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

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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

‘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

NASA Invites Public to ‘Send Your Name to Mars’ on InSight – Next Red Planet Lander

Sign up to send your name to Mars on InSight, NASA’s next mission to Mars launching in March 2016. Credit: NASA
Sign up link below – don’t delay![/caption]

Calling space fans worldwide: Now is your chance to participate in NASA’s human ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative and NASA’s next robotic mission to Mars – the InSight lander launching to the Red Planet next spring.

NASA invites you to ‘Send Your Name to Mars’ on a silicon microchip aboard the InSight probe slated for blastoff on March 4, 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

InSight’s science goal is totally unique – to “listen to the heart of Mars to find the beat of rocky planet formation.”

The public can submit their names for inclusion on a dime-sized microchip that will travel on a variety of spacecraft voyaging to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, including Mars.

“Our next step in the journey to Mars is another fantastic mission to the surface,” said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“By participating in this opportunity to send your name aboard InSight to the Red Planet, you’re showing that you’re part of that journey and the future of space exploration.”

In just the first 24 hours over 67,000 Mars enthusiasts have already signed up!

But time is of the essence since the deadline to submit your name is soon: Sept. 8, 2015.

How can you sign up to fly on InSight? Is there a certificate?

NASA has made it easy to sign up.

To send your name to Mars aboard InSight, click on this weblink posted online by NASA:

http://go.usa.gov/3Aj3G

And you can also print out an elegant looking ‘Boarding Pass’ that looks like this:

Boarding Pass for NASA’s InSight Mission to Mars - launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California in March 2016.  Credit: NASA
Boarding Pass with frequent flyer miles for NASA’s InSight Mission to Mars – launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California in March 2016. Credit: NASA

Furthermore the ‘Boarding Pass’ also comes with a listing of your “frequent flier” points accumulated by your participation in NASA’s ‘fly-your-name opportunity’ that will span multiple missions and multiple decades beyond low Earth orbit.

InSight represents the second ‘fly-your-name opportunity’ in NASA’s journey to Mars program. The uncrewed Orion EFT-1 mission launched on Dec. 5, 2014 was the first chance for space fans to collect ‘Journey to Mars’ points by sending your names to space.

The ‘Send Your Name to Mars’ campaign for Orion EFT-1 was a huge success.

Over 1.38 million people flew on the silicon chip aboard the maiden flight of Orion, the NASA capsule that will eventually transport humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

Don’t dawdle. Because after InSight, you’ll have to wait about three years until late 2018 and the blastoff of the next Orion capsule on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) for you next chance to accumulate “frequent flier” points on a ‘Journey to Mars’ mission.

Orion EM-1 will launch atop NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and NASA just conducted a key test firing on Aug. 13 of the first stage engines that will power the stack to on a mission to the Moon – detailed in my recent story here.

InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a stationary lander.

It will join NASA’s surface science exploration fleet currently comprising of the Curiosity and Opportunity missions which by contrast are mobile rovers.

InSight is the first mission to understand the interior structure of the Red Planet. Its purpose is to elucidate the nature of the Martian core, measure heat flow and sense for “Marsquakes.”

“It will place the first seismometer directly on the surface of Mars to measure Martian quakes and use seismic waves to learn about the planet’s interior. It also will deploy a self-hammering heat probe that will burrow deeper into the ground than any previous device on the Red Planet. These and other InSight investigations will improve our understanding about the formation and evolution of all rocky planets, including Earth,” says NASA.

NASA's InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. As part of a series of deployment tests, the spacecraft was commanded to deploy its solar arrays in the clean room to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of Mars.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
NASA’s InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. As part of a series of deployment tests, the spacecraft was commanded to deploy its solar arrays in the clean room to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of Mars. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

The countdown clock is ticking relentlessly towards liftoff in less than seven months time in March 2016.

Insight promises to ‘science the sh**’ out of the heart of Mars!

It is funded by NASA’s Discovery Program as well as several European national space agency’s and countries. Germany and France are providing InSight’s two main science instruments; The HP3 heat probe and the SEIS seismometer through the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt. or German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES).

“Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the solar system,” says Green.

InSight Boarding pass
InSight Boarding pass

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

Ken Kremer

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

Genesis of ULA’s New Vulcan Rocket Borne of Fierce Commercial and Political Pressures: Interview

Fierce commercial and international political pressures have forced the rapid development of the new Vulcan launcher family recently announced by rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA). Vulcan’s “genesis” and development was borne of multiple unrelenting forces on ULA and is now absolutely essential and critical for its “transformation and survival in a competitive environment” moving forward, according to Dr. George Sowers, ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

“To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment,” Dr. Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.

