NASA Welds First Flight Section of SLS Core Stage for 2018 Maiden Launch

Space Launch System (SLS) core stage engine section finishes welding at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans for maiden flight of SLS rocket. Credit: NASA
Space Launch System (SLS) core stage engine section finishes welding at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans for maiden flight of SLS rocket. Credit: NASA

One weld at a time, the flight hardware for NASA’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) booster has at last started taking shape, promising to turn years of planning and engineering discussions into reality and a rocket that will one day propel our astronauts on a ‘Journey to Mars.’

The first actual SLS flight hardware has been assembled, leaping from engineering blueprints on computer screens to individual metallic components that technicians are feeding into NASA’s gigantic “Welding Wonder” machine at the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

Technicians are bending metal and have now finished welding together the pieces of flight hardware forming the first major SLS flight component – namely the engine section that sits at the base of the SLS core stage.

The engine section of the core stage will house the four RS-25 engines that will power the maiden launch of SLS and NASA’s Orion deep space manned spacecraft in late 2018.

The core stage towers over 212 feet (64.6 meters) tall, sports a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 m) and stores the cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that feeds and fuels the boosters RS-25 engines.

A liquid oxygen tank confidence article for NASA's new rocket, the Space Launch System, completes final welding on the Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: NASA/Michoud/Steven Seipel
A liquid oxygen tank confidence article for NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, completes final welding on the Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: NASA/Michoud/Steven Seipel

SLS will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen. It will propel astronauts in the Orion capsule on deep space missions, first back to the Moon by around 2021, then to an asteroid around 2025 and then beyond to the Red Planet in the 2030s – NASA’s overriding and agency wide goal.

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 welding work is carried out in the massive 170-foot-tall Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) at Michoud. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage.

On Sept. 12, 2014, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveiled VAC as the world’s largest welder at Michoud.

“This rocket is a game changer in terms of deep space exploration and will launch NASA astronauts to investigate asteroids and explore the surface of Mars while opening new possibilities for science missions, as well,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Michoud.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Each of the RS-25’s engines generates some 500,000 pounds of thrust, fueled by cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. They are recycled for their original use as space shuttle main engines

For SLS they will be operating at 109% of power, compared to a routine usage of 104.5% during the shuttle era. They measure 14 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter.

The SLS weld team has been busy. Technicians have already assembled a qualification version of the engine section on the Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud. Later this year it will be shipped to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to undergo structural loads testing.

In March, they also completed welding of a liquid oxygen tank confidence article on the Vertical Assembly Center. And in February they welded the liquid hydrogen tank confidence article.

SLS core stage will be welded together from barrels and domes using the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility.  Credit: Ken Kremer/ kenkremer.com
SLS core stage will be welded together from barrels and domes using the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility. Credit: Ken Kremer/ kenkremer.com

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

The tanks are assembled by joining previously manufactured domes, rings and barrels 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 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.

According to the current schedule, NASA plans to finish all welding for the core stage — including confidence, qualification and flight hardware — of the SLS-1 rocket sometime this summer.

Engineers are constructing the confidence and qualification hardware units to verify that the welding equipment and procedures work exactly as planned.

“The confidence will also be used in developing the application process for the thermal protection system, which is the insulation foam that gives the tank its orange color,” say NASA officials.

Altogether , the SLS first stage propulsion comprises the four RS-25 space shuttle main engines and a pair of enhanced five segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) also derived from the shuttles four segment boosters.

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.

Meanwhile the welded skeletal backbone for the Orion EM-1 mission recently arrived at the Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 1 for outfitting with all the systems and subsystems necessary for flight.

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

Kennedy’s Modernized Spaceport Passes Key Review Supporting SLS/Orion Launches

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
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

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Modernization of NASA’s launch infrastructure facilities at the Kennedy Space Center supporting the new SLS/Orion architecture required to send astronauts on a Journey to Mars in the 2030s, has passed a comprehensive series of key hardware reviews, NASA announced, paving the path towards full scale development and the inaugural liftoff by late 2018.

The facilities and ground support systems that will process NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and next generation Orion manned deep space capsule at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida successfully completed a painstaking review of the plans by top agency managers and an independent team of aerospace experts.

SLS will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen. It will propel astronauts in the Orion capsule on deep space missions, first back to the Moon by around 2021, then to an asteroid around 2025 and then beyond to the Red Planet in the 2030s – NASA’s overriding and agency wide goal.

The Ground Systems Development and Operations Program (GSDO) group within NASA is responsible for processing SLS and Orion.

“Over the course of a few months, engineers and experts across the agency reviewed hundreds of documents as part of a comprehensive assessment” said NASA.

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

Among the GSDO ground support facilities evaluated in the launch infrastructure review are the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where the rocket components are stacked, the mobile launcher used to roll out SLS/Orion to Launch Pad 39B atop a modified crawler transporter and the Multi-Payload Processing Facility that will fuel the Orion spacecraft with propellants prior to stacking atop the rocket.

In December, GSDO completed a critical design review (CDR) of the facilities and ground support systems plans.

Then in January, a Standing Review Board comprising a team of aerospace experts completed an independent assessment of program readiness.

The Standing Review Board “confirmed the program is on track to complete the engineering design and development process on budget and on schedule.”

