Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: This week we welcome Stephen Fowler, who is the Creative Director at InfoAge, the organization behind refurbishing the TIROS 1 dish and the Science History Learning Center and Museum at Camp Evans, Wall, NJ.
The first solid rocket booster qualification motor for NASA’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is aimed and ready to fire in a major ground test after NASA and ATK finished its installation at a test stand in Utah, and confirms that the pace of SLS development is gaining momentum.
The booster known as qualification motor, QM-1, is the largest solid rocket motor ever built and will be ignited on March 11 for a full duration static fire test by prime contractor ATK at the firms test facility in Promontory, Utah.
The two minute test firing of the full scale booster marks another major milestone in NASA’s ongoing program to assemble and launch the new SLS, which is the most powerful rocket ever built in human history.
The QM-1 booster is being conditioned to 90 degrees and the static fire test will qualify the booster design for high temperature launch conditions. It sits horizontally in the test stand and measures 154 feet in length and 12 feet in diameter and weighs 801 tons.
The five-segment booster will produce 3.6 million pounds of maximum thrust.
The first stage of the SLS will be powered by a pair of the five-segment boosters and four RS-25 engines that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust and is designed to propel the Orion crew capsule to deep space destinations, including the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.
“With RS-25 engine testing underway, and this qualification booster firing coming up, we are taking big steps toward building this rocket and fulfilling NASA’s mission of Mars and beyond,” said SLS Program Manager Todd May.
“This is the most advanced propulsion system ever built and will power this rocket to places we’ve never reached in the history of human spaceflight.”
NASA’s goal is to launch humans to Mars by the 2030s.
The boosters and RS-25 engines were originally developed for NASA’s space shuttle program and are being modified and enhanced for NASA’s new SLS rocket.
The original shuttle-era boosters were made of four segments.
“Testing before flight is critical to ensure reliability and safety when launching crew into space,” said Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of ATK’s Space Launch division.
“The QM-1 static test is an important step in further qualifying this new five-segment solid rocket motor for the subsequent planned missions to send astronauts to deep space.”
The static fire test will collect data on 103 design objectives as measured through more than 534 instrumentation channels on the booster as it is firing. It is being preheated to 90 degrees Fahrenheit to measure the boosters performance at high temperatures and confirm it meets all necessary structural and ballistic requirements to launch astronauts.
The test will evaluate motor performance, acoustics, motor vibrations, nozzle modifications, insulation upgrades and avionics command and control performance. The full-scale motor test will further improve the safety, technology and knowledge of solid rocket motors, according to ATK.
The first SLS hot fire test of an RS-25 was successfully completed on Jan. 9 with a 500 second long firing on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, as I reported – here.
The SLS core stage is being built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
On Sept. 12, 2014, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveiled the world’s largest welder at Michoud, that will be used to construct the core stage, as I reported earlier during my on-site visit – here.
The maiden test flight of the SLS 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. It will boost an unmanned Orion on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.
NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.
The first SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.
An idea too good to die, or a case of recycle, reuse, reduce? Two rocket companies are joining forces to use part of the Ares-1 rocket and combine it with elements of the Ariane 5 launcher to create a new launch system called Liberty that they say will “close the US human spaceflight gap.” US company ATK (Alliant Techsystems) and the European firm Astrium announced their collaboration today on a 90-meter (300-ft) rocket that would fit under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development-2 (CCDev-2) procurement. The companies say the new rocket could be ready by 2013.
“This team represents the true sense of international partnership in that we looked across borders to find the best for our customers,” said Blake Larson, President of ATK Aerospace Systems Group in a press release. “Together we combine unique flight-proven systems and commercial experience that allows us to offer the market’s most capable launch vehicle along with flexibility to meet a wide variety of emerging needs. Liberty provides greater performance at less cost than any other comparable launch vehicle.”
The partners say Liberty would be much cheaper than the Ares I, because the unfinished upper stage of the Ares I would be replaced with the first stage of the Ariane 5, which has been launched successfully 41 consecutive times. The lower stage of the Liberty, a longer version of the shuttle booster built by ATK, would be almost the same as what was built for Ares-1.
Since both stages were designed for human-rating, the collaborators say this “would enable unmatched crew safety.” The team has planned an initial flight by the end of 2013, a second test flight in 2014, and operational capability in 2015.
Liberty would be able to deliver 20,000 kg (44,500 lbs) to the International Space Station’s orbit, which would give it a launch capability to carry any crew vehicle in development. This is less payload capability, however, than the 25-ton payload that the Ares-1 was advertised to deliver to the ISS.
With the announcement of the collaboration (and quick turn-around) the companies are hoping to be the recipient of some of the $200 million in funding NASA is planning to give out in March 2011 to private companies that are developing space taxis. Smaller NewSpace companies like SpaceX and , Orbital, along with big companies Lockheed Martin and Boeing are all vying for the CCDev-2 contracts.
