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

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

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

Any leaks occurring in flight could threaten the astronauts lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

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 Completes Welding on Lunar Orion EM-1 Pressure Vessel Launching in 2018

Welding together of Orion EM-1 pressure vessel was completed on Jan. 13, 2016 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The pressure vessel is the primary structure of the Orion spacecraft destined for human missions to deep space and Mars.  Credits: NASA
Welding together of Orion EM-1 pressure vessel was completed on Jan. 13, 2016 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The pressure vessel is the primary structure of the Orion spacecraft destined for human missions to deep space and Mars. Credits: NASA

In a major step towards flight, engineers at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans have finished welding together the pressure vessel for the first Lunar Orion crew module that will blastoff in 2018 atop the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

This Orion is going to the Moon and back.

The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on an unpiloted flight dubbed Exploration Mission, or EM-1, 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. Continue reading “NASA Completes Welding on Lunar Orion EM-1 Pressure Vessel Launching in 2018”

NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016

NASA has just received a significant boost in the agency’s current budget after both chambers of Congress passed the $1.1 Trillion 2016 omnibus spending bill this morning, Friday, Dec. 18, which funds the US government through the remainder of Fiscal Year 2016.

As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounts to nearly $19.3 Billion – an outstandingly magnificent result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier this year. Continue reading “NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016”

International Space Station Achieves 15 Years of Continuous Human Presence in Orbit

The International Space Station (ISS) achieved 15 years of a continuous human presence in orbit, as of today, Nov. 2, aboard the football field sized research laboratory ever since the first Russian/American crew of three cosmonauts and astronauts comprising Expedition 1 arrived in a Soyuz capsule at the then much tinier infant orbiting complex on Nov. 2, 2000.

Today, the space station is host to the Expedition 45 crew of six humans – from America, Russia and Japan – that very symbolically also includes the first ever crew spending one year aboard and that highlights the outposts expanding role from a research lab to a deep space exploration test bed for experiments and technologies required for sending humans on interplanetary journeys to the Martian system in the 2030s.

The ISS was only made possible by over two decades of peaceful and friendly international cooperation by the most powerful nations on Earth on a scale rarely seen.

“I believe the International Space Station should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden last week during remarks to the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC., on October 28, 2015.

“Exploration has taught us more than we have ever known about our Universe and our place in it.”

“The ISS has already taught us what’s possible when tens of thousands of people across 15 countries collaborate so that human beings from different nations can live and work in space together.”

“Yet, for all these accomplishments, when you consider all the possibilities ahead of us you can only reach one conclusion; We are just getting started!”

6 person ISS Expedition 45 Crew celebrates 15 Years of operation with humans on 2 Nov 2015.  Credit: NASA
6 person ISS Expedition 45 Crew celebrates 15 Years of operation with humans on 2 Nov 2015. Credit: NASA

“No better place to celebrate #15YearsOnStation! #HappyBday, @space_station! Thanks for the hospitality! #YearInSpace.” tweeted NASA astronaut Scott Kelly from the ISS today along with a crew portrait.

The space station is the largest engineering and construction project in space combining the funding, hardware, knowhow, talents and crews from 5 space agencies and 15 countries – NASA, Roscomos, ESA (European Space Agency), JAXA (Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space.  Credits: NASA
NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA

The collaborative work in space has transcended our differences here on Earth and points the way forward to an optimistic future that benefits all humanity.

The station orbits at an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth. It measures 357 feet (109 meters) end-to-end and has an internal pressurized volume of 32,333 cubic feet, equivalent to that of a Boeing 747.

The uninterrupted human presence on the station all began when Expedition 1 docked at the outpost on Nov. 2, 2000, with its first residents including Commander William Shepherd of NASA and cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko of Roscosmos.

For the first station trio in November 2000, the vehicle included three modules; the Zarya module and the Zvezda service module from Russia and the Unity module from the US.

