With the passage of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, work began on a launch vehicle that would carry cargo and crews back to the Moon and beyond. This vehicle is known as the Space Launch System (SLS), a heavy-launch system that (once fully operational) will be the most powerful rocket in the world since the Saturn V– the venerable vehicle that took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon.
Unfortunately, the development of the SLS has suffered from multiple delays over the past few years, causing no shortage of complications. However, engineering teams at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near St. Louis, Mississippi, recently completed a Green Run of the SLS’s Core Stage, which involved testing the rocket’s critical systems in preparation for its inaugural launch by November of 2021.
Originally, it was hoped that the first uncrewed flight of the SLS and Orion (Artemis I) would take place later this year. But according to recent statements by Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk, this inaugural launch will most likely take place “mid to late” in 2021. This is the latest in a series of delays for the high-profile project, which has been making impressive progress nevertheless.
As rockets become more and more powerful, the systems that protect them need to keep pace. NASA will use almost half a million gallons of water to keep the Space Launch System (SLS) safe and stable enough to launch successfully. The system that delivers all that water is called the Ignition Overpressure Protection and Sound Suppression (IOP/SS) water deluge system, and seeing it in action is very impressive.
In recent years, NASA has been busy developing the technology and components that will allow astronauts to return to the Moon and conduct the first crewed mission to Mars. These include the Space Launch System (SLS), which will be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V (which brought the Apollo astronauts to the Moon), and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).
NASA is in an awkward in-between time right now. Since the beginning of the space age, the agency has had the ability to send its astronauts into space. The first American to go to space, Alan Shepard, did a suborbital launch on board a Mercury Redstone rocket in 1961.
Then the rest of the Mercury astronauts went on Atlas rockets, and then the Gemini astronauts flew on various Titan rockets. NASA’s ability to hurl people and their equipment into space took a quantum leap with the enormous Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo program.
It’s difficult to properly comprehend just how powerful the Saturn V was, so I’ll give you some examples of things this monster could launch. A single Saturn V could blast 122,000 kilograms or 269,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit, or send 49,000 kilograms or 107,000 pounds on a transfer orbit to the Moon.
Instead of continuing on with the Saturn program, NASA decided to shift gears and build the mostly reusable space shuttle. Although it was shorter than the Saturn V, the space shuttle with its twin external solid rocket boosters could put 27,500 kilograms or 60,000 pounds into Low Earth orbit. Not too bad.
And then, in 2011, the space shuttle program wrapped up. And with it, the United States’ ability to launch humans into the space. And most importantly, to send astronauts to the continuously inhabited International Space Station. That task has fallen to Russian rockets until the US builds back the capability for human spaceflight.
Since the cancellation of the shuttle, NASA’s workforce of engineers and rocket scientists has been developing the next heavy lift vehicle in NASA’s line up: the Space Launch System.
The SLS looks like a cross between a Saturn V and the space shuttle. It has the same familiar solid rocket boosters, but instead of the space shuttle orbiter and its orange external fuel tank, the SLS has the central Core Stage. It has 4 of the space shuttle’s RS-25 Liquid Oxygen engines.
Although two shuttle orbiters were lost in disasters, these engines and their liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen performed perfectly for 135 flights. NASA knows how to use them, and how to use them safely.
The very first configuration of the SLS, known as the Block 1, should have the ability to put about 70 metric tonnes into Low Earth Orbit. And that’s just the beginning, and it’s just an estimate. Over time, NASA will increase its capabilities and launch power to match more and more ambitious missions and destinations. With more launches, they’ll get a better sense of what this thing is capable of.
After the Block 1 is launching, NASA will develop the Block 1b, which puts a much larger upper stage on top of the same core stage. This upper stage will have a larger fairing and more powerful second stage engines, capable of putting 97.5 metric tonnes into low Earth orbit.
Finally, there’s the Block 2, with an even larger launch fairing, and more powerful upper stage. It should blast 143 tonnes into low Earth orbit. Probably. NASA is developing this version as a 130 tonne-class rocket.
With this much launch capacity, what could be done with it? What kinds of missions become possible on a rocket this powerful?
The main goal for SLS is to send humans out, beyond low Earth orbit. Ideally to Mars in the 2030s, but it could also go to asteroids, the Moon, whatever you like. And as you’ll read later on in this article, it could send some amazing scientific missions out there too.
The very first flight for SLS, called Exploration Mission 1, will be to put the new Orion crew module into a trajectory that takes it around the Moon. In a very similar flight to Apollo 8. But there won’t be any humans, just the unmanned Orion module and a bunch of cubesats coming along for the ride. Orion will spend about 3 weeks in space, including about 6 days in a retrograde orbit around the Moon.
If all goes well, the first use of the SLS with the Orion crew module will happen some time in 2019. But also, don’t be surprised if it gets pushed back, that’s the name of the game.
