Construction on the Orion Capsule is Done. Next it’ll be Sent to Florida for Final Assembly

In recent years, NASA has been busy developing the technology and components that will allow astronauts to return to the Moon and conduct the first crewed mission to Mars. These include the Space Launch System (SLS), which will be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V (which brought the Apollo astronauts to the Moon), and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

Continue reading “Construction on the Orion Capsule is Done. Next it’ll be Sent to Florida for Final Assembly”

NASA Moving Ahead with Deployment of Orion Capsule and Space Launch System

On October 11th, 2010, Congress signed the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act, which allocated the necessary funding for the space agency to commence preparations for itsJourney to Mars“. For the sake of mounting the first crewed missions to the Red Planet, several components were designated as being crucial. These included the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

Despite a recent announcement that NASA would be prioritizing a return to the Moon in the coming years, both the SLS and Orion are on track with the eventual goal of mounting crewed missions to Mars. In recent weeks, NASA conducted critical assessments of both components and their proposed launch schedules, and determined that they will be launched together in 2020 for the sake of conducting Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).

This test flight, which will be uncrewed, will test both systems and lay the foundations for the first crewed mission of the SLS and Orion. Known as Exploration Mission- 2 (EM-2), which was originally scheduled for 2021, this flight is now expected to take place in 2023. EM-1 will also serve to establish a regular cadence of mission launches that will take astronauts back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts further into space than ever before using a module based on Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV). Credit: NASA

The recent review came on the heels of an earlier assessment where NASA evaluated the cost, risk and technical factors of adding crew to the mission. This review was initiated as a result of the crew study and the challenges related to building the core stage of the SLS. Foremost among these was the recent tornado damage caused to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the SLS is currently being built.

On top of that, there are also the challenges related to the manufacture and supply of the first Orion Service Module. This module, which is being developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), serves as the Orion’s primary power and propulsion component, until it is discarded at the end of each mission. During the summer of 2016, the design of the Service Module was also the subject of a critical design review, and passed.

After conducting their review, NASA reaffirmed the original plan to fly the EM-1 uncrewed. As acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced in a recent NASA press release:

“While the review of the possible manufacturing and production schedule risks indicate a launch date of June 2020, the agency is managing to December 2019. Since several of the key risks identified have not been actually realized, we are able to put in place mitigation strategies for those risks to protect the December 2019 date.”

In addition, NASA has established new production performance milestones to address a key issue identified by the review, which was scheduling risks. Based on lesson learned from first-time builds, NASA and its contractors have adopted new measures to optimize building plans which will ensure flexibility – specifically if contractors are unable to deliver on schedule.

At this juncture, NASA is on track to develop the new deep space exploration systems that will take astronauts back to the Moon and beyond. Cost assessments for EM-1, which include the SLS and ground systems, are currently within their original targets. By June 2020, NASA estimates that cost overruns will remain within a 15% limit for the SLS and just slightly above for the ground systems.

As part of the review, NASA also considered when the test of the Orion’s launch abort system (which needs to happen ahead of EM-1) would take place – which they chose to move up to April 2019. Known as Ascent-Abort 2, this test will validate the launch abort system’s ability to land the crew safely during descent, and ensure that the agency can remain on track for a crewed flight in 2023.

To build the SLS and Orion, NASA is relying on several new and advanced manufacturing techniques. These include additive manufacturing (3-D printing), which is being used to fashion more than 100 parts for the Orion spacecraft. NASA is also using a technique known as self-reaction friction stir welding to join the two largest core stages of the rocket, which are the thickest structures ever joined using this technique.

Space Launch System (SLS) Block 1 Expanded View. Credit: NASA

Integration of the first service module is well under way in Bremen, Germany, with work already starting on the second. This is taking place at the Airbus integration room, where crews on eight-hour shifts are busy installing more than 11 km (6.8 mi) of cables that will connect the module’s central computers to everything from solar planes and fuel systems to the module’s engines and air and water systems.

These crews also finished installing the Orion’s 24 orientation thrusters recently, which complement the eight larger engines that will back up the main engine. The complex design of the module’s propulsion system requires that some 1100 welds be completed, and only 173 remain. At present, the ESA crews are aiming to finish work on the Orion and ship it to the USA by the summer of 2018.

As far as the assembly of the SLS is concerned, NASA has completed welding on all the major structures to the rocket stages is on track to assemble them together. Once that is complete, they will be able to complete an engine test that will fire up the four RS-25 engines on the core stage simultaneously – the EM-1 “green run”. When EM-1 takes place, the launch will be supported by ground systems and crews at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The agency is also developing a Deep Space Gateway (DSG) concept with Roscosmos and industry partners like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. This space station, which will be placed in orbit around the Moon, will facilitate missions to the lunar surface, Mars, and other locations deeper into the Solar System. Other components currently under consideration include the Deep Space Transport, and the Martian Basecamp and Lander.

These latter two components are what will allow for missions beyond the Earth-Moon system. Whereas the combination of the SLS, Orion and the DSG will allow for renewed lunar missions (which have not taken place since the Apollo Era) the creation of a Deep Space Transport and Martian Basecamp are intrinsic to NASA’s plans to mount a crewed mission to the Red Planet by the 2030s.

But in the meantime, NASA is focused on the first test flight of the Orion and the SLS, which will pave the way towards a crewed mission in a few years’ time. As William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, indicated:

“Hardware progress continues every day for the early flights of SLS and Orion. EM-1 will mark a significant achievement for NASA, and our nation’s future of human deep space exploration. Our investments in SLS and Orion will take us to the Moon and beyond, advancing American leadership in space.”

For almost forty years, no crewed spaceflights have been conducted beyond Low-Earth Orbit. And with the retiring of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has lost the ability to conduct domestic launches. For these reasons, the past three presidential administrations have indicated their commitment to develop the necessary tools to return to the Moon and send astronauts to Mars.

Not only will this restore the United State’s leadership in space exploration, it also will open up new venues for human exploration and create new opportunities for collaboration between nations and between federal agencies and industry partners. And be sure to check out this video showcases NASA’s plans for Deep Space Exploration:

Further Reading: ESA, NASA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s ahead for commercial crew at KSC?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are those KSC facilities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead NASA will keep to the agencies current flight plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

NASA’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 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