In this photo, Expedition 1 crew members (from left to right) Commander Bill Shepherd, and Flight Engineers Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev pose with a model of their home away from home.  Image Credit: NASA
In this photo, Expedition 1 crew members (from left to right) Commander Bill Shepherd, and Flight Engineers Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev pose with a model of their home away from home. Image Credit: NASA

Over the past 15 years, after more than 115 construction and logistics flight, the station has grown by leaps and bounds from its small initial configuration of only three pressurized modules from Russian and America into a sprawling million pound orbiting outpost sporting a habitable volume the size of a six bedroom house, with additional new modules and hardware from Europe, Japan and Canada.

The ISS has been visited by over 220 people from 17 countries.

The “1 Year ISS crew” reflects the international cooperation that made the station possible and comprises current ISS commander NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, who are now just past the half way mark of their mission.

“Over the weekend, I called NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who is currently halfway through his one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, to congratulate him on setting the American records for both cumulative and continuous days in space,” Bolden said in a NASA statement released today.

“I also took the opportunity to congratulate Commander Kelly — and the rest of the space station crew — for being part of a remarkable moment 5,478 days in the making: the 15th anniversary of continuous human presence aboard the space station.”

Scott Kelly, U.S. astronaut and commander of the current Expedition 45 crew, broke the US record for time spent in space on Oct. 16, 2015. Credit: NASA
Scott Kelly, U.S. astronaut and commander of the current Expedition 45 crew, broke the US record for time spent in space on Oct. 16, 2015. Credit: NASA

The complete Expedition 45 crew members include Station Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Kjell Lindgren of NASA, Flight Engineers Mikhail Kornienko, Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Flight Engineer Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

For the first nine years, the station was home to crews of two or three. Starting in 2009 the crew size was doubled to a permanent crew of six humans after the habitable volume, research facilities, equipment and supporting provisions had grown sufficiently.

“Humans have been living in space aboard the International Space Station 24-7-365 since Nov. 2, 2000. That’s 15 Thanksgivings, New Years, and holiday seasons astronauts have spent away from their families. 15 years of constant support from Mission Control Houston. And 15 years of peaceful international living in space,” says NASA.

Expedition 45 Crew Portrait: Station Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Kjell Lindgren of NASA, Flight Engineers Mikhail Kornienko, Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Flight Engineer Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.  Credit: NASA/Roscosmos/JAXA
Expedition 45 Crew Portrait: Station Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Kjell Lindgren of NASA, Flight Engineers Mikhail Kornienko, Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Flight Engineer Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Credit: NASA/Roscosmos/JAXA

The US contributed and built the largest number of segments of the space station, followed by Russia.

NASA’s Space Shuttles hauled the US segments aloft inside the orbiters huge payload bay, starting from the first construction mission in 1998 carrying the Unity module to the final shuttle flight STS-135 in 2011, which marked the completion of construction and retirement of the shuttles.

With the shuttle orbiters now sitting in museums and no longer flying, the Russian Soyuz capsule is the only means of transporting crews to the space station and back.

The longevity of the ISS was recently extended from 2020 to 2024 after approval from President Obama. Most of the partners nations have also agreed to the extension. Many in the space community believe the station hardware is quite resilient and hope for further extensions to 2028 and beyond.

“The International Space Station, which President Obama has extended through 2024, is a testament to the ingenuity and boundless imagination of the human spirit. The work being done on board is an essential part of NASA’s journey to Mars, which will bring American astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s,” says Bolden.

“For 15 years, humanity’s reach has extended beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Since 2000, human beings have been living continuously aboard the space station, where they have been working off-the-Earth for the benefit of Earth, advancing scientific knowledge, demonstrating new technologies, and making research breakthroughs that will enable long-duration human and robotic exploration into deep space.”

A key part of enabling long duration space missions to Mars is the 1 Year ISS Mission.

Scott Kelly recently set the US records for most time in space and longest single space mission.

In coming years, additional new pressurized modules and science labs will be added by Russia and the US.