With some space experts and Congress expressing concern about the length of time it might take for commercial companies to provide reliable transportation to space, as well as concerns about relying on the Russian Soyuz vehicles, this new collaboration could fit NASA’s needs nicely. Plus, the collaborators are hoping the new Liberty rocket will be a bargain compared to other contenders. They are targeting a price of $180 million per launch, which is slightly less than the Atlas V rocket launches by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin United Launch Alliance, ($187 million).
The two companies have touted the new rockets’ ability to carry a wide array of spacecraft and satellites.
“The Liberty initiative provides tremendous value because it builds on European Ariane 5 launcher heritage, while allowing NASA to leverage the mature first stage,” said former NASA astronaut Charlie Precourt, Vice President and General Manager of ATK Space Launch Systems. “We will provide unmatched payload performance at a fraction of the cost, and we will launch it from the Kennedy Space Center using facilities that have already been built. This approach allows NASA to utilize the investments that have already been made in our nation’s ground infrastructure and propulsion systems for the Space Exploration Program.”
If NASA chooses the Liberty system and it works well, it could mean that the money NASA spent on the Ares rocket was not wasted after all.
The deserts of Promontory, Utah came alive with fire as NASA and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) tested the Development Motor-2 (DM-2). The five-segment, first-stage of the Ares rocket was activated at 9:27 a.m. MDT on Aug. 31. The still morning air surrendered its silence to the sound of unleashed technological thunder. The surrounding countryside was bathed in the colors of flame as a huge plume of hot exhaust and smoke shot out the back of the solid motor. However, ATK was racking up another successful test – to a system with a future in doubt.
The DM-2 is a test-article for the Ares family of rockets, which as part of the Constellation Program, has been targeted for cancellation. President Obama has worked since the beginning of this year to scrap almost every element of the Constellation Program. These plans to transform the U.S. manned space program have cost him support across the country – and within his own party.
Obama’s new agenda for NASA caused a strong Congressional reaction, with two separate bills drafted countering the White House’s proposal. These bills are attempting to seek a “middle-ground” between the “program of record” (Constellation) and the new Obama plan. Both the House and Senate issued competing (and radically different) bills. As it currently stands, NASA has no clear path forward and is kept in a holding pattern until the future of U.S. manned space flight is determined by lawmakers in Washington D.C. This leaves the fate of the Ares family of rockets up in the air.
Despite concerns about what ATK’s future may hold – company personnel remained optimistic. They cite the fact that in terms of technical expertise and know-how, few companies can compete with the experience that the Maryland-based rocket manufacturer has.
“In terms of harnessing this kind of energy, it’s a very challenging engineering task,” said Charlie Precourt, a four-time shuttle astronaut and ATK’s vice president and general manager of Space Launch Systems. “The skills required to complete these engineering tasks is being addressed by the decision-makers, to ensure that the critical skills and the performance capabilities that we have build up over many years endure into the next generation.”
ATK meanwhile continues to work on other components of the Ares and Orion systems. The Launch Abort System (LAS), parachute system for the upper Ares upper stage, and Attitude Control Motor (ACM) are all built by ATK and tested by the firm’s technicians and engineers.
The DM-2 test was conducted to gain data on some 53 designs incorporated in this system. Some of the elements tested include the redesigned rocket nozzle, new insulation used in this design and the motor casing’s liner. When activated the DM-2 produced an estimated 3.6 million pounds of thrust – equaling 22 million horsepower. The motor had 760 instruments incorporated into it these instruments worked to collect vital information regarding the rocket’s performance when it was fired. This makes the test fire of the DM-2 the most heavily-instrumented solid rocket motor test in NASA history.
The horizontal ground test firing is what is known as a “cold motor” test. This is accomplished by chilling the DM-2 down to 40 degrees F. This is done to measure how the motor performs at very low temperatures. The test also was held to prove out design specifications of new materials used in the motor joints.
These new elements will eliminate the need for the joint heaters that are currently used. (these heaters were required in the 4-segment version of the motor’s design). It is hoped that with the addition of these new modifications weight will be dramatically reduced, launch operations will be simplified and the overall system will be far less complex.
DM-2 is a combination of Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) segments that have flown on 57 shuttle missions total. These segments are recycled after every mission. Once they have been jettisoned from the space shuttle they are recovered out in the Atlantic Ocean by recovery ships (named Freedom Star and Liberty Star). From there, they are shipped back to ATK’s plant where they are broken down into segments again and refurbished for the next mission.
ATK highlighted that most space-faring nations utilize solid rocket motors for their space flight programs. The U.S., Japan and Europe all incorporate solid rocket into their launch vehicles.
“If you look at the physics of putting something in space, you have to get to this magic speed of 17,500 miles-per-hour,” said Michael Bllomfield, three-time shuttle astronaut who now ATK’s vice president of Johnson Space Center (JSC) Operations. “the most efficient launch profile uses a combination of solids and liquids.”
The day prior to the test ominous storm clouds had encircled ATK’s test site. The rain and lightning that followed seem to underscore the condition in which the solid rocket manufacturer now finds itself. The following day they went about their duties despite the uncertainty that they currently face. With the shuttle program coming to an end and the future use of solid rockets placed in doubt, only time will tell if the company that provided the U.S. space program with its heavy lift capabilities for the past 30 years can weather the storm.