“NASA is developing and modernizing the ground systems at Kennedy to safely integrate Orion with SLS, move the vehicle to the pad, and successfully launch it into space,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington, in a statement.

“Modernizing the ground systems for our journey to Mars also ensures long-term sustainability and affordability to meet future needs of the multi-use spaceport.”

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

Fabrication, installation and testing of Kennedy’s ground systems can now proceed.

“The team is working hard and we are making remarkable progress transforming our facilities,” said Mike Bolger, GSDO Program Manager. “As we are preparing for NASA’s journey to Mars, the outstanding team at the Kennedy Space Center is ensuring that we will be ready to receive SLS and Orion flight hardware and process the vehicle for the first flight in 2018.”

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.

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

Meanwhile the welded skeletal backbone for the Orion EM-1 mission recently arrived at the Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 1 for outfitting with all the systems and subsystems necessary for flight.

Furthermore, earlier this month on March 10, NASA engineers conducted a successful test firing of the first of the RS-25 rocket engines destined to power the core stage of the SLS stage rocket. The 500 second long hot fire test of engine No. 2059 was carried out on the A-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

SLS-1 will boost the unmanned Orion EM-1 capsule from KSC launch pad 39B on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.

View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop  Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.

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

Ken Kremer

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

NASA Test Fires SLS Flight Engine Destined to Launch Astronauts Back to the Moon

NASA engineers conduct a successfully test firing of RS-25 rocket engine No. 2059 on the A-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The hot fire marks the first test of an RS-25 flight engine for NASA’s new Space Launch System vehicle.  Credits: NASA/SSC
NASA engineers conduct a successful test firing of RS-25 rocket engine No. 2059 on the A-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The hot fire marks the first test of an RS-25 flight engine for NASA’s new Space Launch System vehicle. Credits: NASA/SSC

NASA engineers have successfully test fired the first flight engine destined to power the agency’s mammoth new SLS rocket that will launch American astronauts back to the Moon and deep space for the first time in nearly five decades.

The flight proven RS-25 powerplant engine previously flew as one of three main engines that successfully rocketed NASA’s space shuttle orbiters to space during the three decade long Space Shuttle era that ended in 2011. Continue reading “NASA Test Fires SLS Flight Engine Destined to Launch Astronauts Back to the Moon”

NASA’s Orion Crew Module Backbone Arrives at KSC Aboard Super Guppy for Exploration Mission-1

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

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – Looking amazingly like a fish flying across the skies high above the Florida space coast, NASA’s unique Super Guppy aircraft loaded with the structural backbone for NASA’s next Orion crew module, swooped in for a landing at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday afternoon, Feb. 1.

The Super Guppy, with the recently completed pressure vessel for the Orion crew module tucked safely inside, touched down gently at about 3:45 p.m. Monday on the same runway at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) where NASA’s now retired orbiters formerly returned from space voyages. The landing strip is now operated by Space Florida. Continue reading “NASA’s Orion Crew Module Backbone Arrives at KSC Aboard Super Guppy for Exploration Mission-1”

Orion Gets Beefed Up, Silver-Metallic Thermal Protection Coating for Next Flight on EM-1

On future missions, a silver, metallic-based thermal control coating will be bonded to the Orion crew module’s back shell tiles.  Credit: NASA
On future missions, a silver, metallic-based thermal control coating will be bonded to the Orion crew module’s back shell tiles. Credit: NASA

In the wake of NASA’s supremely successful inaugural test flight of the Orion deep space capsule on the EFT-1 mission in Dec. 2014, NASA is beefing up the critical thermal protection system (TPS) that will protect astronauts from the searing heats experienced during reentry as the human rated vehicle plunges through the Earth’s atmosphere after returning from ambitious expeditions to the Moon and beyond.

Based in part on lessons learned from EFT-1, engineers are refining Orion’s heat shield to enhance the design, ease manufacturing procedures and significantly strengthen is heat resistant capabilities for the far more challenging space environments and missions that lie ahead later this decade and planned further out in the future as part of NASA’s agency-wide ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

On all future flights starting with Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the Orion crew module must Continue reading “Orion Gets Beefed Up, Silver-Metallic Thermal Protection Coating for Next Flight on EM-1”

NASA Awards Contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne to Restart RS-25 Engine Production for SLS Mars Rocket

NASA took another big step on the path to propel our astronauts back to deep space and ultimately on to Mars with the long awaited decision to formally restart production of the venerable RS-25 engine that will power the first stage of the agency’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket, currently under development.

Aerojet Rocketdyne was awarded a NASA contract to reopen the production lines for the RS-25 powerplant and develop and manufacture a certified engine for use in NASA’s SLS rocket. The contract spans from November 2015 through Sept. 30, 2024.

The SLS is the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen and will loft astronauts in the Orion capsule on missions back to the Moon by around 2021, to an asteroid around 2025 and then beyond on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s – NASA’s overriding and agency wide goal. The first unmanned SLS test flight is slated for late 2018.

The core stage (first stage) of the SLS will initially be powered by four existing RS-25 engines, recycled and upgraded from the shuttle era, and a pair of five-segment solid rocket boosters that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust, making it the world’s most powerful rocket ever.

The newly awarded RS-25 engine contract to Sacramento, California based Aerojet Rocketdyne is valued at 1.16 Billion and aims to “modernize the space shuttle heritage engine to make it more affordable and expendable for SLS,” NASA announced on Nov. 23. NASA can also procure up to six new flight worthy engines for later launches.