And NASA says the stations crew size will expand to seven after the US commercial Starliner and Dragon space taxis from Boeing and SpaceX start flying in 2017.

NASA is now developing the new Orion crew capsule and mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket to send astronauts to deep space destination including the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

In the meantime, Kelly and his crew are also surely looking forward to the arrival of the next Orbital ATK Cygnus resupply ship carrying science experiments, provisions, spare parts, food and other goodies after it blasts off from Florida on Dec. 3 – detailed in my story here.

Infographic: 15 Years of Continuous Human Presence Aboard the International Space Station.  Credit: NASA
Infographic: 15 Years of Continuous Human Presence Aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

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

Ken Kremer

STS-135: Last launch using RS-25 engines that will now power NASA’s SLS deep space exploration rocket. NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
STS-135: Last launch using RS-25 engines that will now power NASA’s SLS deep space exploration rocket. NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the final flight to the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. 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

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

NASA Tests Orion’s Fate During Parachute Failure Scenario

What would happen to the astronaut crews aboard NASA’s Orion deep space capsule in the event of parachute failures in the final moments before splashdown upon returning from weeks to years long forays to the Moon, Asteroids or Mars?

NASA teams are evaluating Orion’s fate under multiple scenarios in case certain of the ships various parachute systems suffer partial deployment failures after the blistering high speed reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Orion is nominally outfitted with multiple different parachute systems including two drogue chutes and three main chutes that are essential for stabilizing and slowing the crewed spacecraft for safely landing in the Pacific Ocean upon concluding a NASA ‘Journey to Mars’ mission.”

This week engineers from NASA and prime contractor Lockheed Martin ran a dramatic and successful six mile high altitude drop test in the skies over the Arizona desert, in the instance where one of the parachutes in each of Orion’s drogue and main systems was intentionally set to fail.

“We test Orion’s parachutes to the extremes to ensure we have a safe system for bringing crews back to Earth on future flights, even if something goes wrong,” says CJ Johnson, project manager for Orion’s parachute system, in a statement.

“Orion’s parachute performance is difficult to model with computers, so putting them to the test in the air helps us better evaluate and predict how the system works.”

Although Orion hits the atmosphere at over 24,000 mph after returning from deep space, it slows significantly after atmospheric reentry.

By the time the first parachutes normally deploy, the crew module has decelerated to some 300 mph. Their job is to slow the craft down to about 20 mph by the time of ocean splashdown mere minutes later.

On Aug. 26, NASA conducted a 35,000 foot high drop test out of the cargo bay of a C-17 aircraft using an engineering test version of the Orion capsule over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona.

“The engineering model has a mass similar to that of the Orion capsule being developed for deep space missions, and similar interfaces with its parachute system,” say officials.

“Engineers purposefully simulated a failure scenario in which one of the two drogue parachutes, used to slow and stabilize Orion at high altitude, and one of its three main parachutes, used to slow the crew module to landing speed, did not deploy.”

Here’s a video detailing the entire drop test sequence of events from preflight preparations to the parachute landing.

The high-risk Aug. 26 experiment was NASA’s penultimate drop test in this engineering evaluations series. A new series of tests in 2016 will serve to qualify the parachute system for crewed flights.

Engineers prepare to test the parachute system for NASA’s Orion spacecraft at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona on Aug. 26, 2015 by loading a test version on a C-17 aircraft. Credit: NASA
Engineers prepare to test the parachute system for NASA’s Orion spacecraft at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona on Aug. 26, 2015 by loading a test version on a C-17 aircraft. Credit: NASA

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.

The parachutes operated flawlessly during the Orion EFT-1 mission.

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’s next launch is set for the uncrewed test flight called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). It will blast off on the inaugural flight of NASA’s SLS heavy lift monster rocket concurrently under development – from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.

The maiden SLS test flight 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.

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.

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.

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
Parachutes are stowed atop Orion
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

………….