Vulcan is ULA’s next generation rocket to space and slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.

Faced with the combined challenges of a completely changed business and political environment emanating powerfully from new space upstart SpaceX offering significantly reduced launch costs, and continuing uncertainty over the future supply of the Russian-made RD-180 workhorse rocket engines that power ULA’s venerable Atlas V rocket, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sowers and ULA’s new CEO Tory Bruno were tasked with rapidly resolving these twin threats to the firms future well being – which also significantly impacts directly on America’s national security.

“Our current plan is to have the new Vulcan rocket flying by 2019,” Sowers stated.

Whereas ULA enjoyed a virtual US launch monopoly for many years, those days are now history thanks to SpaceX.

Vulcan - United Launch Alliance (ULA)’s next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019.  Credit: ULA
Vulcan – United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

The Vulcan launcher was created in response to the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and it will combine the best features of ULA’s existing unmanned Atlas V and Delta IV booster product lines as well as being revamped with new and innovative American-made first stage engines that will eventually be reusable.

It will meet and exceed the capabilities of ULA’s current stable of launchers, including the Delta IV Heavy which recently launched NASA’s maiden Orion crew module on an unmanned test flight in Dec. 2014.

“We at ULA were faced with how do we take our existing products and transform them into a single fleet that enables us to do the entire range of missions on just one family of rockets.”

“So that was really the genesis of what we now call the “Vulcan” rocket. So this single family will be able to do everything [from medium to heavy lift],” Sowers told me.

Another requirement is that Vulcan’s manufacturing methodology be extremely efficient, slashing costs to make it cost competitive with the Space X Falcon 9. Sowers said the launcher would sell “for less than $100 million” at the base level.

“Vulcan will be the highest-performing, most cost-efficient rocket on the market. It will open up new opportunities for the nation’s use of space,” says ULA CEO Tory Bruno.

In its initial configuration Vulcan’s first stage will be powered by a revolutionary new class of cost effective and wholly domestic engines dubbed the BE-4, produced by Blue Origin.

It can be augmented by up to six solid rocket boosters, to propel high value payloads on missions ranging from low Earth orbit to interplanetary destinations for NASA, private industry and vital US national security interests.

Vulcan will also blast off with astronaut crews aboard the Boeing CST-100 space taxi bound for the International Space Station (ISS) in the early 2020s.

Cutaway diagram of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket powered by BE-4 first stage engines, six solid rocket motors and a 5 meter diameter payload fairing. Credit ULA
Cutaway diagram of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket powered by BE-4 first stage engines, six solid rocket motors and a 5 meter diameter payload fairing. Credit ULA

Further upgrades including a powerful new upper stage called ACES, will be phased in down the road as launches of ULA’s existing rocket families wind down, to alleviate any schedule slips.

“Because rocket design is hard and the rocket business is tough we are planning an overlap period between our existing rockets and the new Vulcan rocket,” Sowers explained. “That will account for any delays in development and other issues in the transition process to the new rocket.”

ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.

Development of the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV’s) was originally funded by the U.S. Air Force to provide two independent and complimentary launch capabilities thereby offering assured access to space for America’s most critical military reconnaissance satellites gathering intelligence for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), DOD and the most senior US military and government leaders.

Since 2006, SpaceX (founded by billionaire Elon Musk) has emerged on the space scene as a potent rival offering significantly lower cost launches compared to ULA and other launch providers in the US and overseas – and captured a significant and growing share of the international launch market for its American-made Falcon rocket family.

And last year to top that all off, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of space and defense industries, threatened to “ban Washington from using Russian-made [RD-180] rocket engines [used in the Atlas V rocket], which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V rocket first stage is powered by Russian-made RD-180 engines.
United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, March 12, 2015, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

“ULA was formed eight years ago as a government regulated monopoly focused on US government launches. Now eight years later the environment is changing,” Sowers told me.

How did ULA respond to the commercial and political challenges and transform?

“So there are a lot of things we had to do structurally to make that transformation. One of the key ones is that when ULA was formed, the government was very concerned about having assured access to space for national security launches,” Sowers explained.

“In their mind that meant having two independent rocket systems that could essentially do the same jobs. So we have both the Atlas V and the Delta IV. But in a competitive environment you can well imagine that that requirement drives your costs significantly higher than they need to be.”

ULA actually offered three rocket families after the merger, when only one was really needed.