“SLS is America’s next generation heavy lift system,” said Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of Advanced Space & Launch Programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne, in a statement.

“This is the rocket that will enable humans to leave low Earth orbit and travel deeper into the solar system, eventually taking humans to Mars.”

The lead time is approximately 5 or 6 years to build and certify the first new RS-25 engine, Van Kleek told Universe Today in an interview. Therefore NASA needed to award the contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne now so that its ready when needed.

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 RS-25 is actually an upgraded version of former space shuttle main engines (SSMEs) originally built by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The reusable engines were used with a 100% success rate during NASA’s three decade-long Space Shuttle program to propel the now retired shuttle orbiters to low Earth orbit.

Atlantis rolls over  from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1, at right)  processing hanger to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, at left) at KSC for the STS-135 mission.  Credit: Ken Kremer
Space Shuttles were powered by a trio of Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) now recycled and upgraded as RS-25 engines for SLS. Atlantis rolls over from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1, at right) processing hanger to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, at left) at KSC for the STS-135 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer

Those same engines are now being modified for use by the SLS on missions to deep space starting in 2018.

But NASA only has an inventory of 16 of the RS-25 engines, which is sufficient for a maximum of the first four SLS launches only. Although they were reused numerous times during the shuttle era, they will be discarded after each SLS launch.

During a 535-second test on August 13, 2015, operators ran the Space Launch System (SLS) RS-25 rocket engine through a series of tests at different power levels to collect engine performance data on the A-1 test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  Credit: NASA
During a 535-second test on August 13, 2015, operators ran the Space Launch System (SLS) RS-25 rocket engine through a series of tests at different power levels to collect engine performance data on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Credit: NASA

And since the engines cannot be recovered and reused as during the shuttle era, a brand new set of RS-25s will have to be manufactured from scratch.

Therefore, the engine manufacturing process can and will be modernized and significantly streamlined – using fewer part and welds – to cut costs and improve performance.

“The RS-25 engines designed under this new contract will be expendable with significant affordability improvements over previous versions,” added Jim Paulsen, vice president, Program Execution, Advanced Space & Launch Programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne. “This is due to the incorporation of new technologies, such as the introduction of simplified designs; 3-D printing technology called additive manufacturing; and streamlined manufacturing in a modern, state-of-the-art fabrication facility.”

“The new engines will incorporate simplified, yet highly reliable, designs to reduce manufacturing time and cost. For example, the overall engine is expected to simplify key components with dramatically reduced part count and number of welds. At the same time, the engine is being certified to a higher operational thrust level,” says Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The existing stock of 16 RS-25s are being upgraded for use in SLS and also being run through a grueling series of full duration hot fire test firings to certify them for flight, as I reported previously here at Universe Today.

Among the RS-25 upgrades is a new engine controller specific to SLS. The engine controller functions as the “brain” of the engine, which checks engine status, maintains communication between the vehicle and the engine and relays commands back and forth.

RS-25 test firing in progress on the A-1 test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on Aug. 13, 2015.  Credit: NASA
RS-25 test firing in progress on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on Aug. 13, 2015. Credit: NASA

Each of the RS-25’s engines generates some 500,000 pounds of thrust. They are fueled by cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. For SLS they will be operating at 109% of power, compared to a routine usage of 104.5% during the shuttle era. They measure 14 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter.

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

The maiden test flight of the SLS is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds. It will boost an unmanned Orion on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.

NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.

The first SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.

Orion’s inaugural mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT) was successfully launched on a flawless flight on Dec. 5, 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about SLS, Orion, SpaceX, Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, ULA Atlas rocket, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Dec 1 to 3: “Orbital ATK Atlas/Cygnus launch to the ISS, ULA, SpaceX, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Dec 8: “America’s Human Path Back to Space and Mars with Orion, Starliner and Dragon.” Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, AAAP, Princeton University, Ivy Lane, Astrophysics Dept, Princeton, NJ; 7:30 PM.

Boulder Extraction and Robotic Arm Mechanisms For NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission Start Rigorous Testing at NASA Goddard

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – Rigorous testing has begun on the advanced robotic arm and boulder extraction mechanisms that are key components of the unmanned probe at the heart of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) now under development to pluck a multi-ton boulder off a near-Earth asteroid so that astronauts visiting later in an Orion crew capsule can harvest a large quantity of samples for high powered scientific analysis back on Earth. Universe Today inspected the robotic arm hardware utilizing “leveraged robotic technology” during an up close visit and exclusive interview with the engineering development team at NASA Goddard.

“The teams are making great progress on the capture mechanism that has been delivered to the robotics team at Goddard from Langley,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot told Universe Today.

“NASA is developing these common technologies for a suite of missions like satellite servicing and refueling in low Earth orbit as well as autonomously capturing an asteroid about 100 million miles away,” said Ben Reed, NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager, during an exclusive interview and hardware tour with Universe Today at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland, regarding concepts and goals for the overall Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) initiative.

NASA is leveraging technology originally developed for satellite servicing such as with the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) currently on board the International Space Station (ISS) and repurposing them for the asteroid retrieval mission.

“Those are our two near term mission objectives that we are developing these technologies for,” Reed explained.