Learn more about MUOS-4 USAF launch, Orion, SLS, SpaceX, Boeing, ULA, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orbital ATK, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Aug 31- Sep 2: “MUOS-4 launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Milestone Test Firing of NASA’s SLS Monster Rocket Engine Advances Human Path to Deep Space

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
Story/imagery updated
See video below of full duration hot-fire test
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With today’s (Aug. 13) successful test firing of an RS-25 main stage engine for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) monster rocket currently under development, the program passed a key milestone advancing the agency on the path to propel astronauts back to deep space at the turn of the decade.

The 535 second long test firing of the RS-25 development engine was conducted on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi – and ran for the planned full duration of nearly 9 minutes, matching the time they will fire during an actual SLS launch.

All indications are that the hot fire test apparently went off without a hitch, on first look.

“We ran the full duration and met all test objectives,” said Steve Wofford, SLS engine manager, on NASA TV following today’s’ test firing.

“There were no anomalies.” – based on the initial look.

The RS-25 is actually an upgraded version of former space shuttle main engines that 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. Those same engines are now being modified for use by the SLS.

Spectators enjoy the view during the Aug. 13, 2015 test firing of the RS-25 engine for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) on the A-1 test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  Credit: NASA
Spectators enjoy the view during the Aug. 13, 2015 test firing of the RS-25 engine for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Credit: NASA

“Data collected on performance of the engine at the various power levels will aid in adapting the former space shuttle engines to the new SLS vehicle mission requirements, including development of an all-new engine controller and software,” according to NASA officials .

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.

The core stage (first stage) of the SLS will be powered by four RS-25 engines and a pair of the five-segment solid rocket boosters that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust, making it the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen.

Since shuttle orbiters were equipped with three space shuttle main engines, the use of four RS-25s on the SLS represents another significant change that also required many modifications being thoroughly evaluated as well.

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

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

SLS 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.

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.

This video shows the full duration hot-fire test:

NASA has 16 of the RS-25s leftover from the shuttle era and they are all being modified and upgraded for use by the SLS rocket.

Today’s test was the sixth in a series of seven to qualify the modified engines to flight status. The engine ignited at 5:01 p.m. EDT and reached the full thrust level of 512,000 pounds within about 5 seconds.

The hot gas was exhausted out of the nozzle at 13 times the speed of sound.

Since the shuttle engines were designed and built over three decades ago, they are being modified where possible with state of the art components to enhance performance, functionality and ease of operation, by prime contractor Aerojet-Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California.

One of the key objectives of today’s engine firing and the entire hot fire series was to test the performance of a brand new engine controller assembled with modern manufacturing techniques.

“Operators on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis are conducting the test series to qualify an all-new engine controller and put the upgraded former space shuttle main engines through the rigorous temperature and pressure conditions they will experience during a SLS mission,” says NASA.

“The new controller, or “brain,” for the engine, which monitors engine status and communicates between the vehicle and the engine, relaying commands to the engine and transmitting data back to the vehicle. The controller also provides closed-loop management of the engine by regulating the thrust and fuel mixture ratio while monitoring the engine’s health and status.’

Video caption: RS-25 – The Ferrari of Rocket Engines explained. Credit: NASA

“The RS-25 is the most complicated rocket engine out there on the market, but that’s because it’s the Ferrari of rocket engines,” says Kathryn Crowe, RS-25 propulsion engineer.

“When you’re looking at designing a rocket engine, there are several different ways you can optimize it. You can optimize it through increasing its thrust, increasing the weight to thrust ratio, or increasing its overall efficiency and how it consumes your propellant. With this engine, they maximized all three.”

Engineers will now pour over the data collected from hundreds of data channels in great detail to thoroughly analyze the test results. They will incorporate any findings into future test firings of the RS-25s.

NASA says that testing of RS-25 flight engines is set to start later this fall.

“The RS-25 engine gives SLS a proven, high performance, affordable main propulsion system for deep space exploration. It is one of the most experienced large rocket engines in the world, with more than a million seconds of ground test and flight operations time.”