“So our first conclusion on how to be competitive was how do we go from supporting three rocket families – including the Delta II – off of 6 launch pads, to our ultimate aim of getting down to just 1 rocket family of off just 2 pads – one on each coast. So, that is the most cost effective structure that we could come up with and the most competitive.”

Developing a new first stage engine not subject to international tensions was another primary impetus.

“The other big objective that was always in our minds, but that became much higher priority in April 2014 when Russia decided to annex Crimea, is that the RD-180 rocket engine that became our workhorse on Atlas, now became politically untenable.”

“So the other main objective of Vulcan is to re-engine [the first stage of] our fleet with an American engine, the Blue Origin BE-4.”

The RD-180’s will be replaced with a pair of BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, the highly secretive aerospace firm founded by Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Amazon. The revolutionary BE-4 engines are fueled by liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen and will produce about 1.1 million pounds of thrust vs. about 900,000 pounds of thrust for the RD-180, a significant enhancement in thrust.

“The Blue Origin BE-4 is the primary engine [for Vulcan]. ULA is co-investing with Blue Origin in that engine.”

Although the BE-4 is ULA’s primary choice to replace the RD-180, ULA is also investing in development of a backup engine, the AR-1 from Aerojet-Rocketdyne, in case the BE-4 faces unexpected delays.

“As I said, rocket development is hard and risky. So we have a backup plan. That is with Aerojet-Rocketdyne and their AR-1. And we are investing in that engine as well.”

More on the Vulcan, BE-4, reusability and more upcoming in part 2.

ULA concept for SMART reuse capability for the new Vulcan rocket involves eventual midair recovery and reuse of the first stage engines.  Credit: ULA
ULA concept for SMART reuse capability for the new Vulcan rocket involves eventual midair recovery and reuse of the first stage engines. Credit: ULA

Meanwhile, the next commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 is due to blastoff this Sunday, June 28, on the Dragon CRS-7 resupply mission to the ISS.

Watch for my onsite reports from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer
………….

Learn more about ULA, SpaceX, Europa, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Jun 25-28: “SpaceX launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

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.   Launch pad remote camera view.   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. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Most Powerful Solid Rocket Booster Ignites in Milestone Test, Propelling NASA on Path to Deep Space

At the Orbital ATK test facility, the booster for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket was fired for a two minute test on March 11. The test is one of two that will qualify the booster for flight before SLS begins carrying NASA’s Orion spacecraft and other potential payloads to deep space destinations. Image Credit: NASA
Watch the complete test firing video below[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s goal of sending humans back to deep space in the next decade advanced a major step forward today, March 11, with the successful ground test firing of the largest and most powerful solid rocket booster ever built that will be used to propel NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and manned Orion spacecraft to destinations including the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

The two minute long, full duration static test firing of the motor marked a major milestone in the ongoing development of NASA’s SLS booster, which is the most powerful rocket ever built in human history.

The booster known as qualification motor, QM-1, is the world’s largest solid rocket motor and was ignited at about 11:30 a.m. EST by prime contractor Orbital ATK at the newly merged firms test facility in Promontory, Utah.

Video caption: Space Launch System Booster Passes Major Ground Test on Mar. 11, 2015. The 5 segment solid rocket booster being developed for the SLS rocket fired for two minutes, the same amount of time it will fire when it lifts the SLS off the launch pad, and produced about 3.6 million pounds of thrust. The test was conducted at the Promontory, Utah test facility of commercial partner Orbital ATK. Credit: NASA

It burned for exactly the same amount of time as it will during flights of the SLS booster which will lift off from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The booster test firing was the second of two major do or die tests conducted by NASA in the past three months in support of the agency’s “Journey to Mars” strategy to develop the infrastructure required to send astronauts to an asteroid in the next decade and beyond to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

“The work being done around the country today to build SLS is laying a solid foundation for future exploration missions, and these missions will enable us to pioneer far into the solar system,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, in a statement.

“The teams are doing tremendous work to develop what will be a national asset for human exploration and potential science missions.”

Orbital ATK’s five segment rocket motor is assembled in its Promontory, Utah, test stand where it is being conditioned for the March 11 ground test.  Credit: Orbital ATK
Orbital ATK’s five segment rocket motor is assembled in its Promontory, Utah, test stand
where it is being conditioned for the March 11 ground test. Credit: Orbital ATK

The 5-segment booster produces 3.6 million lbs of maximum thrust which equates to more than 14 Boeing 747-400s at full takeoff power!