ARRM combines both robotic and human missions to advance the new technologies required for NASA’s agency wide ‘Journey to Mars’ objective of sending a human mission to the Martian system in the 2030s.

The unmanned Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) to grab a boulder is the essential first step towards carrying out the follow on sample retrieval with the manned Orion Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) by the mid-2020s.

ARRM will use a pair of highly capable robotic arms to autonomously grapple a multi-ton (> 20 ton) boulder off the surface of a large near-Earth asteroid and transport it to a stable, astronaut accessible orbit around the Moon in cislunar space.

“Things are moving well. The teams have made really tremendous progress on the robotic arm and capture mechanism,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, told Universe Today.

Then an Orion crew capsule can fly to it and the astronauts will collect a large quantity of rock samples and gather additional scientific measurements.

“We are working on a system to rendezvous, capture and service different [target] clients using the same technologies. That is what we are working on in a nut shell,” Reed said.

This engineering design unit of the robotic servicing arm is under development to autonomously extract a boulder off an asteroid for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission and  is being tested at NASA Goddard.   It has seven degrees of freedom and mimics a human arm.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This engineering design unit of the robotic servicing arm is under development to autonomously extract a boulder off an asteroid for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission and is being tested at NASA Goddard. It has seven degrees of freedom and mimics a human arm. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Right now the plan is to launch ARRM by about December 2020,” Reed told me. But a huge amount of preparatory work across the US is required to turn NASA’s plan into reality.

Key mission enabling technologies are being tested right now with a new full scale engineering model of the ‘Robotic Servicing Arm’ and a full scale mockup of the boulder snatching ARRM Capture Module at NASA Goddard, in a new facility known as “The Cauldron.”

Capture Module comprising two robotic servicing arms and three boulder grappling contact and restraint system legs for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM).   Credit: NASA
Capture Module comprising two robotic servicing arms and three boulder grappling contact and restraint system legs for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM). Credit: NASA
The ARRM capture module is comprised of two shorter robotic arms (separated by 180 degrees) and three lengthy contact and restraint system capture legs (separated by 120 degrees) attached to a cradle with associated avionics, computers and electronics and the rest of the spacecraft and solar electric power arrays.

“The robotic arm we have here now is an engineering development unit. The 2.2 meter-long arms can be used for assembling large telescopes, repairing a failed satellite, removing orbital debris and capturing an asteroid,” said Reed.

“There are two little arms and three big capture legs.”

“So, we are leveraging one technology development program into multiple NASA objectives.”

“We are working on common technologies that can service a legacy orbiting satellite, not designed to be serviced, and use those same technologies with some tweaking that we can go out with 100 million miles and capture an asteroid and bring it back to the vicinity of the Moon.”

“Currently the [capture module] system can handle a boulder that’s up to about 3 x 4 x 5 meters in diameter.”

Artists concept of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission capturing an asteroid boulder before redirecting it to a astronaut-accessible orbit around Earth's moon.  Credits: NASA
Artists concept of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission capturing an asteroid boulder before redirecting it to a astronaut-accessible orbit around Earth’s moon. Credits: NASA

The Cauldron is a brand new Goddard facility for testing technologies and operations for multiple exploration and science missions, including satellite servicing and ARRM that just opened in June 2015 for the centers Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office.

Overall project lead for ARRM is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with numerous contributions from other NASA centers and industrial partners.

“This is an immersive development lab where we bring systems together and can do lifetime testing to simulate what’s in space. This is our robotic equivalent to the astronauts NBL, or neutral buoyancy lab,” Reed elaborated.

“So with this same robotic arm that can cut wires and thermal blankets and refuel an Earth sensing satellite, we can now have that same arm go out on a different mission and be able to travel out and pick up a multi-ton boulder and bring it back for astronauts to harvest samples from.”

“So that’s quite a technical feat!”

The Robotic Servicing Arm is a multi-jointed powerhouse designed to function like a “human arm” as much as possible. It builds on extensive prior research and development investment efforts conducted for NASA’s current Red Planet rovers and a flight-qualified robotic arm developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“The arm is capable of seven-degrees-of-freedom to mimic the full functionally of a human arm. It has heritage from the arm on Mars right now on Curiosity as well as ground based programs from DARPA,” Reed told me.

“It has three degrees of freedom at our shoulder, two at our elbow and two more at the wrist. So I can hold the hand still and move the elbow.”

The arm will also be equipped with a variety of interchangeable “hands” that are basically tools to carry out different tasks with the asteroid such as grappling, drilling, sample gathering, imaging and spectrometric analysis, etc.

View of the robotic arm above and gripper tool below that initially grabs the asteroid boulder before the capture legs wrap around as planned for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will later dock with an Orion crew vehicle. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of the robotic arm above and gripper tool below that initially grabs the asteroid boulder before the capture legs wrap around as planned for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will later dock with an Orion crew vehicle. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The ARRM spacecraft will carefully study, characterize and photograph the asteroid in great detail for about a month before attempting the boulder capture.

Why does the arm need all this human-like capability?

“When we arrive at an asteroid that’s 100 million miles away, we are not going to know the fine local geometry until we arrive,” Reed explained to Universe Today.

“Therefore we need a flexible enough arm that can accommodate local geometries at the multi-foot scale. And then a gripper tool that can handle those geometry facets at a much smaller scale.”