NASA plans to buy completely new sets of RS-25 engines from Aerojet-Rocketdyne taking full advantage of technological advances and modern manufacturing techniques as well as lessons learned from this hot fire series of engine tests.

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.

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration.  Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration. Credit: NASA

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.

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’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

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
STS-135: Last launch using RS-25 engines that will now power NASA’s SLS deep space exploration rocket. NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
STS-135: Last launch using RS-25 engines that will now power NASA’s SLS deep space exploration rocket. NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

How Do We Colonize Mars?

Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at that cold and dry world known as “Earth’s Twin”. I’m talking about Mars. Enjoy!

Mars. It’s a pretty unforgiving place. On this dry, desiccated world, the average surface temperature is -55 °C (-67 °F). And at the poles, temperatures can reach as low as  -153 °C (243 °F). Much of that has to do with its thin atmosphere, which is too thin to retain heat (not to mention breathe). So why then is the idea of colonizing Mars so intriguing to us?

Well, there are a number of reasons, which include the similarities between our two planets, the availability of water, the prospects for generating food, oxygen, and building materials on-site. And there are even long-term benefits to using Mars as a source of raw materials and terraforming it into a liveable environment. Let’s go over them one by one…

Examples in Fiction:

The idea of exploring and settling Mars has been explored in fiction for over a century. Most of the earliest depiction of Mars in fiction involved a planet with canals, vegetation, and indigenous life – owing to the observations of the astronomers like Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell.

However, by the latter half of the 20th century (thanks in large part to the Mariner 4 missions and scientists learning of the true conditions on Mars) fictional accounts moved away from the idea of a Martian civilization and began to deal with humans eventually colonizing and transforming the environment to suit their needs.

Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

This shift is perhaps best illustrated by Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (published in 1950). A series of short stories that take place predominantly on Mars, the collection begins with stories about a Martian civilization that begins to encounter human explorers. The stories then transition to ones that deal with human settlements on the planet, the genocide of the Martians, and Earth eventually experiencing nuclear war.

During the 1950s, many classic science fiction authors wrote about colonizing Mars. These included Arthur C. Clarke and his 1951 story The Sands of Mars, which is told from the point of view of a human reporter who travels to Mars to write about human colonists. While attempting to make a life for themselves on a desert planet, they discover that Mars has native life forms.

In 1952, Isaac Asimov released The Martian Way, a story that deals with the conflict between Earth and Mars colonists. The latter manage to survive by salvaging space junk and are forced to travel to Saturn to harvest ice when Earth enforces an embargo on their planet.

Robert A. Heinlein’s seminal novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) tells the story of a human who was raised on Mars by the native Martians and then travels to Earth as a young adult. His contact with humans proves to have a profound effect on Earth’s culture, and calls into questions many of the social mores and accepted norms of Heinlein’s time.

Artist's concept of possible exploration of the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Artist’s concept of possible exploration of the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

Philip K. Dick’s fiction also features Mars often, in every case being a dry, empty land with no native inhabitants. In his works Martian Time Slip (1964), and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), life on Mars is presented as difficult, consisting of isolated communities who do not want to live there.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), most of humanity has left Earth after a nuclear war and now live in “the colonies” on Mars. Androids (Replicants) escaping illegally to come back to Earth claim that they have left because “nobody should have to live there. It wasn’t conceived for habitation, at least not within the last billion years. It’s so old. You feel it in the stones, the terrible old age”.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (published between 1992–1996), Mars is colonized and then terraformed over the course of many centuries. Ben Bova’s Grand Tour series – which deals with the colonization of the Solar System – also includes a novel titled Mars (1992). In this novel, explorers travel to Mars – locations including Mt. Olympus and Valles Marineris – to determine is Mars is worth colonizing.

Alastair Reynolds’ short story “The Great Wall of Mars” (2000) takes place in a future where the most technologically advanced humans are based on Mars and embroiled in an interplanetary war with a faction that takes issue with their experiments in human neurology.

