge test storage shed to conduct this so called ‘cold motor test’ at approximately 40 degrees Fahrenheit (5 C) – corresponding to the colder end of its accepted propellant temperature range.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with lift off using two of the five segment solid rocket motors and four RS-25 engines to power the maiden launch of SLS and NASA’s Orion deep space manned spacecraft in late 2018.

The SLS boosters are derived from the four segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) originally delevoped for NASA’s space shuttle program and used for 3 decades.

“This final qualification test of the booster system shows real progress in the development of the Space Launch System,” said NASA associate administrator Gerstenmaier.

“Seeing this test today, and experiencing the sound and feel of approximately 3.6 million pounds of thrust, helps us appreciate the progress we’re making to advance human exploration and open new frontiers for science and technology missions in deep space.”

Despite being cooled to 41 F (5 C) for the cold motor test the flames emitted by the 12-foot-diameter (3.6-meter) booster are actually hot enough at some 6000 degrees Fahrenheit to boil steel.

The internal pressure reaches about 900 psi.

NASA's Space Launch System Solid Rocket Booster infographic
NASA’s Space Launch System Solid Rocket Booster infographic

The first ground test called QM-1 was conducted at 90 degrees Fahrenheit, at the upper end of the operating range, in March 2015 as I reported earlier here.

This second ground test firing took place about 1 hour later than originally planned due to a technical issue with the ground sequencing computer control system.

The next time one of these solid rocket boosters fire will be for the combined SLS-1/Orion EM-1 test flight in late 2018.

Each booster generates approximately 3.6 million pounds of thrust. Overall they will provide more than 75 percent of the thrust needed for the rocket and Orion spacecraft to escape Earth’s gravitational pull, says NASA.

“It was awesome to say the least,” space photographer and friend Julian Leek who witnessed the test first hand told Universe Today.

“Massive fire power released over the Utah mountains. There was about a five second delay before you could hear the sound – that really got everyone’s attention!”

“It was absolutely magnificent,” space photographer friend Dawn Taylor told me. “Can’t wait to see it at the Cape when it goes vertical.”

To date Orbital ATK has cast 3 of the 10 booster segments required for the 2018 launch, said Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of Orbital ATK’s Propulsion Systems Division in Promontory, Utah.

I asked Precourt about the production timing for the remaining segments.

“All of the segments will be delivered to NASA at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida by next fall,” Precourt replied during the media briefing.

“They will be produced at a rate of roughly one a month. We also have to build the nozzles up and so forth.”

When will booster stacking begin inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at KSC?

Booster shipments start shipping from Utah this fall. Booster stacking in the VAB starts in the spring of 2018,” Alex Priskos, manager of the NASA SLS Boosters Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, told me.

Furthermore a preliminary look at the data indicates that all went well.

“What an outstanding test. After a look at some very preliminary data everything looks great so far,” Priskos said at the briefing. “We’re going to be digging into the data a lot more as we go forward.”

The five-segment Qualification Motor-2 (QM-2) test booster for NASA's SLS just prior to full duration firing at Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah, on June 28, 2016.  Credit: Julian Leek
The spent five-segment Qualification Motor-2 (QM-2) test booster for NASA’s SLS soon after the full duration firing at Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah, on June 28, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

Meanwhile the buildup of US flight hardware continues at NASA and contractor centers around the US, as well as the Orion service module from ESA.

The maiden test flight of the SLS/Orion is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds.

In February 2016 the welded skeletal backbone for the Orion EM-1 mission arrived at the Kennedy Space Center for outfitting with all the systems and subsystems necessary for flight.

The core stage fuel tank holding the cryogenic liquid oxygen and hydrogen propellants is being welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, LA.

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
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

Although the SLS-1 flight in 2018 will be uncrewed, NASA plans to launch astronauts on the SLS-2/EM-2 mission slated for the 2021 to 2023 timeframe.

It all depends on the budget NASA receives from Congress and who is elected President in the election in November 2016.

“If we can keep our focus and keep delivering, and deliver to the schedules, the budgets and the promise of what we’ve got, I think we’ve got a very capable vision that actually moves the nation very far forward in moving human presence into space,” Gerstenmaier explained at the briefing.