“Therefore we chose seven-degrees-of-freedom to mimic humans very much by design. We also need seven-degrees-of-freedom to conduct collision avoidance maneuvers. You can’t do that with a six-degree-of-freedom arm. It has to be seven to be a general purpose arm.”

How will the ARRM capture module work to snatch the boulder off the asteroid?

“So the idea is you come to the mother asteroid and touch down and make contact on the surface. Then you hold that position and the two arms reach out and grab the boulder.”

“Once its grabbed the boulder, then the legs straighten and pull the boulder off the surface.”

“Then the arms nestle the asteroid onto a cradle. And the legs then change from a contact system to become a restraint system. So the legs wrap around the boulder to restrain it for the 100 million mile journey back home.

“After that the little arms can let go – because the legs have wrapped around and are holding the asteroid.”

“So now the arm can also let go of the gripper system and pick up a different tool to do other things. For example they can collect a sample with another tool. And maybe assist an astronaut after the crew arrives.”

“During the 100 million mile journey back to lunar orbit they can be also be preparing the surface and cutting into it for later sample collection by the astronauts.”

Be sure to watch this video animation:

Since the actual asteroid encounter will occur very far away, the boulder grappling will have to be done fully autonomously since there will be no possibility for real time communications.

“The return time for communications is like about 30 minutes. So ‘human in the loop’ control is out of the question.

“Once we get into hover position over the landing site we hit the GO button. Then it will be very much like at Mars and the seven minutes of terror. It will take awhile to find out if it worked.”

Therefore the team at Goddard has already spent years of effort and practice sessions just to get ready for working with the early engineering version of the arm to maximize the probability of a successful capture.

“In this facility we put systems together to try and practice and rehearse and simulate as much of the mission as is realistically possible.”

“It took a lot of effort to get to this point, in the neighborhood of four years to get the simulation to behave correctly in real time with contact dynamics and the robotic systems. So the arm has to touch the boulder with force torque sensors and feed that into a computer to measure that and move the actuators to respond accordingly.”

“So the capture of the boulder is autonomous. The rest is teleoperated from the ground, but not the capture itself.”

How realistic are the rehearsals?

“We are practicing here by reaching out with the arm to grasp the client target using autonomous capture [procedures]. In space the client [target] is floating and maybe tumbling. So when we reach out with the arm to practice autonomous capture we make the client tumble and move – with the inertial properties of the target we are practicing on.”

“Now for known objects like satellites we know the mass precisely. And we can program all that inertial property data in very accurately to give us much more realistic simulations.”

“We learned from all our astronaut servicing experiences in orbit is that the more we know for the simulations, the easier and better the results are for the astronauts during an actual mission because you simulated all the properties.”

“But with this robotic mission to an asteroid there is no backup like astronauts. So we want to practice here at Goddard and simulate the space environment.”

ARRM will launch by the end of 2020 on either an SLS, Delta IV Heavy or a Falcon Heavy. NASA has not yet chosen the launch vehicle.

Several candidate asteroids have already been discovered and NASA has an extensive ongoing program to find more.

Orion crew capsule docks to NASA’s asteroid redirect vehicle grappling captured asteroid boulder orbiting the Moon. Credit: NASA
Orion crew capsule docks to NASA’s asteroid redirect vehicle grappling captured asteroid boulder orbiting the Moon. Credit: NASA

Again, this robotic technology was selected for development for ARRM because it has a lot in common with other objectives like fixing communications satellites, refueling satellites and building large telescopes in the future.

NASA is also developing other critical enabling technologies for the entire ARM project like solar electric propulsion that will be the subject of another article.

Therefore NASA is leveraging one technology development program into multiple spaceflight objectives that will greatly assist its plans to send ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s with the Orion crew module launched by the monster Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

The maiden uncrewed launch of the Orion/SLS stack is slated for November 2018.

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

Ken Kremer

At NASA Goddard robotics lab Ben Reed/NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss the robotic servicing arm and asteroid boulder capture mechanism being tested for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will dock with an Orion crew vehicle in lunar orbit by the mid 2020s for sample return collection. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
At NASA Goddard robotics lab Ben Reed/NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss the robotic servicing arm and asteroid boulder capture mechanism being tested for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will dock with an Orion crew vehicle in lunar orbit by the mid 2020s for sample return collection. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA’s Space Launch System Passes Critical Design Review, Drops Saturn V Color Motif

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
Story/imagery updated[/caption]

The SLS, America’s first human-rated heavy lift rocket intended to carry astronauts to deep space destinations since NASA’s Apollo moon landing era Saturn V, has passed a key design milestone known as the critical design review (CDR) thereby clearing the path to full scale fabrication.

NASA also confirmed they have dropped the Saturn V white color motif of the mammoth rocket in favor of burnt orange to reflect the natural color of the SLS boosters first stage cryogenic core. The agency also decided to add stripes to the huge solid rocket boosters.

NASA announced that the Space Launch System (SLS) has “completed all steps needed to clear a critical design review (CDR)” – meaning that the design of all the rockets components are technically acceptable and the agency can continue with full scale production towards achieving a maiden liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2018.

“We’ve nailed down the design of SLS,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Division, in a NASA statement.

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

Blastoff of the NASA’s first SLS heavy lift booster (SLS-1) carrying an unmanned test version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule is targeted for no later than November 2018.

Indeed the SLS will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen starting with its first liftoff. It will propel our astronauts on journey’s further into space than ever before.

