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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the next step for the LH2 tank?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The maiden test flight of the SLS/Orion is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) Block 1 configuration with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds – more powerful than NASA’s Saturn V moon landing rocket.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

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

Graphic shows all the dome, barrel, ring and engine components used to assemble the five major structures of the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) in Block 1 configuration. Credits: NASA/MSFC
Graphic shows all the dome, barrel, ring and engine components used to assemble the five major structures of the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) in Block 1 configuration. Credits: NASA/MSFC
At NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Patrick Whipps/NASA SLS Stages Element Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss details of SLS manufacture by the Circumferential Dome Weld Tool used to fabricate dome segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
At NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Patrick Whipps/NASA SLS Stages Element Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss details of SLS manufacture by the Circumferential Dome Weld Tool used to fabricate dome segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC
Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC

NASA 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”

Matt Damon of ‘The Martian’ Explains NASA’s Journey to Mars – ISS Crew Previews Film on Orbit

Video caption: ‘The Martian’ Star Matt Damon Discusses NASA’s Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA

The excitement is building for the worldwide movie premiere of ‘The Martian’ on Oct. 2.

Based on the bestselling book by Andy Weir, ‘The Martian’ tells the story of how NASA astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is accidentally stranded on the surface of Mars during a future manned expedition, after a sudden and unexpectedly fierce dust storm forces the rest of the crew to quickly evacuate after they believe he is dead.

In the video above, Matt Damon discusses NASA’s ongoing real life efforts focused on turning science fiction dreams into reality and sending astronauts to Mars.

Watney actually survived the storm but lost contact with NASA. The film recounts his ingenious years long struggle to survive, figure out how to tell NASA he is alive and send a rescue crew before he starves to death on a planet where nothing grows. Watney’s predicament is a survival lesson to all including NASA.

‘The Martian’ was written by Andy Weir in 2010 and has now been produced as a major Hollywood motion picture starring world famous actor Matt Damon and directed by the world famous director Ridley Scott from 20th Century Fox.

NASA’s overriding strategic goal is to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s.

‘The Martian’ is a rather realistic portrayal of how NASA might accomplish the ‘Journey to Mars.’

“Sending people to Mars and returning them safely is the challenge of a generation,” says Damon in the video.

“The boot prints of astronauts will follow the rover tracks [of NASA’s Curiosity rover] thanks to innovations happening today.”

“NASA’s Journey to Mars begins on the International Space Station (ISS) .. where we are learning how humans can thrive over long periods without gravity.”

The current six person crew serving aboard the ISS even got a sneak preview of The Martian this past weekend!

Gleeful NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, commander of the Expedition 45 crew, just tweeted a photo of the crew watching ‘The Martian’ while soaring some 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth.

“Watched @MartianMovie on @Space_Station last night! Today working towards our #JourneyToMars during my #YearInSpace!” tweeted NASA astronaut Scott Kelly.

Kelly comprises one half of the first ever ‘1 Year ISS Crew’ along with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, aimed at determining the long term physical and psychological effects on the human body of people living and working in the weightlessness of space.

The 1 Year ISS mission is an important data gathering milestone on the human road to Mars since the round trip time to the Red Planet and back will take approximately 3 years or more.

In order to send astronauts to the Red Planet, NASA is now developing the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift booster and the Orion crew capsule to propel astronauts farther than ever before on the Journey to Mars.

The first unmanned test flight of SLS/Orion is slated for Nov. 2018. The first manned flight could occur between 2021 and 2023 – read my new report here.

“The Journey to Mars will forever change our history books … and expand our human presence deeper into the solar system,” says Damon.

THE MARTIAN features a star studded cast that includes Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover.

Matt Damon stars as NASA astronaut Mark Watney in ‘The Martian.' Credit: 20th Century Fox
Matt Damon stars as NASA astronaut Mark Watney in ‘The Martian.’ Credit: 20th Century Fox

“NASA has endorsed “The Martian’” Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences, told Universe Today. Green served as technical consultant on the film.

I have read the book (I’m a professional chemist) and highly recommend it to everyone.

The Martian is all about how Watney uses his botany and chemistry skills to “Science the Sh.. out of it” to grow food and survive.