“This is a very capable system. It’s not built for just one or two flights. It is actually built for multiple decades of use that will enable us to eventually allow humans to go to Mars in the 2030s.

One forerunner to the Mars mission could be a habitation module around the Moon perhaps five years from now.

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

Ken Kremer

An Orbital ATK technician inspects hardware and instrumentation on a full-scale, test version booster for NASA's new rocket, the Space Launch System. The booster is being cooled to approximately 40 degrees Fahrenheit ahead of its second qualification ground test June 28 at Orbital ATK's test facilities in Promontory, Utah. Testing at the thermal extremes experienced by the booster on the launch pad is important to understanding the effects of temperature on the performance of how the propellant burns.   Credits: Orbital ATK
An Orbital ATK technician inspects hardware and instrumentation on a full-scale, test version booster for NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System. The booster is being cooled to approximately 40 degrees Fahrenheit ahead of its second qualification ground test June 28 at Orbital ATK’s test facilities in Promontory, Utah. Testing at the thermal extremes experienced by the booster on the launch pad is important to understanding the effects of temperature on the performance of how the propellant burns. Credits: Orbital ATK
The second and final qualification motor (QM-2) test for the Space Launch System’s booster is seen, Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion Systems test facilities in Promontory, Utah. During the Space Launch System flight the boosters will provide more than 75 percent of the thrust needed to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth, the first step on NASA’s Journey to Mars. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The second and final qualification motor (QM-2) test for the Space Launch System’s booster is seen, Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion Systems test facilities in Promontory, Utah. During the Space Launch System flight the boosters will provide more than 75 percent of the thrust needed to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth, the first step on NASA’s Journey to Mars. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Mountainside test location for the Qualification motor-2 (QM-2) test of the 5-segment solid rocket motor designed for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) at Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah, on June 28, 2016.  Credit: Julian Leek
Mountainside test location for the Qualification motor-2 (QM-2) test of the 5-segment solid rocket motor designed for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) at Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah, on June 28, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
The five-segment Qualification motor-2 (QM-2) test booster for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) being readied for full duration firing at Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah, on June 28, 2016.  Credit: NASA
The five-segment Qualification motor-2 (QM-2) test booster for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) being readied for full duration firing at Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah, on June 28, 2016. Credit: NASA

Orbital ATK Proposes Man-Tended Lunar-Orbit Outpost by 2020 for Link Up with NASA’s Orion

Artist rendering of Orbital ATK concept for an initial lunar habitat outpost, as it would appear with NASA’s Orion spacecraft in 2021. Credit: Orbital ATK
Artist rendering of Orbital ATK concept for an initial lunar habitat outpost, as it would appear with NASA’s Orion spacecraft in 2021. Credit: Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK has unveiled a practical new proposal to build a near term man-tended outpost in lunar orbit that could launch by 2020 and be operational in time for a lunar link-up with NASA’s Orion crew module during its maiden mission, when American astronauts finally return to the Moon’s vicinity in 2021 – thus advancing America’s next giant leap in human exploration of deep space.

The intrepid offer by Orbital could be carried out rather quickly because it utilizes an evolved version of the company’s already proven commercial Cygnus space station resupply freighter as “the building block … in cislunar space,” said Frank DeMauro, Orbital ATK Vice President for Human Spaceflight Systems, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. See an artist concept in the lead image.

“Our Cygnus spacecraft is the building block to become a vehicle for exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” Orbital ATK’s Frank DeMauro told Universe Today.

“We are all about supporting NASA’s Mission to Mars. We feel that getting experience in cislunar space is critical to the buildup of the capabilities to go to Mars.”

NASA’s agency wide goal is to send astronauts on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s – and expeditions to cislunar space in the 2020s serve as the vital ‘proving ground’ to fully develop, test out and validate the robustness of crucial technologies upon which the astronauts lives will depend on later Red Planet missions lasting some 2 to 3 years.

Orbital ATK’s lunar-orbit outpost proposal was announced at an official hearing of the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space on Wednesday, May 18, by former NASA Astronaut and Orbital ATK President of the Space Systems Group, Frank Culbertson.