Artist's impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard
Artist’s impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard

In Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief (2010), we get a glimpse of Mars in the far future. The story centers on the city of Oubliette, which moves across the face of the planet. Andry Weir’s The Martian (2011) takes place in the near future, where an astronaut is stranded on Mars and forced to survive until a rescue party arrives.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (2012) takes place in a future where humanity has colonized much of the Solar System. Mars is mentioned in the course of the story as a world that has been settled and terraformed (which involved lasers cutting canals similar to what Schiaparelli described) and now has oceans covering much of its surface.

Proposed Methods:

NASA’s proposed manned mission to Mars – which is slated to take place during the 2030s using the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the Space Launch System (SLS) – is not the only proposal to send humans to the Red Planet. In addition to other federal space agencies, there are also plans by private corporations and non-profits, some of which are far more ambitious than mere exploration.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has long-term plans to send humans, though they have yet to build a manned spacecraft. Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, is also planning a manned Mars mission, with simulations (called Mars-500) having been completed in Russia back in 2011. The ESA is currently participating in these simulations as well.

In 2012, a group of Dutch entrepreneurs revealed plans for a crowdfunded campaign to establish a human Mars base, beginning in 2023. Known as Mars One, the plan calls for a series of one-way missions to establish a permanent and expanding colony on Mars, which would be financed with the help of media participation.

Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) feb 2009. Credit: NASA
Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) Feb 2009. Credit: NASA

Other details of the MarsOne plan include sending a telecom orbiter by 2018, a rover in 2020, and the base components and its settlers by 2023. The base would be powered by 3,000 square meters of solar panels and the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy rocket would be used to launch the hardware. The first crew of 4 astronauts would land on Mars in 2025; then, every two years, a new crew of 4 astronauts would arrive.

On December 2nd, 2014, NASA’s Advanced Human Exploration Systems and Operations Mission Director Jason Crusan and Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs James Reuther announced tentative support for the Boeing “Affordable Mars Mission Design.” Currently planned for the 2030s, the mission profile includes plans for radiation shielding, centrifugal artificial gravity, in-transit consumable resupply, and a return-lander.

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has also announced plans to establish a colony on Mars with a population of 80,000 people. Intrinsic to this plan is the development of the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), a spaceflight system that would rely on reusable rocket engines, launch vehicles and space capsules to transport humans to Mars and return to Earth.

As of 2014, SpaceX has begun developing the large Raptor rocket engine for the Mars Colonial Transporter, and a successful test was announced in September of 2016. In January 2015, Musk said that he hoped to release details of the “completely new architecture” for the Mars transport system in late 2015.

In June 2016, Musk stated in the first unmanned flight of the Mars transport spacecraft would take place in 2022, followed by the first manned MCT Mars flight departing in 2024. In September 2016, during the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, Musk revealed further details of his plan, which included the design for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) and estimated costs.

There may come a day when, after generations of terraforming and numerous waves of colonists, that Mars will begin to have a viable economy as well. This could take the form of mineral deposits being discovered and then sent back to Earth for sale. Launching precious metals, like platinum, off the surface of Mars would be relatively inexpensive thanks to its lower gravity.

But according to Musk, the most likely scenario (at least for the foreseeable future) would involve an economy based on real estate. With human populations exploding all over Earth, a new destination that offers plenty of room to expand is going to look like a good investment.

And once transportation issues are worked out, savvy investors are likely to start buying up land. Plus, there is likely to be a market for scientific research on Mars for centuries to come. Who knows what we might find once planetary surveys really start to open up!

Over time, many or all of the difficulties in living on Mars could be overcome through the application of geoengineering (aka. terraforming). Using organisms like cyanobacteria and phytoplankton, colonists could gradually convert much of the CO² in the atmosphere into breathable oxygen.