Learning how to live of the land will be a key hurdle towards enabling long term space voyages.

Kelly and his ISS cremates took a big first step towards putting that theory into practice when they recently grew, harvested and ate the first space grown NASA lettuce on the ISS using the Veggie experimental rack – detailed in my recent story here.

NASA Astronauts Kjell Lindgren (center) and Scott Kelly (right) and Kimiya Yui (left) of Japan consume space grown food for the first time ever, from the aboard the  from the Veggie plant growth system on the International Space Station.  Credit: NASA TV
NASA Astronauts Kjell Lindgren (center) and Scott Kelly (right) and Kimiya Yui (left) of Japan consume space grown food for the first time ever, from the Veggie plant growth system on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV

Here’s the second official trailer of “The Martian:

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

Ken Kremer

Veggie demonstration apparatus growing red romaine lettuce under LED lights in the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Veggie demonstration apparatus growing red romaine lettuce under LED lights in the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

‘One Direction’ Heads to Space in new NASA Themed Music Video – ‘Drag Me Down’

When it comes to space exploration it’s resoundingly clear that rock band ‘One Direction’ is headed in the right direction – To Infinity and Beyond! – with the release of their new NASA themed music video ‘Drag Me Down.’

The new single – ‘Drag Me Down’ – by the world famous boy band is out now and out of this world!

Just click on the Vevo video above and enjoy their musical tour through space exploration themed videos filmed on location at NASA facilities, including the Johnson Space Center – home to astronauts training to explore ‘Where No One Has Gone Before.’

Over 18,100,000 views so far!! Millions of eyeballs exposed to NASA activities like never before!

As you’ll see in the video (published on Aug. 20) the quartet got a first hand look at a host of NASA’s cutting edge technology and hardware like NASA’s Orion deep space crew capsule that’s destined to propel our astronauts back to deep space and explore wondrous destinations including the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet, as part of the agency’s ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative.

Motivating our young people to study and excel in math, science, engineering, technology and the arts is what it’s all about to inspire the next generation of explorers and advance all humanity to fulfilling and prosperous lives.

“#DragMeDownMusicVideo @space_station Gravity can’t drag me down! Great to see @NASA inspire our next gen #YearInSpace,” tweeted NASA astronaut Scott Kelly currently working aboard the International Space Station.

Lets join “One Direction’s” space tour.

So the guys donned NASA’s spacesuits as they began ‘training’ to fly aboard NASA’s Orion spaceship.

One Direction crew in spacesuits
One Direction crew in spacesuits

Orion flew its first uncrewed mission on the EFT-1 flight in December 2014, launching aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Harry, Niall, Louis and Liam all got suited up to check out and sit inside an Orion trainer. Next you’ll see them ‘blast off’ for space atop the Delta IV rocket from the Florida Space Coast in their music video.

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But first they rollick with the astronauts T-38 training jets which are used by real-life astronauts to practice spacecraft operations at supersonic speeds up to Mach 1.6 and experience blistering accelerations of more than seven Gs!

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Here we join Louis to rove around Johnson Space Center in NASA’s Space Exploration Vehicle that will one day be used for awe-inspiring interplanetary journey’s to the surface of alien bodies like the moon, near-Earth asteroids and Mars!

Even though Louis is roving around Johnson Space Center in our Space Exploration Vehicle, its intended destination is quite different. The SEV will be used for in-space missions and for surface explorations of planetary bodies, including near-Earth asteroids and Mars!
Even though Louis is roving around Johnson Space Center in our Space Exploration Vehicle, its intended destination is quite different. The SEV will be used for in-space missions and for surface explorations of planetary bodies, including near-Earth asteroids and Mars!

Wouldn’t you like to join Louis!

Meanwhile Harry got to hang out with Robonaut at the Johnson Space Center during the filming of the music video.

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Simultaneously the Robonauts twin brother, Robonaut 2, is hanging out in space right now with other humans. Robonaut 2 is working side-by-side with NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren and the rest of the six man crew floating aboard the International Space Station and soaring some 250 miles (400 kilometers) overhead.

“Going where the risks are too great for people, robots will make it so we never get ‘dragged down’!” says NASA.

“Currently living in space, @StationCDRKelly is 1 of 6 people that literally cannot be dragged down. #DragMeDown,” NASA tweeted.