The new 5-segment booster was derived from the 4-segment booster used during NASA’s three decade long Space Shuttle program. One segment has been added and therefore the new, longer and more powerful booster must be requalified to launch the SLS and humans.

A second test is planned a year from now and will qualify the boosters for use with the SLS.

“This test is a significant milestone for SLS and follows years of development,” said Todd May, SLS program manager.

“Our partnership with Orbital ATK and more than 500 suppliers across the country is keeping us on the path to building the most powerful rocket in the world.”

Solid rocket boosters separate from SLS core stage in this artists concept. Credit: NASA
Solid rocket boosters separate from SLS core stage in this artists concept. Credit: NASA

The QM-1 booster weighs in at 1.6 million pounds and required several month of conditioning to heat to the 90 degrees temperature required to conduct the static fire test and thereby qualify the booster design for high temperature launch conditions. It was mounted horizontally in the test stand and measured 154 feet in length and 12 feet in diameter and weighs 801 tons.

Temperatures inside the booster exceeded over 5,600 degrees F.

The static fire test was exquisitely planned to collect data on 103 design objectives as measured through more than 534 instrumentation channels on the booster as it was firing.

The second booster test in March 2016 will be conducted to qualify the propellant temperature range at the lower end of the launch conditions at 40 degrees F.

The first stage of the SLS will be powered by a pair of the five-segment boosters and four RS-25 engines that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

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

NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.
The first SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.

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.   Launch pad remote camera view.   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. Launch pad remote camera view. 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.

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.

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

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

Ken Kremer
. ………….

Learn more about MMS, Mars rovers, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 11: “MMS, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

World’s Most Powerful Solid Booster Set for Space Launch System Test Firing on March 11

All systems are go for the inaugural ground test firing on March 11 of the world’s most powerful solid rocket booster ever built that will one day power NASA’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket and propel astronauts to deep space destinations.

The booster known as qualification motor, QM-1, is the largest solid rocket motor ever built and will be ignited on March 11 for a full duration static fire test by prime contractor Orbital ATK at the newly merged firms test facility in Promontory, Utah.

Ignition of the horizontally mounted motor is planned for 11:30 a.m. EDT (9:30 a.m. MDT) on Wednesday, March 11 on the T-97 test stand.

The test will be broadcast live on NASA TV.

Engineers at Orbital ATK in Promontory, Utah, prepare to test the booster that will help power NASA’s Space Launch System to space to begin missions to deep space, including to an asteroid and Mars. A test on March 11 is one of two that will qualify the booster for flight.  Image Credit:  Orbital ATK
Engineers at Orbital ATK in Promontory, Utah, prepare to test the booster that will help power NASA’s Space Launch System to space to begin missions to deep space, including to an asteroid and Mars. A test on March 11 is one of two that will qualify the booster for flight. Image Credit: Orbital ATK

The two minute long, full duration static test firing of the motor marks a major milestone in the ongoing development of NASA’s SLS booster, which is the most powerful rocket ever built in human history.

The 5-segment booster produces 3.6 million lbs of maximum thrust which equates to more than 14 Boeing 747-400s at full takeoff power!

The new 5-segment booster is directly derived from the 4-segment booster used during NASA’s three decade long Space Shuttle program. One segment has been added and therefore the new, longer and more powerful booster must be requalified to launch the SLS and humans.

A second test is planned a year from now and will qualify the boosters for use with the SLS.

Teams of engineers, operators, inspectors and program managers across Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group have spent months getting ready for the QM-1 test. To prepare they started countdown tests on Feb 25.

“The crew officially starts daily countdown test runs of the systems this week, at T-15 days,” said Kevin Rees, director, Test & Research Operations at Orbital ATK.

“These checks, along with other test stand calibrations, will verify all systems are ready for the static test. Our team is prepared and we are proud to play such a significant role on this program.”

The first qualification motor for NASA's Space Launch System's booster is installed in ATK's test stand in Utah and is ready for a March 11 static-fire test.   Credit:  ATK
The first qualification motor for NASA’s Space Launch System’s booster is installed in ATK’s test stand in Utah and is ready for a March 11 static-fire test. Credit: ATK

The QM-1 booster is being conditioned to 90 degrees and the static fire test will qualify the booster design for high temperature launch conditions. It sits horizontally in the test stand and measures 154 feet in length and 12 feet in diameter and weighs 801 tons.

The static fire test will collect data on 103 design objectives as measured through more than 534 instrumentation channels on the booster it is firing.