SLS is “the first vehicle designed to meet the challenges of the journey to Mars and the first exploration class rocket since the Saturn V.”

Crews seated inside NASA’s Orion crew module bolted atop the SLS will rocket to deep space destinations including the Moon, asteroids and eventually the Red Planet.

“There have been challenges, and there will be more ahead, but this review gives us confidence that we are on the right track for the first flight of SLS and using it to extend permanent human presence into deep space,” Hill stated.

The core stage (first stage) of the SLS will be powered by four RS-25 engines and a pair of five-segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust in its inaugural Block 1 configuration, with a minimum 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capability.

Overall the SLS Block 1 configuration will be some 10 percent more powerful than the Saturn V rockets that propelled astronauts to the Moon, including Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon during Apollo 11 in July 1969.

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

The SLS core stage is derived from the huge External Tank (ET) that fueled NASA Space Shuttle’s for three decades. It is a longer version of the Shuttle ET.

NASA initially planned to paint the SLS core stage white, thereby making it resemble the Saturn V.

But since the natural manufacturing color of its insulation during fabrication is burnt orange, managers decided to keep it so and delete the white paint job.

“As part of the CDR, the program concluded the core stage of the rocket and Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter will remain orange, the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements, instead of painted white,” said NASA.

There is good reason to scrap the white color motif because roughly 1000 pounds of paint can be saved by leaving the tank with its natural orange pigment.

This translates directly into another 1000 pounds of payload carrying capability to orbit.

“Not applying the paint will reduce the vehicle mass by potentially as much as 1,000 pounds, resulting in an increase in payload capacity, and additionally streamlines production processes,” Shannon Ridinger, NASA Public Affairs spokeswomen told Universe Today.

After the first two shuttle launches back in 1981, the ETs were also not painted white for the same reason – in order to carry more cargo to orbit.

“This is similar to what was done for the external tank for the space shuttle. The space shuttle was originally painted white for the first two flights and later a technical study found painting to be unnecessary,” Ridinger explained.

Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements.  Credits: NASA
Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements. Credits: NASA

NASA said that the CDR was completed by the SLS team in July and the results were also further reviewed over several more months by a panel of outside experts and additionally by top NASA managers.

“The SLS Program completed the review in July, in conjunction with a separate review by the Standing Review Board, which is composed of seasoned experts from NASA and industry who are independent of the program. Throughout the course of 11 weeks, 13 teams – made up of senior engineers and aerospace experts across the agency and industry – reviewed more than 1,000 SLS documents and more than 150 GB of data as part of the comprehensive assessment process at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where SLS is managed for the agency.”

“The Standing Review Board reviewed and assessed the program’s readiness and confirmed the technical effort is on track to complete system development and meet performance requirements on budget and on schedule.”

The final step of the SLS CDR was completed this month with another extremely thorough assessment by NASA’s Agency Program Management Council, led by NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot.

“This is a major step in the design and readiness of SLS,” said John Honeycutt, SLS program manager.

The CDR was the last of four reviews that examine SLS concepts and designs.

NASA says the next step “is design certification, which will take place in 2017 after manufacturing, integration and testing is complete. The design certification will compare the actual final product to the rocket’s design. The final review, the flight readiness review, will take place just prior to the 2018 flight readiness date.”

“Our team has worked extremely hard, and we are moving forward with building this rocket. We are qualifying hardware, building structural test articles, and making real progress,” Honeycutt elaborated.

Numerous individual components of the SLS core stage have already been built and their manufacture was part of the CDR assessment.

The SLS core stage is being built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. It stretches over 200 feet tall and is 27.6 feet in diameter and will carry cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel for the rocket’s four RS-25 engines.

On Sept. 12, 2014, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveiled the world’s largest welder at Michoud, that will be used to construct the core stage, as I reported earlier during my on-site visit – here.

The first stage RS-25 engines have also completed their first round of hot firing tests. And the five segment solid rocket boosters has also been hot fired.

NASA decided that the SRBs will be painted with something like racing stripes.

“Stripes will be painted on the SRBs and we are still identifying the best process for putting them on the boosters; we have multiple options that have minimal impact to cost and payload capability, ” Ridinger stated.

With the successful completion of the CDR, the components of the first core stage can now proceed to assembly of the finished product and testing of the RS-25 engines and boosters can continue.

“We’ve successfully completed the first round of testing of the rocket’s engines and boosters, and all the major components for the first flight are now in production,” Hill explained.

View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop  Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.

The first SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The SLS/Orion stack will roll out to pad 39B atop the Mobile Launcher now under construction – as detailed in my recent story and during visit around and to the top of the ML at KSC.

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

Orion’s inaugural mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT) was successfully launched on a flawless flight on Dec. 5, 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Mobile Launcher Upgraded to Launch NASA’s Mammoth ‘Journey to Mars’ Rocket

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
Story/photos updated[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s Mobile Launcher (ML) is undergoing major upgrades and modifications at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida enabling the massive structure to launch the agency’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew capsule on a grand ‘Journey to Mars.’

“We just finished up major structural steel modifications to the ML, including work to increase the size of the rocket exhaust hole,” Eric Ernst, NASA Mobile Launch project manager, told Universe Today during an exclusive interview and inspection tour up and down the Mobile Launcher.