The twin brother of the R2 Robonaut launched to the ISS on Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-133 mission, its 39th and final flight to space. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The twin brother of the R2 Robonaut launched to the ISS on Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-133 mission, its 39th and final flight to space. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

And here’s Niall experiencing reduced gravity in the Partial Gravity Simulator & Space Station Mockup Bike. This simulator is where astronauts learn how to work effectively in the partial gravity of space and on the surface of other worlds

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I’ve been a fan of ‘One Direction’ and now nothing will ‘hold me back’ following #DragMeDown.

And don’t forget that you can watch Commander Scott Kelly and his five international crew mates on a regular basis as they soar overhead. Just click on NASA’s Spot the Station link and plug in your location.

And make sure you sign up to ‘Send Your Name to Mars’ on InSight – NASA’s next Mars Lander. The deadline is Sept 8 sign up details in my 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.

Here’s what the real Orion EFT-1 looked like after the mission was successfully completed and it was recovered from splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

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

Right now NASA is building the next Orion.

If you desire to be aboard a future Orion, don’t let anything ‘Drag You Down.’

And tell Congress and the White House to ‘Support Full Funding for NASA!’ – – Because Congress has significantly slashed funding for the commercial crew capsules in the upcoming 2016 Fiscal Year budget!

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

Ken Kremer

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

OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sampler Enters Final Assembly

OSIRIS-Rex, NASA’s first ever spacecraft designed to collect and retrieve pristine samples of an asteroid for return to Earth has entered its final assembly phase.

Approximately 17 months from now, OSIRIS-REx is slated to launch in the fall of 2016 and visit asteroid Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid.

Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid and was selected for the sample return mission because it “could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and host organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth,” says NASA.

The spacecraft is equipped with a suite of five science instruments to remotely study the 492 meter meter wide asteroid.

Eventually it will gather rocks and soil and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth in 2023 for study by researchers here with all the most sophisticated science instruments available.

The precious sample would land arrive at Utah’s Test and Training Range in a sample return canister similar to the one for the Stardust spacecraft.

The OSIRIS-REx – which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer – spacecraft passed a critical decision milestone on the road to launch and has been officially authorized by NASA to transition into this next mission phase.

The decision meeting to give the go ahead for final assembly was held at NASA Headquarters in Washington on March 30 and was chaired by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, led by former astronaut John Grunsfeld who was the lead spacewalker on the final shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009.

“This is an exciting time for the OSIRIS-REx team,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-Rex at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in a stetement.

“After almost four years of intense design efforts, we are now proceeding with the start of flight system assembly. I am grateful for the hard work and team effort required to get us to this point.”

In a clean room facility near Denver, Lockheed Martin  technicians began assembling a NASA spacecraft that will collect samples of an asteroid for scientific study. Working toward a September 2016 launch, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid back to Earth.  Credit: Lockheed Martin
In a clean room facility near Denver, Lockheed Martin technicians began assembling a NASA spacecraft that will collect samples of an asteroid for scientific study. Working toward a September 2016 launch, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid back to Earth. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The transition to the next phase known as ATLO (assembly, test and launch operations) is critical for the program because it is when the spacecraft physically comes together, says Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for OSIRIS-REx. Lockheed is building OSIRIS-Rex in their Denver assembly facility.

“ATLO is a turning point in the progress of our mission. After almost four years of intense design efforts, we are now starting flight system assembly and integration of the science instruments,” noted Lauretta.

Over the next six months, technicians will install on the spacecraft structure its many subsystems, including avionics, power, telecomm, mechanisms, thermal systems, and guidance, navigation and control, according to NASA.

“Building a spacecraft that will bring back samples from an asteroid is a unique opportunity,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, in a statement.

“We can feel the momentum to launch building. We’re installing the electronics in the next few weeks and shortly after we’ll power-on the spacecraft for the first time.”

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled for launch in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 411 rocket, which includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing and one solid rocket motor. Only three Atlas V’s have been launched in this configuration.

“In just over 500 days, we will begin our seven-year journey to Bennu and back. This is an exciting time,” said Lauretta.

The spacecraft will reach Bennu in 2018 and return a sample to Earth in 2023.