In addition, it is estimated that there is a significant amount of carbon dioxide (CO²) in the form of dry ice at the Martian south pole, not to mention absorbed by in the planet’s regolith (soil). If the temperature of the planet were raised, this ice would sublimate into gas and increase atmospheric pressure. Although it would still not be breathable by humans, it would be sufficient enough to eliminate the need for pressure suits.

A possible way of doing this is by deliberately triggering a greenhouse effect on the planet. This could be done by importing ammonia ice from the atmospheres of other planets in our Solar System. Because ammonia (NH³) is mostly nitrogen by weight, it could also supply the buffer gas needed for a breathable atmosphere – much as it does here on Earth.

Similarly, it would be possible to trigger a greenhouse effect by importing hydrocarbons like methane – which is common in Titan’s atmosphere and on its surface. This methane could be vented into the atmosphere where it would act to compound the greenhouse effect.

Zubrin and Chris McKay, an astrobiologist with NASA’s Ames Research center, have also suggested creating facilities on the surface that could pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thus triggering global warming (much as they do here on Earth).

Other possibilities exist as well, ranging from orbital mirrors that would heat the surface to deliberately impacting the surface with comets. But regardless of the method, possibilities exist for transforming Mars’ environment that could make it more suitable for humans in the long run – many of which we are currently doing right here on Earth (with less positive results).

Another proposed solution is building habitats underground. By building a series of tunnels that connect between subterranean habitats, settlers could forgo the need for oxygen tanks and pressure suits when they are away from home.

Additionally, it would provide protection against radiation exposure. Based on data obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, it is also speculated that habitable environments exist underground, making it an even more attractive option.

Potential Benefits:

As already mentioned, there are many interesting similarities between Earth and Mars that make it a viable option for colonization. For starters, Mars and Earth have very similar lengths of days. A Martian day is 24 hours and 39 minutes, which means that plants and animals – not to mention human colonists – would find that familiar.

This diagram shows the distances of the planets in the Solar System (upper row) and in the Gliese 581 system (lower row), from their respective stars (left). The habitable zone is indicated as the blue area, showing that Gliese 581 d is located inside the habitable zone around its low-mass red star. Based on a diagram by Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux. Credit: ESO
Diagram showing the habitable zones of the Solar System (upper row) and the Gliese 581 system (lower row). Based on a diagram by Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux. Credit: ESO

Mars also has an axial tilt that is very similar to Earth’s, which means it has the same basic seasonal patterns as our planet (albeit for longer periods of time). Basically, when one hemisphere is pointed towards the Sun, it experiences summer while the other experiences winter – complete with warmer temperatures and longer days.

This too would work well when it comes to growing seasons and would provide colonists with a comforting sense of familiarity and a way of measuring out the year. Much like farmers here on Earth, native Martians would experience a “growing season”, a “harvest”, and would be able to hold annual festivities to mark the changing of the seasons.

Also, much like Earth, Mars exists within our Sun’s habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks zone“), though it is slightly towards its outer edge. Venus is similarly located within this zone, but its location on the inner edge (combined with its thick atmosphere) has led to it becoming the hottest planet in the Solar System. That, combined with its sulfuric acid rains makes Mars a much more attractive option.

Additionally, Mars is closer to Earth than the other Solar planets – except for Venus, but we already covered why it’s not a very good option! This would make the process of colonizing it easier. In fact, every few years when the Earth and Mars are at opposition – i.e. when they are closest to each other – the distance varies, making certain “launch windows” ideal for sending colonists.

For example, on April 8th, 2014, Earth and Mars were 92.4 million km (57.4 million miles) apart at opposition. On May 22nd, 2016, they will be 75.3 million km (46.8 million miles) apart, and by July 27th of 2018, a meager 57.6 million km (35.8 million miles) will separate our two worlds. During these windows, getting to Mars would be a matter of months rather than years.

Also, Mars has vast reserves of water in the form of ice. Most of this water ice is located in the polar regions, but surveys of Martian meteorites have suggested that much of it may also be locked away beneath the surface. This water could be extracted and purified for human consumption easily enough.