The second booster test in March 2016 will be conducted at lower temperature to qualify the lower end of the launch conditions at 40 degrees F.

The first stage of the SLS will be powered by a pair of the five-segment boosters and four RS-25 engines that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

The SLS is designed to propel the Orion crew capsule to deep space destinations, including the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

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

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

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

Solid rocket boosters separate from SLS core stage in this artists concept. Credit: NASA
Solid rocket boosters separate from SLS core stage in this artists concept. 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.

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.   Launch pad remote camera view.   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. Launch pad remote camera view. 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 MMS, Mars rovers, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 9-11: “MMS, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

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

Obama Administration Proposes $18.5 Billion Budget for NASA – Bolden

The Obama Administration today (Feb. 2) proposed a NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for the new Fiscal Year 2016, which amounts to a half-billion dollar increase over the enacted budget for FY 2015, and keeps the key manned capsule and heavy lift rocket programs on track to launch humans to deep space in the next decade and significantly supplements the commercial crew initiative to send our astronauts to low Earth orbit and the space station later this decade.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden formally announced the rollout of NASA’s FY 2016 budget request today during a “state of the agency” address at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), back dropped by the three vehicles at the core of the agency’s human spaceflight exploration strategy; Orion, the Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon.

“To further advance these plans and keep on moving forward on our journey to Mars, President Obama today is proposing an FY 2016 budget of $18.5 billion for NASA, building on the significant investments the administration has made in America’s space program over the past six years,” Administrator Bolden said to NASA workers and the media gathered at the KSC facility where Orion is being manufactured.

“These vehicles are not things just on paper anymore! This is tangible evidence of what you [NASA] have been doing these past few years.”

In the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden delivers a “state of the agency” address on Feb 2, 2015 at NASA's televised fiscal year 2016 budget rollout event.   Photo credit: NASA/Gianni Woods
In the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden delivers a “state of the agency” address on Feb 2, 2015 at NASA’s televised fiscal year 2016 budget rollout event. Photo credit: NASA/Gianni Woods

Bolden said the $18.5 Billion budget request will enable the continuation of core elements of NASA’s main programs including first launch of the new commercial crew vehicles to orbit in 2017, maintaining the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to further NASA’s initiative to send ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s, extending the International Space Station (ISS) into the next decade, and launching the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018. JWST is the long awaited successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“NASA is firmly on a journey to Mars. Make no mistake, this journey will help guide and define our generation.”

Funding is also provided to enable the manned Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) by around 2025, to continue development of the next Mars rover, and to continue formulation studies of a robotic mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

“That’s a half billion-dollar increase over last year’s enacted budget, and it is a clear vote of confidence in you – the employees of NASA – and the ambitious exploration program you are executing,” said Bolden.

Overall the additional $500 million for FY 2016 translates to a 2.7% increase over FY 2015. That compares to about a 6.4% proposed boost for the overall US Federal Budget amounting to $4 Trillion.

The Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon V2 will restore the US capability to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

In September 2014, Bolden announced the selections of Boeing and SpaceX to continue development and certification of their proposed spaceships under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and Launch America initiative started back in 2010.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, all NASA astronauts have been totally dependent on Russia and their Soyuz capsule as the sole source provider for seats to the ISS.

“The commercial crew vehicles are absolutely critical to our journey to Mars, absolutely critical. SpaceX and Boeing have set up operations here on the Space Coast, bringing jobs, energy and excitement about the future with them. They will increase crew safety and drive down costs.”

Meet Dragon V2 - SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX's new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX
Meet Dragon V2 – SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX’s new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX

CCP gets a hefty and needed increase from $805 Million in FY 2015 to $1.244 Billion in FY 2016.

To date the Congress has not fully funded the Administration’s CCP funding requests, since its inception in 2010.

The significant budget slashes amounting to 50% or more by Congress, have forced NASA to delay the first commercial crew flights of the private ‘space taxis’ from 2015 to 2017.

As a result, NASA has also been forced to continue paying the Russians for crew flights aboard the Soyuz that now cost over $70 million each under the latest contract signed with Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

Boeing CST-100 capsule interior up close.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing CST-100 capsule interior up close. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Bolden has repeatedly stated that NASA’s overriding goal is to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

To accomplish the ‘Journey to Mars’ NASA is developing the Orion deep space crew capsule and mammoth SLS rocket.

However, both programs had their budgets cut in the FY 2016 proposal compared to FY 2015. The 2015 combined total of $3.245 Billion is reduced in 2016 to $2.863 Billion, or over 10%.