Bennu is an unchanged remnant from the collapse of the solar nebula and birth of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, little altered over time.

The Atlas V with MMS launches, as seen by this camera placed in the front of the launchpad. Copyright © Alex Polimeni
OSIRIS-REx will launch in 2016 on an Atlas V similar to this one lofting NASA’s MMS satellites on March 12, 2015, as seen by this camera placed in the front of the launchpad. Copyright © Alex Polimeni

Significant progress in spacecraft assembly has already been accomplished at Lockheed’s Denver manufacturing facility.

“The spacecraft structure has been integrated with the propellant tank and propulsion system and is ready to begin system integration in the Lockheed Martin highbay,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“The payload suite of cameras and sensors is well into its environmental test phase and will be delivered later this summer/fall.”

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, following New Horizons to Pluto and Juno to Jupiter, which also launched on Atlas V rockets.

The most recent Atlas V launched NASA’s MMS quartet of Earth orbiting science probes on March 12, 2015.

OSIRIS-REx logo
OSIRIS-REx logo

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is responsible for overall mission management.

OSIRIS-REx complements NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which is a robotic spacecraft mission aimed at capturing a surface boulder from a different near-Earth asteroid and moving it into a stable lunar orbit for eventual up close sample collection by astronauts launched in NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. Orion will launch atop NASA’s new SLS heavy lift booster concurrently under development.

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

Ken Kremer

Artist's concept of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from asteroid 1999 RQ36. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from asteroid 1999 RQ36. Credit: NASA
Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
OSIRIS-REx is the 3rd mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program. It follows NASA’s Juno orbiter seen here soaring skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orion Passes Key NASA Flight Review – “GO” for Maiden Test Flight on Dec. 4

After a decade of hard work, numerous twists and turns, and ups and downs, NASA’s new Orion deep space crew vehicle is finally, and officially, marching towards its maiden blastoff in less than two week’s time.

The Orion spacecraft cleared one of the final hurdles to its first launch when top managers from NASA and Lockheed Martin successfully completed a key review of the vehicle’s systems ahead of the looming Dec. 4 flight test.

Orion passed the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) on Thursday, Nov. 20, and officials announced that the spacecraft is “GO” for proceeding on the road to launch – and one day on to Mars!

The FRR is a rigorous assessment of the spacecraft, its systems, mission operations, and support functions needed to successfully complete Orion’s first voyage to space.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion and recently completed its fabrication in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center in September 2014.

Orion in orbit in this artists concept.  Credit: NASA
Orion in orbit in this artists concept. Credit: NASA

Orion will lift off on a Delta IV Heavy rocket on its inaugural test flight to space on the uncrewed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission at 7:05 a.m. EST on December 4, 2014, from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket is the world’s most powerful rocket and the only booster sufficiently powerful to launch the 50,000 pound Orion EFT-1 spacecraft to orbit.

The rocket was transported to pad 37 in late September. Then, on Nov. 12, this path finding Orion spacecraft was itself rolled out to the launch pad and hoisted and bolted atop the Delta IV Heavy.

The United Launch Alliance Delta-IV Heavy rocket tasked with launching NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission being hoisted vertical atop Space Launch Complex-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the morning of Oct. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
The United Launch Alliance Delta-IV Heavy rocket tasked with launching NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission being hoisted vertical atop Space Launch Complex-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the morning of Oct. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

The critical December test flight will pave the way for the first human missions to deep space in more than four decades since NASA’s Apollo moon landing missions ended in 1972.

To learn more about the major events and goals happening during Orion’s EFT-1 mission be sure to check out NASA’s cool new set of infographics explaining the 8 key events in my story – here.

The two-orbit, four and a half hour Orion EFT-1 flight around Earth will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

EFT-1 will test the rocket, second stage, jettison mechanisms, as well as avionics, attitude control, computers, and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft.

Then the spacecraft will carry out a high speed re-entry through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph and scorching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit to test the heat shield, before splashing down for a parachute assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS) on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS) on Sept. 11, 2014, at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will carry America’s astronauts beyond Earth on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars, and other destinations in our Solar System.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage and he’ll be onsite at KSC in the days leading up to the historic launch on Dec. 4.