After Exploration Mission 1, there’s be EM-2, which should happen a few years after that. This’ll be the first time humans get into an Orion crew module and take a flight to space. They’ll spend 21 days in a lunar orbit, and deliver the first component of the future Deep Space Gateway, which will be the subject of a future article.
From there, the future is unclear, but SLS will provide the capability to put various habitats and space stations into cislunar space, opening up the future of human space exploration of the Solar System.
Now you know where SLS is probably headed. But the key to this hardware is that it gives NASA raw capability to put humans and robots into space. Not just here on Earth, but way across the Solar System. New space telescopes, robotic explorers, rovers, orbiters and even human habitats.
In a recent study called “The Space Launch System Capabilities for Beyond Earth Missions,” a team of engineers mapped out what the SLS should be capable of putting into the Solar System.
For example, Saturn is a difficult planet to reach, and it order to get there, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft needed to do several gravitational slingshots around Earth and one past Jupiter. It took almost 7 years to get to Saturn.
SLS could send missions to Saturn on more direct trajectory, cutting the flight time down to just 4 years. Block 1 could send 2.7 tonnes to Saturn, while Block 1b could loft 5.1 tonnes.
NASA is considering a mission to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids. These are a collection of space rocks trapped in Jupiter’s L4/L5 Lagrange points, and could be a fascinating place to study. Once put into the Trojan region, a mission could visit several different asteroids, sampling a vast range of rocks that detail the Solar System’s early history.
The Block 1 could put almost 3.97 tonnes into these orbits, while the Block 1b could do 7.59 tonnes. That’s 6 times the capability of an Atlas V. A mission like this would have a cruise time of 10 years.
In a previous video, we talked about future Uranus and Neptune missions, and how a single SLS could send spacecraft to both planets simultaneously.
Another idea that I really like is an inflatable habitat from Bigelow Aerospace. The BA-2100 module would be a fully self-contained space habitat. No need for other modules, this monster would be 65 to 100 tonnes, and would go up in a single launch of SLS. Once inflated, it would contain 2,250 cubic meters, which is almost 3 times the total living space of the International Space Station.
One of the most exciting missions, to me, is a next generation space telescope. Something that would be the true spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. There are a few proposals in the works right now, but the idea I like best is the LUVOIR telescope, which would have a mirror that measures 16 meters across.
The SLS Block 1b could put 36.9 tonnes into Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2. Really there’s nothing else out there that could put this much mass into that orbit.
Just for comparison, Hubble has a mirror of 2.4 meters across, and James Webb is 6.5. With LUVOIR, you would have 10 times more resolution than James Webb, and 300 times more power than Hubble. But like Hubble, it would be capable of seeing the Universe in visible and other wavelengths.
A telescope like this could directly image the event horizons of supermassive black holes, see right to the edge of the observable Universe and watch the first galaxies forming their first stars. It could directly observe planets orbiting other stars and help us determine if they have life on them.
Seriously, I want this telescope.
At this point, I know this is going to set off a big argument about NASA versus SpaceX versus other private launch providers. That’s fine, I get it. And the Falcon Heavy is expected to launch later this year, bringing heavy lift launch capabilities at an affordable price. It’ll be able to loft 54,000 kilograms, which is less than the SLS Block 1, and almost a third of the capability of the Block 2. Blue Origins has its New Glenn, there are heavier rockets in the works from United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, the Russian Space Agency, and even the Chinese. The future of heavy lift has never been more exciting.
If SpaceX does get the Interplanetary Transport Ship going, with 300 tonnes into orbit on a reusable rocket. Well then, everything changes. Everything.
Samuel Mason is the Director of the Tesla Science Foundation, NJ Chapter. The mission of the Tesla Science Foundation is to establish and promote the recognition and awareness of Nikola Tesla’s inventions, patents, theories, philosophies, lectures, and innovations. Guests:
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The next Orion crew module in line to launch to space on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) has passed a critical series of proof pressure tests which confirm the effectiveness of the welds holding the spacecraft structure together.
Engineers and technicians conducted the pressure tests on the Orion EM-1 pressure vessel, which was welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and then shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida just 3 months ago.
The pressure vessel is the structural backbone for the vehicles that will launch American astronauts to deep space destinations.
“This is the first mission where the Orion spacecraft will be integrated with the large Space Launch System rocket. Orion is the vehicle that’s going to take astronauts to deep space,” NASA Orion program manager Scott Wilson told Universe Today.
“The tests confirmed that the weld points of the underlying structure will contain and protect astronauts during the launch, in-space, re-entry and landing phases on the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), when the spacecraft performs its first uncrewed test flight atop the Space Launch System rocket,” according to a NASA statement.
After flying to KSC on Feb 1, 2016 inside NASA’s unique Super Guppy aircraft, this “new and improved” Orion EM-1 pressure vessel was moved to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building for final assembly by prime contractor Lockheed Martin into a flight worthy vehicle.
Since then, technicians have worked to meticulously attach hundreds of strain gauges to the interior and exterior surfaces of the vehicle to prepare for the pressure tests.