“A lunar-orbit habitat will extend America’s leadership in space to the cislunar domain,” said Orbital ATK President of the Space Systems Group, Frank Culbertson.

“A robust program to build, launch and operate this initial outpost would be built on NASA’s and our international partners’ experience gained in long-duration human space flight on the International Space Station and would make use of the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion deep-space transportation system.”

The idea is to assemble an initial crew-tended habitat with pressurized work and living volume for the astronauts based on a Cygnus derived vehicle, and have it pre-positioned and functioning in lunar-orbit by 2020.

As envisioned by Orbital ATK, the habitat would be visited during NASA’s first manned mission of SLS and Orion to the Moon known as Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2).

The three week long EM-2 lunar test flight could launch as early as August 2021 – if sufficient funding is available.

The goals of EM-2 and following missions could be significantly broadened via docking with a lunar outpost. And Orion mission durations could be extended to 60 days.

NASA hopes to achieve a launch cadence for Orion/SLS of perhaps once per year.

Therefore autonomy and crew tended capability has to be built in to the lunar habitat right from the start – since crew visits would account for only a fraction of its time but enable vastly expanded science and exploration capabilities.

The initial lunar habitat envisioned by Orbital ATK would be comprised of two upgraded Cygnus pressurized vehicles – provisionally dubbed as Exploration Augmentation Modules (EAM). They would be attached to a multi-port docking module very similar in concept and design to the docking Nodes already flying in orbit as integral components of the ISS.

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The lunar Cygnus vehicles would be upgraded from the enhanced cargo ships currently being manufactured and launched to the ISS.

“There are additional capabilities that we can put into the Cygnus module. We can make them longer and bigger so they can carry more logistics and carry more science,” DeMauro elaborated.

A variety of supplementary subsystems would also need to be enhanced.

“We looked at what systems we would need to modify to make it a long term habitation module. Since we would not be docked to the ISS, we would need our own Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) out at lunar orbit to support the crew.”

“The service module would also need to be improved due to the high radiation environment and the longer time.”

“We also need to look at the thermal protection subsystem, radiation protection subsystem and power subsystems to support the vehicle for many years as opposed to the short time spent at the ISS. More power is also needed to support more science. We also need a propulsion system to get to the Moon and maintain the vehicle.”

“All that work is getting looked at now – to determine what we need to modify and upgrade and how we would do all that work,” DaMauro told me.

The habitat components would be launched to the Moon on a commercial launch vehicle.

High on the list of candidate launchers would be the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket which recently already successfully delivered two Cygnus cargo ships to the ISS in Dec. 2015 and March 2016.

Other potential boosters include the ULA Delta IV and even ESA’s Ariane V as a way to potentially include international participation.

Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being prepared for the upcoming Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the commander of the STS-107 mission. On that flight, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being prepared for the upcoming Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the commander of the STS-107 mission. On that flight, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Cygnus launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The habitat components could be manufactured and launched about three years after getting a ‘Go Ahead’ contract from NASA.

Orbital ATK already has an established production line flowing to manufacture a steady stream of Cygnus cargo freighters to fulfill their NASA commercial resupply contract with NASA for the ISS – accumulating know how and cost reduction efficiencies.

“Since many aspects of operations in deep space are as yet untested, confidence must be developed through repeated flights to, and relatively long-duration missions in, cislunar space,” says Culbertson.

“Orbital ATK continues to operate our Cygnus cargo logistics vehicle as a flagship product, so we are ready to quickly and affordably implement an initial Cygnus-derived habitat in cislunar space within three years of a go-ahead.”

Over time, the outpost could be expanded with additional habitat and research modules delivered by Orion/SLS, commercial or international rockets. Perhaps even Bigelow expandable commercial modules could be added later.

Cygnus is suitable for wide ranging science experiments and gear. It could also launch cubesats – like the current Cygnus berthed at the ISS is equipped with a cubesat deployer.

Potential lunar landers developed by international partners could dock at the cislunar habitats open docking ports in between surface science forays.

“We are doing science now on Cygnus and we would expect to carry along science experiments on the new Cygnus vehicle. The vehicle is very attractive to science experiments,” DeMauro explained.

“There really is no limit to what the outpost could become.”