Indeed the Mobile Launcher is the astronauts gateway to deep space expeditions and missions to Mars.

Construction workers are hard at work upgrading and transforming the 380-foot-tall, 10.5-million-pound steel structure into the launcher for SLS and Orion – currently slated for a maiden blastoff no later than November 2018 on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).

“And now we have just started the next big effort to get ready for SLS.”

SLS and Orion are NASA’s next generation human spaceflight vehicles currently under development and aimed at propelling astronauts to deep space destinations, including the Moon and an asteroid in the 2020s and eventually a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

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

The mobile launcher was originally built several years ago to accommodate NASA’s less powerful, lighter and now cancelled Ares-1 rocket. It therefore requires extensive alterations to accommodate the vastly more powerful and heavier SLS rocket.

“The ML was initially developed for Ares 1, a much smaller rocket,” Ernst explained to Universe Today.

“So the exhaust hole was much smaller.”

Whereas the Ares-1 first stage booster was based on using a single, more powerful version of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters, the SLS first stage is gargantuan and will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen.

The SLS first stage comprises two shuttle derived solid rocket boosters and four RS-25 power plants recycled from their earlier life as space shuttle main engines (SSMEs). They generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of thrust – exceeding that of NASA’s Apollo Saturn V moon landing rocket.

Therefore the original ML exhaust hole had to be gutted and nearly tripled in width.

“The exhaust hole used to be about 22 x 22 feet,” Ernst stated.

“Since the exhaust hole was much smaller, we had to deconstruct part of the tower at the base, in place. The exhaust hole had to be made much bigger to accommodate the SLS.”

Construction crews extensively reworked the exhaust hole and made it far wider to accommodate SLS compared to the smaller one engineered and already built for the much narrower Ares-1, which was planned to generate some 3.6 million pounds of thrust.

“So we had to rip out a lot of steel,” Mike Canicatti, ML Construction Manager told Universe Today.

“For the exhaust hole [at the base of the tower], lots of pieces of [existing] steel were taken out and other new pieces were added, using entirely new steel.”

“The compartment for the exhaust hole used to be about 22 x 22 feet, now it’s about 34 x 64 feet.”

Looking down to the enlarged 64 foot wide exhaust hole from the top of NASA’s 380 foot-tall Mobile Launch tower.  Astronauts will board the Orion capsule atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking down to the enlarged 64 foot wide exhaust hole from the top of NASA’s 380 foot-tall Mobile Launch tower. Astronauts will board the Orion capsule atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In fact this involved the demolition of over 750 tons of old steel following by fabrication and installation of more than 1,000 tons of new steel. It was also reinforced due to the much heavier weight of SLS.

“It was a huge effort and structural engineers did their job. The base was disassembled and reassembled in place” – to enlarge the exhaust hole.

“So basically we gutted major portions of the base out, put in new walls and big structural girders,” Ernst elaborated.

“And we just finished up that major structural steel modification on the exhaust hole.”

Top view across the massive 34 foot-wide, 64 foot-long exhaust hole excavated out of NASA’s Mobile Launcher that will support launches of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from Space Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Top view across the massive 34 foot-wide, 64 foot-long exhaust hole excavated out of NASA’s Mobile Launcher that will support launches of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from Space Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Meanwhile the 380 foot-tall tower that future Orion astronauts will ascend was left in place.

“The tower portion itself did not need to be disassembled.”

IMG_8393_1a_KSC ML_Ken Kremer

The Ares rockets originally belonged to NASA’s Constellation program, whose intended goal was returning American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2020.

Ares-1 was slated as the booster for the Orion crew capsule. However, President Obama cancelled Constellation and NASA’s Return to the Moon soon after entering office.

Since then the Obama Administration and Congress worked together in a bipartisan manner together to fashion a new space hardware architecture and granted approval for development of the SLS heavy lift rocket to replace the Ares-1 and heavy lift Ares-5.

Sending astronauts on a ‘Journey to Mars’ is now NASA’s agency wide and overarching goal for the next few decades of human spaceflight.

But before SLS can be transported to its launch pad at Kennedy’s Space Launch Complex 39-B for the EM-1 test flight the next big construction step has to begin.

“So now we have just started the next big effort to get ready for SLS.”

This involves installation of Ground Support Equipment (GSE) and a wide range of launch support services and systems to the ML.

“The next big effort is the GSE installation contract,” Ernst told me.

“We have about 40+ ground support and facility systems to be installed on the ML. There are about 800 items to be installed, including about 300,000-plus feet of cable and several miles of piping and tubing.”

“So that’s the next big effort to get ready for SLS. It’s about a 1.5 year contract and it was just awarded to J.P. Donovan Construction Inc. of Rockledge, Florida.”

“The work just started at the end of August.”

NASA currently plans to roll the ML into the Vehicle Assembly Building in early 2017 for stacking of SLS and Orion for the EM-1 test flight.

View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop  Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SLS/Orion mounted stack atop the ML will then roll out to Space Launch Complex 39B for the 2018 launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

Pad 39B is also undergoing radical renovations and upgrades, transforming it from its use for NASA’s now retired Space Shuttle program into a modernized 21st century launch pad. Watch for my upcoming story.