The first test flight of an unmanned Orion atop the SLS is now slated for liftoff on Nov. 2018, following NASA’s announcement of a launch delay from the prior target of December 2017.

Since the Journey to Mars goal is already underfunded, significant cuts will hinder progress.

Orion just completed its nearly flawless maiden unmanned test flight in December 2014 on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (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.   Launch pad remote camera view.   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. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

There are some losers in the new budget as well.

Rather incomprehensibly funding for the long lived Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover is zeroed out in 2016.

This comes despite the fact that the renowned robot just reached the summit of a Martian mountain at Cape Tribulation and is now less than 200 meters from a science goldmine of water altered minerals.

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater's western rim. The center is southeastward and the distant rim is visible in the center. An outcrop area targeted for the rover to study is at right of ridge.  This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater’s western rim. The center is southeastward and the distant rim is visible in the center. An outcrop area targeted for the rover to study is at right of ridge. This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Funding for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is also zeroed out in FY 2016.

Both missions continue to function quite well with very valuable science returns. They were also zeroed out in FY 2015 but received continued funding after a senior level science review.

So their ultimate fate is unknown at this time.

Overall, Bolden was very upbeat about NASA’s future.

“I can unequivocally say that the state of NASA is strong,” Bolden said.

He concluded his remarks saying:

“Because of the dedication and determination of each and every one of you in our NASA Family, America’s space program is not just alive, it is thriving! Together with our commercial and international partners, academia and entrepreneurs, we’re launching the future. With the continued support of the Administration, the Congress and the American people, we’ll all get there together.”

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

Ken Kremer

NASA Marching Towards Milestone Test Firing of Space Launch System Booster

The first solid rocket booster qualification motor for NASA’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is aimed and ready to fire in a major ground test after NASA and ATK finished its installation at a test stand in Utah, and confirms that the pace of SLS development is gaining momentum.

The booster known as qualification motor, QM-1, is the largest solid rocket motor ever built and will be ignited on March 11 for a full duration static fire test by prime contractor ATK at the firms test facility in Promontory, Utah.

The two minute test firing of the full scale booster marks another major milestone in NASA’s ongoing program to assemble and launch the new SLS, which is the most powerful rocket ever built in human history.

Preparations completed for final segment of Space Launch System upcoming booster test set for March 2015. Credit: ATK
Preparations completed for final segment of Space Launch System upcoming booster test set for March 2015. Credit: ATK

The QM-1 booster is being conditioned to 90 degrees and the static fire test will qualify the booster design for high temperature launch conditions. It sits horizontally in the test stand and measures 154 feet in length and 12 feet in diameter and weighs 801 tons.

The five-segment booster will produce 3.6 million pounds of maximum thrust.

The first stage of the SLS will be powered by a pair of the five-segment boosters and four RS-25 engines that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust and is designed to propel the Orion crew capsule to deep space destinations, including the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

“With RS-25 engine testing underway, and this qualification booster firing coming up, we are taking big steps toward building this rocket and fulfilling NASA’s mission of Mars and beyond,” said SLS Program Manager Todd May.

“This is the most advanced propulsion system ever built and will power this rocket to places we’ve never reached in the history of human spaceflight.”

NASA’s goal is to launch humans to Mars by the 2030s.

The RS-25 engine fires up for a 500-second test Jan. 9, 2015 at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.   Credit: NASA
The RS-25 engine fires up for a 500-second test Jan. 9, 2015 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Credit: NASA

The boosters and RS-25 engines were originally developed for NASA’s space shuttle program and are being modified and enhanced for NASA’s new SLS rocket.

The original shuttle-era boosters were made of four segments.

“Testing before flight is critical to ensure reliability and safety when launching crew into space,” said Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of ATK’s Space Launch division.

“The QM-1 static test is an important step in further qualifying this new five-segment solid rocket motor for the subsequent planned missions to send astronauts to deep space.”

The static fire test will collect data on 103 design objectives as measured through more than 534 instrumentation channels on the booster as it is firing. It is being preheated to 90 degrees Fahrenheit to measure the boosters performance at high temperatures and confirm it meets all necessary structural and ballistic requirements to launch astronauts.

The test will evaluate motor performance, acoustics, motor vibrations, nozzle modifications, insulation upgrades and avionics command and control performance. The full-scale motor test will further improve the safety, technology and knowledge of solid rocket motors, according to ATK.

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

The first SLS hot fire test of an RS-25 was successfully completed on Jan. 9 with a 500 second long firing on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, as I reported – here.

The SLS core stage is being built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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
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
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