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

Ken Kremer

Orion flight test profile for the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) launching on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: NASA
Orion flight test profile for the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) launching on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: NASA
Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Assembly Completed on Powerful Delta IV Rocket Boosting Maiden Orion Capsule Test Flight

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – Assembly of the powerful Delta IV rocket boosting the pathfinder version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule on its maiden test flight in December has been completed.

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will eventually carry America’s astronauts beyond Earth on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and other destinations in our Solar System.

The state-of-the-art Orion spacecraft is scheduled to launch on its inaugural uncrewed mission, dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), in December 2014 atop the Delta IV Heavy rocket. It replaces NASA’s now retired space shuttle orbiters.

The triple barreled Delta IV Heavy is currently the most powerful rocket in America’s fleet following the retirement of the NASA’s Space Shuttle program.

Engineers from the rocket’s manufacturer – United Launch Alliance (ULA) – took a major step forward towards Orion’s first flight when they completed the integration of the three primary core elements of the rockets first stage with the single engine upper stage.

These three RS-68 engines will power each of the attached Delta IV Heavy Common Booster Cores (CBCs) the will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
These three RS-68 engines will power each of the attached Delta IV Heavy Common Booster Cores (CBCs) that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

All of the rocket integration work and preflight processing took place inside ULA’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF), at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Universe Today recently visited the Delta IV booster during an up close tour inside the HIF facility last week where the rocket was unveiled to the media in a horizontally stacked configuration. See my Delta IV photos herein.

The HIF building is located at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37), on Cape Canaveral, a short distance away from the launch pad where the Orion EFT-1 mission will lift off on Dec. 4.

“The day-to-day processing is performed by ULA,” said Merri Anne Stowe of NASA’s Fleet Systems Integration Branch of the Launch Services Program (LSP), in a NASA statement.

“NASA’s role is to keep a watchful eye on everything and be there to help if any issues come up.”

The first stage is comprised of a trio of three Delta IV Common Booster Cores (CBCs).

Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Each CBC measures 134 feet in length and 17 feet in diameter. They are equipped with an RS-68 engine powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants producing 656,000 pounds of thrust. Together they generate 1.96 million pounds of thrust.

This past spring I visited the HIF after the first two CBCs arrived by barge from their ULA assembly plant in Decatur, Alabama, located about 20 miles west of Huntsville.

The first CBC booster was attached to the center booster in June. The second one was attached in early August, according to ULA.

“After the three core stages went through their initial inspections and processing, the struts were attached, connecting the booster stages with the center core,” Stowe said. “All of this takes place horizontally.”

The Delta IV cryogenic second stage testing and attachment was completed in August and September. It measures 45 feet in length and 17 feet in diameter. It is equipped with a single RL10-B-2 engine, that also burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant and generates 25,000 pounds of thrust.

“The hardware for Exploration Flight Test-1 is coming together well,” Stowe noted in a NASA statement.

“We haven’t had to deal with any serious problems. All of the advance planning appears to be paying off.”

This same Delta IV upper stage will be used in the Block 1 version of NASA’s new heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS).

Be sure to read my recent article detailing the ribbon cutting ceremony opening the manufacture of the SLS core stage at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, LA. The SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built by humans, exceeding that of the iconic Saturn V rocket that sent humans to walk on the surface of the Moon.

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

The Delta IV rocket will be rolled out to the SLC-37 Cape Canaveral launch pad this week.
Assembly of the Orion EFT-1 capsule and stacking atop the service module was also completed in September at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

I was also on hand at KSC when the Orion crew module/service module (CM/SM) stack was rolled out on Sept. 11, 2014, on a 36-wheel transporter from its high bay assembly facility in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building.

NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) on Sept. 11, 2014, at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

It was moved about 1 mile to its next stop on the way to SLC-37 – the KSC fueling facility named the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS). Read my Orion move story here.

The two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, SLS, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Orion EFT 1 crew module departs Neil Armstrong Operation and Checkout Building on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, beginning the long journey to the launch pad and planned liftoff on Dec. 4, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion EFT 1 crew module departs Neil Armstrong Operation and Checkout Building on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, beginning the long journey to the launch pad and planned liftoff on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Space journalists including Ken Kremer/Universe Today pose with the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Space journalists including Ken Kremer/Universe Today pose with the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

US Heavy Lift Mars Rocket Passes Key Review and NASA Sets 2018 Maiden Launch Date

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Credit: NASA/MSFC
Story updated[/caption]

After a thorough review of cost and engineering issues, NASA managers formally approved the development of the agency’s mammoth heavy lift rocket – the Space Launch System or SLS – which will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built and is intended to take astronauts farther beyond Earth into deep space than ever before possible – to Asteroids and Mars.

The maiden test launch of the SLS is targeted for November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version, top NASA officials announced at a briefing for reporters on Aug. 27.

On its first flight known as EM-1, the SLS will also loft an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on an approximately three week long test flight taking it beyond the Moon to a distant retrograde orbit, said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, at the briefing.

Previously NASA had been targeting Dec. 2017 for the inaugural launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – a slip of nearly one year.

But the new Nov. 2018 target date is what resulted from the rigorous assessment of the technical, cost and scheduling issues.

This artist concept shows NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, rolling to a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center at night. SLS will be the most powerful rocket in history, and the flexible, evolvable design of this advanced, heavy-lift launch vehicle will meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs.   Credit:  NASA/MSFC
This artist concept shows NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, rolling to a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center at night. SLS will be the most powerful rocket in history, and the flexible, evolvable design of this advanced, heavy-lift launch vehicle will meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs. Credit: NASA/MSFC

The decision to move forward with the SLS comes after a wide ranging review of the technical risks, costs, schedules and timing known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, at the briefing. Lightfoot oversaw the review process.

“After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment,” said Lightfoot. “Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program.”

“We are making excellent progress on SLS designed for missions beyond low Earth orbit,” Lightfoot said. “We owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right.”

He said that the development cost baseline for the 70-metric ton version of the SLS was $7.021 billion starting from February 2014 and continuing through the first launch set for no later than November 2018.

Lightfoot emphasized that NASA is also building an evolvable family of vehicles that will increase the lift to an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), which will eventually enable the deep space human missions farther out than ever before into our solar system, leading one day to Mars.

“It’s also important to remember that we’re building a series of launch vehicles here, not just one,” Lightfoot said.

Blastoff of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew vehicle from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
Blastoff of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew vehicle from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Lightfoot and Gerstenmaier both indicated that NASA hopes to launch sooner, perhaps by early 2018.

“We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date, but will be ready no later than November 2018,” said Lightfoot.

The next step is conduct the same type of formal KDP-C reviews for the Orion crew vehicle and Ground Systems Development and Operations programs.

The first piece of SLS flight hardware already built and to be tested in flight is the stage adapter that will fly on the maiden launch of Orion this December atop a ULA Delta IV Heavy booster during the EFT-1 mission.

The initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version of the SLS stands 322 feet tall and provides 8.4 million pounds of thrust. That’s already 10 percent more thrust at launch than the Saturn V rocket that launched NASA’s Apollo moon landing missions, including Apollo 11, and it can carry more than three times the payload of the now retired space shuttle orbiters.

The core stage towers over 212 feet (64.6 meters) tall with a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 m) and stores cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage.

The first stage propulsion is powered by 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 pressure vessels for the Orion crew capsule, including EM-1 and EFT-1, are also being manufactured at MAF. And all of the External Tanks for the space shuttles were also fabricated at MAF.

The airframe structure for the first Dream Chaser astronaut taxi to low Earth orbit is likewise under construction at MAF as part of NASA’s commercial crew program.

The first crewed flight of the SLS is set for the second launch on the EM-2 mission around the 2020/2021 time frame, which may visit a captured near Earth asteroid.

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

Ken Kremer

Airframe Structure for First Commercial Dream Chaser Spacecraft Unveiled

The orbital airframe structure for the first commercial Dream Chaser mini-shuttle that will launch to Earth orbit just over two years from now has been unveiled by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and program partner Lockheed Martin.

Sierra Nevada is moving forward with plans for Dream Chaser’s first launch and unmanned orbital test flight in November 2016 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The winged Dream Chaser is being developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program aimed at restoring America’s indigenous human spaceflight access to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle built by Sierra Nevada Corp docks at ISS
Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle built by Sierra Nevada Corp docks at ISS

Lockheed Martin is fabricating the structural components for the Dream Chaser’s orbital spacecraft composite structure at the NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, Louisiana.