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration.  Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration mounted on the Mobile Launcher. Credit: NASA

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

Ken Kremer

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite poised at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, set for launch on Sept. 2, 2015. EDT. View from atop NASA’s SLS mobile launcher at the Kenned Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View from atop NASA’s SLS mobile launcher at the Kennedy Space Center, looking out to United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite poised at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, ‘prior to launch on Sept. 2, 2015. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

First Manned Flight of NASA’s Orion Deep Space Capsule Could Slip to 2023

The first manned flight of NASA’s Orion deep space capsule – currently under development – could slip two years from 2021 to 2023 due to a variety of budget and technical issues, top NASA officials announced on Wednesday, Sept. 16.

The potential two year postponement of Orion’s first flight with astronauts follows on the heels of the agency’s recently completed rigorous review of the programs status from a budgetary, technical, engineering, safety and risk assessment analysis of the vehicles systems and subsystems.

But Orion’s launch delay has already been condemned by some in Congress who accuse the Obama Administration of purposely shortchanging funding for the program.

Based on the budget available and all the work remaining to be accomplished, liftoff of the first Orion test flight with an astronaut crew is likely to occur “no later than April 2023,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot at the Sept. 16 briefing for reporters.

NASA had been marching towards an August 2021 liftoff for the maiden crewed Orion on a test flight dubbed Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), until Lightfoot’s announcement.

Lightfoot added that although August 2021 is still NASA’s officially targeted launch date for EM-2, achieving that early goal is not likely as a direct result of the program review.

“The team is still working toward a launch in August 2021, but have much less confidence in achieving that. But we are not changing that date for EM-2 at this time.”

“But we’re committing that we’ll be no later than April 2023.”

“It’s not a very high confidence level [on making the August 2021 launch date], I’ll tell you that, just because of the things we see historically pop up.”

Orion is being developed by NASA to send America’s astronauts on journeys venturing farther into deep space than ever before – back to the Moon first and then beyond to Asteroids, Mars and other destinations in our Solar System.

Artist's conception of NASA's Space Launch System with Orion crewed deep space capsule. Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of NASA’s Space Launch System with Orion crewed deep space capsule. Credit: NASA

Orion’s likely launch slip is the direct fallout from NASA’s recently completed internal program review called Key Decision Point C (KDP-C).

The KDC-P review assesses all the technological work and advancements required for launch to design, develop and manufacture Orion and that can be accomplished based on the Federal budget that will be available to carry out the program successfully.

“The KDC-P analysis just completed and decision to move forward with the Orion program is based on a 70% confidence level of success,” notes Lightfoot.

“The budget is a factor in the timing for the projection. It is based on the President’s current budget.”

“The decision commits NASA to a development cost baseline of $6.77 billion from October 2015 through the first crewed mission (EM-2) and a commitment to be ready for a launch with astronauts no later than April 2023.”

“EM-2 is a full up Orion on a human mission,” he said.

The EM-2 mission would last about 3 weeks and fly in a lunar retrograde orbit. It would carry astronauts beyond the Moon and further out into space than ever before.

Prior to EM-2, Orion’s next test flight is the uncrewed EM-1 mission targeted to launch no later than November 2018 – from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.

EM-1 will blastoff on the inaugural launch of NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift booster concurrently under development. The SLS will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds. It will boost an unmanned Orion on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.

Toward that goal, NASA is also currently testing the RS-25 first stage engines that will power SLS – as outlined in my recent story here.

Orion’s inaugural mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT) was successfully launched on a flawless flight on Dec. 5, 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion learned a lot from EFT-1 and the lessons learned are being incorporated into the EM-1 and EM-2 missions.

Among the very few changes is an alteration in the heat shield from a monolithic to a block design that will vastly simplify its manufacture.

“We are making the heat shield change as a result of what we leaned on EFT-1,” said William Gerstenmaier, the agency’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters, at the briefing.

“The Orion Program has done incredible work, progressing every day and meeting milestones to prepare for our next missions. The team will keep working toward an earlier readiness date for a first crewed flight, but will be ready no later than April 2023, and we will keep the spacecraft, rocket and ground systems moving at their own best possible paces.”

Some members of Congress and others have said that delays in the Orion and SLS program are also a direct result of funding shortfalls caused by budget cuts in the programs, and condemned the Obama Administrations 2016 NASA budget request.

In fact, the Obama Administration did request $440 million less in the 2016 NASA budget request vs. the 2015 request.

“Once again, the Obama administration is choosing to delay deep space exploration priorities such as Orion and the Space Launch System that will take U.S. astronauts to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, said Rep Lamar Smith (R-Texas) House Committee Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

“While this administration has consistently cut funding for these programs and delayed their development, Congress has consistently restored funding as part of our commitment to maintaining American leadership in space,” said Chairman Smith.

“We must chart a compelling course for our nation’s space program so that we can continue to inspire future generations of scientists, engineers and explorers. I urge this administration to follow the lead of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s NASA Authorization Act to fully fund NASA’s exploration programs.”

Smith added that he “has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for failure to request adequate funding for Orion and the Space Launch System; the administration’s FY16 budget request proposed cuts of more than $440 million for the programs.”

“The House Science Committee’s NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017 sought to restore $440 million to these crucial programs being developed to return U.S. astronauts to deep space destinations such as the Moon and Mars. That bill also restored funding for planetary science accounts that have been responsible for missions such as the recent Pluto fly-by, and provided full funding for the other space exploration programs such as Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo programs.”

Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer