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

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC
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The SLS, America’s first human-rated heavy lift rocket intended to carry astronauts to deep space destinations since NASA’s Apollo moon landing era Saturn V, has passed a key design milestone known as the critical design review (CDR) thereby clearing the path to full scale fabrication.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC
Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

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

Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s Mobile Launcher (ML) is undergoing major upgrades and modifications at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida enabling the massive structure to launch the agency’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew capsule on a grand ‘Journey to Mars.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So the exhaust hole was much smaller.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_8393_1a_KSC ML_Ken Kremer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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