The strain gauges provide real time data to the analysts monitoring the changes during the pressurization.
Orion was moved to a test stand inside the proof pressure cell high bay and locked inside behind large doors.
Lockheed Martin engineers then incrementally increased the pressure in the proof testing cell in a series of steps over two days. They carefully monitored the results along the way and how the spacecraft reacted to the stresses induced by the pressure increases.
The maximum pressure reached was 1.25 times normal atmospheric pressure – which exceeds the maximum pressure it is expected to encounter on orbit.
“We are very pleased with the performance of the spacecraft during proof pressure testing,” said Scott Wilson, NASA manager of production operations for the Orion Program.
“The successful completion of this test represents another major step forward in our march toward completing the EM-1 spacecraft, and ultimately, our crewed missions to deep space.”
With the pressure testing satisfactorily completed, technicians will move Orion back to birdcage assembly stand for the “intricate work of attaching hundreds of brackets to the vessel’s exterior to hold the tubing for the vehicle’s hydraulics and other systems.”
To prepare for launch in 2018, engineers and technicians from NASA and prime contractor Lockheed Martin will spend the next two years meticulously installing all the systems amounting to over 100,000 components and gear required for flight.
This particular ‘Lunar Orion’ crew module is intended for blastoff to the Moon in 2018 on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) atop the agency’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, simultaneously under development. The pressurized crew module serves as the living quarters for the astronauts comprising up to four crew members.
EM-1 itself is a ‘proving ground’ mission that will fly an unmanned Orion thousands of miles beyond the Moon, further than any human capable vehicle, and back to Earth, over the course of a three-week mission.
The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on the unpiloted EM-1 mission counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago.
Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
In a major step towards flight, engineers at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans have finished welding together the pressure vessel for the first Lunar Orion crew module that will blastoff in 2018 atop the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
Yes, she’s a little worse for wear, isn’t she? But then again, that’s what atmospheric re-entry and 2200 °Celsius (4000 °Fahrenheit) worth of heat will do to you! Such was the state of the heat shield that protected NASA’s Orion Spaceship after it re-entered the atmosphere on Dec. 5th, 2014. Having successfully protected the craft during it’s test flight, the shield was removed and transported to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where it arrived on March. 9th.
Since that time, a steady stream of NASA employees have been coming by the facility to get a look at it while engineers collect data and work to repair it. In addition to being part of a mission that took human-rated equipment farther out into space than anything since the Apollo missions, the heat shield is also living proof that NASA is restoring indigenous space capability to the US.
First unveiled by NASA in May of 2011, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) was intrinsic to the Obama administration’s plan to send astronauts to a nearby asteroid by 2025 and going to Mars by the mid-2030’s. In addition to facilitating these long-range missions, the Orion spacecraft would also handle some of the routine tasks of spaceflight, such as providing a means of delivering and retrieving crew and supplies from the ISS.
The uncrewed test flight that took place on December 5, 2014, known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), was intended to test various Orion systems, including separation events, avionics, heat shielding, parachutes, and recovery operations prior to its debut launch aboard the Space Launch System,
This design of this mission corresponded to the Apollo 4 mission of 1967, which demonstrated the effectiveness of the Apollo flight control systems and the heat shields ability to withstand re-entry conditions, as part of the spacecraft’s return from lunar missions.
After being retrieved, the heat shield was transported by land to the Marshall Space Flight Center, where it was offloaded and transferred to a large support structure so engineers could perform studies on it for the next three months.
This will consist of collecting samples from the shield to measure their char layers and degree of erosion and ablation, as well as extracting the various instruments embedded in the heat shield to assess their performance during re-entry.
After the analysis is complete, technicians will load the shield into the 7-axis milling machine and machining center, where it will be grind down to remove the remaining material covering. Known as Avcoat, this heat-retardant substance is similar to what the Apollo missions used, with the exception of toxic materials like asbestos.
This material is used to fill the 320,000 honeycomb-like cells that make up the outer layer of the shield. When heated, the material burns away (aka. ablates) in order to prevent heat being transferred into the crew module. This shield is placed over the craft’s titanium skeleton and carbon-fiber skin, providing both protection and insulation for the interior.
Once all the Avcoat is removed and only the skeletal frame remains, it will be shipped to the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for more tests. Since the Orion was returning from a greater distance in space than anything since Apollo, it experienced far greater heat levels than anything in recent decades, reaching as high as 2200 °C (4000 °F).
Instrumentation in the shield measured the rise of the surface and internal temperatures during re-entry as well as the ablation rate of the shield’s coating. Over the next few months, NASA experts will be pouring over this data to see just how well the Orion shield held up under extreme heat. But so far, the results look positive – with only 20% of the Avcoat burning away on the test-flight re-entry.
In the future, the Orion spacecraft will be launched on Space Launch System on missions that will take it to nearby asteroids and eventually Mars. The first mission to carry astronauts is not expected to take place until 2021 at the earliest.