In his book, The Case for Mars, Robert Zubrin also explains how future human colonists might be able to live off the land when traveling to Mars, and eventually colonize it. Instead of bringing all their supplies from Earth – like the inhabitants of the International Space Station – future colonists would be able to make their own air, water, and even fuel by splitting Martian water into oxygen and hydrogen.

Global map of Water ice on Mars
New estimates of water ice on Mars suggest there may be large reservoirs of underground ice at non-polar latitudes. Credit: Feldman et al., 2011

Preliminary experiments have shown that Mars soil could be baked into bricks to create protective structures, which would reduce the amount of material that needs to be shipped to the surface. Earth plants could eventually be grown in Martian soil too, assuming they get enough sunlight and carbon dioxide. Over time, planting on the native soil could also help to create a breathable atmosphere.

Challenges:

Despite the aforementioned benefits, there are also some rather monumental challenges to colonizing the Red Planet. For starters, there is the matter of the average surface temperature, which is anything but hospitable. While temperatures around the equator at midday can reach a balmy 20 °C, at the Curiosity site – the Gale Crater, which is close to the equator – typical nighttime temperatures are as low as -70 °C.

The gravity on Mars is also only about 40% of what we experience on Earth’s, which would make adjusting to it quite difficult. According to a NASA report, the effects of zero-gravity on the human body are quite profound, with a loss of up to 5% muscle mass a week and 1% of bone density a month.

Naturally, these losses would be lower on the surface of Mars, where there is at least some gravity. But permanent settlers would still have to contend with the problems of muscle degeneration and osteoporosis in the long run.

 The Biosphere 2 project is an attempt to simulate Mars-like conditions on Earth. Credit: Science Photo Library
The Biosphere 2 project is an attempt to simulate Mars-like conditions on Earth. Credit: Science Photo Library

And then there’s the atmosphere, which is unbreathable. About 95% of the planet’s atmosphere is carbon dioxide, which means that in addition to producing breathable air for their habitats, settlers would also not be able to go outside without a pressure suit and bottled oxygen.

Mars also has no global magnetic field comparable to Earth’s geomagnetic field. Combined with a thin atmosphere, this means that a significant amount of ionizing radiation is able to reach the Martian surface.

Thanks to measurements taken by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft’s Mars Radiation Environment Experiment (MARIE), scientists learned that radiation levels in orbit above Mars are 2.5 times higher than at the International Space Station. Levels on the surface would be lower, but would still be higher than human beings are accustomed to.

In fact, a recent paper submitted by a group of MIT researchers – which analyzed the Mars One plan to colonize the planet beginning in 2020 – concluded that the first astronaut would suffocate after 68 days, while the others would die from a combination of starvation, dehydration, or incineration in an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

Artist's concept of a Martian astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One
Artist’s concept of a Martian astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One

In short, the challenges to creating a permanent settlement on Mars are numerous, but not necessarily insurmountable. And if we do decide, as individuals and as a species, that Mars is to become a second home for humanity, we will no doubt find creative ways to address them all.

Who knows? Someday, perhaps even within our own lifetimes, there could be real Martians. And they would be us!

Universe Today has many interesting articles about the possibility of humans living on Mars. Here’s a great article by Nancy Atkinson about the possibility of a one-way, one-person trip to Mars

What about using microbes to help colonize mars? And if you want to know the distances between Earth and Mars, check it out here.

For more information, check out Mars colonies coming soon, Hubblesite’s News Releases about Mars, and NASA’s Quick Facts

The Mars Society is working to try and colonize Mars. And Red Colony is a great resource of articles about colonizing Mars.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Mars in general, we have done several podcast episodes about the Red Planet at Astronomy Cast. Episode 52: Mars, Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars, and Episode 94: Humans to Mars – Part 1, Scientists.

Reference:
NASA Quest: Possibility of colonizing Mars