“What we put out is very exciting,” DeMauro noted.

“As a company we are looking forward to working in this arena. Our suggested plans are in line with where NASA wants to go. And we think we are the right company to play a big part in that!”

By incorporating commercial companies and leveraging the considerable technology development lessons learned from Cygnus, NASA should realize significant cost savings in implementing its human exploration strategy. Although Orbital ATK is not divulging a cost estimate for the lunar habitat at this time, the cost savings from a commercial partner should be considerable. And the 3 year time frame to launch is very attractive.

Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet. Cygnus derived modules and/or other augmenting hardware components will be required to carry out any round trip human missions to the Martian surface.

NASA is now building the next Orion capsule at the Kennedy Space Center. It will launch unpiloted atop the first SLS rocket in late 2018 on the EM-1 mission.

Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians prepare the Orion pressure vessel for a series of tests inside the proof pressure cell in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians prepare the Orion pressure vessel for a series of tests inside the proof pressure cell in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

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

Ken Kremer

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
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’s Orion EM-1 Crew Module Passes Critical Pressure Tests

Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians prepare the Orion pressure vessel for a series of tests inside the proof pressure cell in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians prepare the Orion pressure vessel for a series of tests inside the proof pressure cell in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The next Orion crew module in line to launch to space on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) has passed a critical series of proof pressure tests which confirm the effectiveness of the welds holding the spacecraft structure together.

Any leaks occurring in flight could threaten the astronauts lives.

Engineers and technicians conducted the pressure tests on the Orion EM-1 pressure vessel, which was welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and then shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida just 3 months ago.

The pressure vessel is the structural backbone for the vehicles that will launch American astronauts to deep space destinations.

“This is the first mission where the Orion spacecraft will be integrated with the large Space Launch System rocket. Orion is the vehicle that’s going to take astronauts to deep space,” NASA Orion program manager Scott Wilson told Universe Today.

“The tests confirmed that the weld points of the underlying structure will contain and protect astronauts during the launch, in-space, re-entry and landing phases on the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), when the spacecraft performs its first uncrewed test flight atop the Space Launch System rocket,” according to a NASA statement.

After flying to KSC on Feb 1, 2016 inside NASA’s unique Super Guppy aircraft, this “new and improved” Orion EM-1 pressure vessel was moved to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building for final assembly by prime contractor Lockheed Martin into a flight worthy vehicle.

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
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

Since then, technicians have worked to meticulously attach hundreds of strain gauges to the interior and exterior surfaces of the vehicle to prepare for the pressure tests.

The strain gauges provide real time data to the analysts monitoring the changes during the pressurization.

Orion was moved to a test stand inside the proof pressure cell high bay and locked inside behind large doors.

Lockheed Martin engineers then incrementally increased the pressure in the proof testing cell in a series of steps over two days. They carefully monitored the results along the way and how the spacecraft reacted to the stresses induced by the pressure increases.

The maximum pressure reached was 1.25 times normal atmospheric pressure – which exceeds the maximum pressure it is expected to encounter on orbit.

“We are very pleased with the performance of the spacecraft during proof pressure testing,” said Scott Wilson, NASA manager of production operations for the Orion Program.

“The successful completion of this test represents another major step forward in our march toward completing the EM-1 spacecraft, and ultimately, our crewed missions to deep 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
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

With the pressure testing satisfactorily completed, technicians will move Orion back to birdcage assembly stand for the “intricate work of attaching hundreds of brackets to the vessel’s exterior to hold the tubing for the vehicle’s hydraulics and other systems.”

To prepare for launch in 2018, engineers and technicians from NASA and prime contractor Lockheed Martin will spend the next two years meticulously installing all the systems amounting to over 100,000 components and gear required for flight.

This particular ‘Lunar Orion’ crew module is intended for blastoff to the Moon in 2018 on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) atop the agency’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, simultaneously under development. The pressurized crew module serves as the living quarters for the astronauts comprising up to four crew members.

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
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

EM-1 itself is a ‘proving ground’ mission that will fly an unmanned Orion thousands of miles beyond the Moon, further than any human capable vehicle, and back to Earth, over the course of a three-week mission.

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.

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

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com