NASA Test-Fires Key Engine for New Launch System

NASA successfully test-fired the J2-X rocket engine on Wednesday, a key component of the Space Launch System, NASA’s giant new rocket that is slated to take cargo and crew beyond low Earth orbit. A deafening 500-second firing test at the Stennis Space Center showed the engine is ready for the next steps in building the SLS rocket.

“What you heard to today is the sound of the front end of the critical path to the future,” said Stennis Director Patrick Scheuermann, speaking at a press conference immediately after the test fire, which began at 4:04 p.m. EST (2104 GMT).

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All Together Now!

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That’s a lot of power under one roof! For the first time in… well, ever… all fifteen Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) are together inside NASA’s Engine Shop at Kennedy Space Center. They will be prepped for shipment to Stennis Space Center in Mississippi where they’ll become part of the propulsion used on NASA’s next generation heavy-lift rocket: the Space Launch System.

The engines, built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, are each 14 feet (4.2 meters) long & 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) in diameter at the end of its nozzle, and weighs approximately 7,000 lbs (3175 kg).

Photo from a test firing of an SSME at the Stennis Space Center in 1981. Credit: NASA.

Each engine is capable of generating a force of nearly 400,000 pounds (lbf) of thrust at liftoff, and consumes 350 gallons (1,340 liters) of fuel per second. They are engineered to burn liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, creating exhaust composed primarily of water vapor.

The engines will be incorporated into the Space Launch System (SLS), which is designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle – also currently in development – as well as serve as backup for commercial and international transportation to the ISS. By utilizing current technology and adapting it for future needs, NASA will be able to make the next leap in human spaceflight and space exploration – while getting the most “bang” out of the taxpayers’ bucks.

“NASA has been making steady progress toward realizing the president’s goal of deep space exploration, while doing so in a more affordable way. We have been driving down the costs on the Space Launch System and Orion contracts by adopting new ways of doing business and project hundreds of millions of dollars of savings each year.” 

–  NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver

Nine of the 15 SSMEs await shipment inside NASA's Engine Shop. Each weighs approximately 7,000 lbs. Credit: NASA.

While it’s sad to see these amazing machines removed from the shuttles, it’s good to know that they still have plenty of life left in them and will soon once again be able to take people into orbit and beyond!

Read more about the Space Launch System here.

Construction Begins on the 1st Space-Bound Orion Crew Module

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Production of NASA’s first space-bound Orion crew module has at last begun at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans – that’s the same facility that for more than three decades was responsible for manufacturing the huge orange colored External Tanks for the just retired Space Shuttle Program.

The first weld of structural elements of the Orion crew cabin was completed by Lockheed Martin engineers working at Michoud on Sept. 9, 2011. This marks a major milestone on the path toward the full assembly and first test flight of an Orion capsule.

This state of the art Orion vehicle also holds the distinction of being the first new NASA spacecraft built to blast humans to space since Space Shuttle Endeavour was assembled at a California manufacturing facility in 1991.

This capsule will be used during Orion’s first test flight in space which could occur as early as 2013. Credit: NASA

Eventually, Orion crew modules with astronaut crews will fly atop NASA’s newly announced monster rocket – the SLS – to exciting new deep space destinations beyond low Earth Orbit; such as the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

“This marks the beginning of NASA’s next step to send humans far beyond Earth orbit,” said Orion program manager Mark Geyer. “The Orion team has maintained a steady focus on progress, and we now are beginning to build hardware for spaceflight. With this milestone, we enter the home stretch toward our first trip to space in this new vehicle.”

The first unmanned Orion test flight – dubbed OFT-1 – could come as early as 2013 depending on the funding available from NASA and the US Federal Government.

Welding the First Space-Bound Orion at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans by NASA and Lockheed Martin contractor team. Credit: NASA

NASA is still deciding which rocket to use for the initial test flight – most likely a Delta 4 Heavy but possibly also the new Liberty rocket proposed by ATK and EADS.

The framework welds were completed using the same type of friction stir welding (FSW) process that was implemented to construct the last several of the 135 Space Shuttle External Tanks at MAF that flew during the shuttle program.

Friction Stir Welding creates seamless welds in the Aluminum – Lithium alloys used for construction that are far stronger and more reliable and reproducible compared to conventional welding methods.

The first Space-Bound Orion will look similar to this initial Orion Ground Test Article (GTA) prototype crew cabin built in 2010 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, LA after individual segments were bound together by Friction Stir Welding techniques. Note the astronaut crew hatch and windows. The GTA is now undergoing testing and integration at Lockheed’s facilities in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Ken Kremer

Orion spacecraft will be manufactured at Michoud in New Orleans, Louisiana, then sent to the Operations & Checkout Facility at Kennedy Space Center for final assembly and integration prior to launch.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion. The vehicle was recently renamed the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) after being resurrected following its cancellation by President Obama as a key element of NASA’s now defunct Project Constellation “Return to the Moon” program.

NASA's Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle
The Orion MPVC Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle ground test article (GTA) is shown at the Lockheed Martin Vertical Test Facility in Colorado. The GTA’s heat shield and thermal protection backshell was completed in preparation for environmental testing. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

The first crewed Orion won’t launch until the 2nd flight of the SLS set for around 2020 said William Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, at an SLS briefing for reporters on Sept. 14.

Lockheed has already built an initial version of the Orion crew capsule known as the Orion Ground Test Article (GTA) and which is currently undergoing stringent vibration and acoustics testing to mimic the harsh environments of space which the capsule must survive.

Watch for my upcoming Orion GTA status report.

Sketch of the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle. Credit: NASA
Artists concept of the STS blasting off with the Orion Crew Module from the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA

Read Ken’s continuing features about the Orion project and Orion GTA starting here:
First Orion Assembled at Denver, Another Orion Displayed at Kennedy Space Center
Lockheed Accelerates Orion to Achieve 2013 launch and potential Lunar Flyby

SLS: NASA’s Next Big Thing

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NASA has officially unveiled the plan for their next large-scale rocket: the Space Launch System, or SLS, will provide heavy-lift capabilities for cargo and spacecraft to go beyond low-Earth orbit and is proposed as a safe, sustainable and efficient way to open up the next chapter in US space exploration.

SLS is designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Module, NASA’s next-generation human spaceflight vehicle that is specifically designed for long-duration missions. (Construction of the first space-bound MPCV began last week on September 9.)

Utilizing a modular design that can accommodate varying mission needs, SLS will also be able to provide service to the International Space Station.

“President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that’s exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow’s explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars.”

– NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

SLS will have an initial lift capacity of over 70 metric tons – about 154,000 pounds (70,000 kg). That’s three times the lift capability of the space shuttles! In the event of a Mars mission that can be upgraded to 130 metric tons – about the weight of 75 SUVs.

Artist image of SLS launch. Credit: NASA

The first developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017.

SLS will be the first exploration-class vehicle since the giant Saturn V rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Using rocket technology developed during the shuttle era and modified for the canceled Constellation program, combined with cutting-edge manufacturing processes, SLS will expand the boundaries of human spaceflight and extend our reach into the solar system.

“This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that’s exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow’s explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars.”

Read the NASA news release here.

(And check out this “Fun Facts” sheet on SLS.)