MAF has played a long and illustrious history in human space flight dating back to Apollo and also as the site where all the External Tanks for NASA’s space shuttle program were manufactured. Lockheed Martin also builds the pressure vessels for NASA’s deep space Orion crew vehicle at MAF.

Each piece is thoroughly inspected to insure it meets specification and then shipped to Lockheed Martin’s Aeronautics facility in Fort Worth, Texas for integration into the airframe and co-bonded assembly.

Following helicopter release the private Dream Chaser spaceplane starts glide to runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 - in this screenshot.   Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
Following helicopter release the private Dream Chaser spaceplane starts glide to runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 – in this screenshot. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

Sierra Nevada chose Lockheed Martin for this significant role in building Dream Chaser airframe based on their wealth of aerospace experience and expertise.

The composite airframe structure was recently unveiled at a joint press conference by Sierra Nevada Corporation and Lockheed Martin at the Fort Worth facility.

“As a valued strategic partner on SNC’s Dream Chaser Dream Team, Lockheed Martin is under contract to manufacture Dream Chaser orbital structure airframes,” said Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems, in a statement.

“We competitively chose Lockheed Martin because they are a world leader in composite manufacturing, have the infrastructure, resources and quality control needed to support the needs of an orbital vehicle and have a proven track record of leading our nation’s top aviation and aerospace programs. Lockheed Martin’s diverse heritage coupled with their current work on the Orion program adds an extra element of depth and expertise to our program. SNC and Lockheed Martin continue to expand and develop a strong multi-faceted relationship.”

Dream Chaser measures about 29 feet long with a 23 foot wide wing span and is about one third the size of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters.

“We are able to tailor our best manufacturing processes, and our innovative technology from across the corporation to fit the needs of the Dream Chaser program,” said Jim Crocker, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems Company Civil Space Line of Business.

Upon completion of the airframe manufacturing at Ft Worth, it will be transported to SNC’s Louisville, Colorado, facility for final integration and assembly.

Lockheed Martin will also process Dream Chaser between orbital flights at the Kennedy Space Center, FL in the recently renamed Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building.

SNC announced in July that they successfully completed and passed a series of risk reduction milestone tests on key flight hardware systems under its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA that move the private reusable spacecraft closer to its critical design review (CDR) and first flight.

As a result of completing Milestones 9 and 9a, SNC has now received 92% of its total CCiCAP Phase 1 NASA award of $227.5 million.

“We are on schedule to launch our first orbital flight in November of 2016, which will mark the beginning of the restoration of U.S. crew capability to low-Earth orbit,” says Sirangelo.

The private Dream Chaser is a reusable lifting-body design spaceship that will carry a mix of cargo and up to a seven crewmembers to the ISS. It will also be able to land on commercial runways anywhere in the world, according to SNC.

Dream Chaser is among a trio of US private sector manned spaceships being developed with seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in a public/private partnership to develop a next-generation crew transportation vehicle to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017 – a capability totally lost following the space shuttle’s forced retirement in 2011.

The SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 ‘space taxis’ are also vying for funding in the next round of contracts to be awarded by NASA around September 2014, NASA officials have told me.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Sierra Nevada, Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Rosetta, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Engineers Start Stacking Operations for Maiden Launch of NASA’s Orion Deep Space Test Capsule

The Orion crew module for Exploration Flight Test-1 is shown in the Final Assembly and System Testing (FAST) Cell, positioned over the service module just prior to mating the two sections together. Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak
Story updated[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL- Engineers have begun stacking operations for NASA’s maiden Orion deep space test capsule at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) achieving a major milestone leading to its first blastoff from the Florida Space Coast less than six months from today.

The excitement is mounting as final assembly of NASA’s Orion crew vehicle into its launch configuration started on Monday, June 9, inside the Operations and Checkout (O&C) Facility at Kennedy.

Orion will eventually carry humans to destinations far beyond low Earth orbit on new voyages of scientific discovery in our solar system.

“Orion is the next step in our journey of exploration,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot at a recent KSC media briefing.

“This mission is a stepping stone on NASA’s journey to Mars. The EFT-1 mission is so important to NASA.”

Orion is slated to launch on its inaugural unmanned test flight in December 2014 atop the mammoth, triple barreled United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The main elements of the Orion spacecraft stack include the crew module (CM), service module (SM) and the launch abort system (LAS).

On Monday, technicians from Orion’s prime contractor Lockheed Martin began aligning and stacking the crew module on top of the already completed service module in the Final Assembly and System Testing (FAST) Cell in the O & C facility at KSC.

“Ballast weights were added to ensure that the crew module’s center of gravity can achieve the appropriate entry and descent performance and also ensure that the vehicle lands in the correct orientation to reduce structural impact loads,” according to Lockheed Martin.

Engineers will remain busy throughout this week continuing to work at a 24/7 pace to get Orion ready for the December liftoff.

Orion heat shield attached to the bottom of the capsule by engineers during assembly work inside the  Operations and Checkout High Bay facility at KSC.  Credit: NASA
Orion heat shield attached to the bottom of the capsule by engineers during assembly work inside the Operations and Checkout High Bay facility at KSC. Credit: NASA

The next steps involve completing the power and fluid umbilical connections between the CM and SM and firmly bolting the two modules together inside the FAST cell.

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.  Service module at bottom.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Service module at bottom. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

An exhaustive series of electrical, avionic and radio frequency tests will follow. The team will then conduct final systems checks to confirm readiness for flight.

The LAS will then be stacked on top. The entire stack will then be rolled out to the launch pad for integration with the Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The CM/SM stacking operation was able to move forward following the successful attachment of the world’s largest heat shield onto the bottom of the CM in late May. Read my prior story – here.

“Now that we’re getting so close to launch, the spacecraft completion work is visible every day,” said Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion Program manager in a statement.

“Orion’s flight test will provide us with important data that will help us test out systems and further refine the design so we can safely send humans far into the solar system to uncover new scientific discoveries on future missions.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and science chief Astronaut John Grunsfeld discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and science chief Astronaut John Grunsfeld discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle now under development to replace the now retired space shuttle. The state-of-the-art spacecraft will carry America’s astronauts on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – past the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and Beyond!

No humans have flown beyond low Earth orbit in more than four decades since Apollo 17, NASA’s final moon landing mission launched in December 1972.

The two-orbit, four- hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

One of the primary goals of NASA’s eagerly anticipated Orion EFT-1 uncrewed test flight is to test the efficacy of the heat shield in protecting the vehicle – and future human astronauts – from excruciating temperatures reaching 4000 degrees Fahrenheit (2200 C) during scorching re-entry heating.

At the conclusion of the EFT-1 flight, the detached Orion capsule plunges back and re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 MPH (32,000 kilometers per hour).

“That’s about 80% of the reentry speed experienced by the Apollo capsule after returning from the Apollo moon landing missions,” Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion Manager of Production Operations at KSC, told me during an interview at KSC.

A trio of parachutes will then unfurl to slow Orion down for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

The EFT-1 mission will provide engineers with critical data about Orion’s heat shield, flight systems and capabilities to validate designs of the spacecraft, inform design decisions, validate existing computer models and guide new approaches to space systems development. All these measurements will aid in reducing the risks and costs of subsequent Orion flights before it begins carrying humans to new destinations in the solar system.

“We will test the heat shield, the separation of the fairing and exercise over 50% of the eventual software and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft. We will also test the recovery systems coming back into the Pacific Ocean,” said Lightfoot.

“Orion EFT-1 is really exciting as the first step on the path of humans to Mars,” said Lightfoot. “It’s a stepping stone to get to Mars.”

“We will test the capsule with a reentry velocity of about 85% of what to expect on returning [astronauts] from Mars.”

Two of the three United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV heavy boosters for NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission were unveiled during a media event inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 17, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Two of the three United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV heavy boosters for NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission were unveiled during a media event inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 17, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Concurrently, new American-made private crewed spaceships are under development by SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada – with funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) – to restore US capability to ferry US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and back to Earth by late 2017.

Read my exclusive new interview with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden explaining the importance of getting Commercial Crew online to expand our reach into space- here.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Orion schematic. Credit: NASA
Orion schematic. Credit: NASA