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Progress on NASA's Space Launch System and Orion
by Ed Kyle, 01/26/2014

slslh21.jpg (32798 bytes)First SLS Core Liquid Hydrogen Barrel Segment, a "Confidence Article" Fabricated at Michoud during 2013. 

As 2014 began, development progress was becoming more evident in NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) programs. 

Plans for 2014 included Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), which would be the first flight of an Orion spacecraft.  Schedules also called for RS-25D engine testing to begin, for continued preparation of the first solid rocket booster qualification test article, for construction of SLS core test articles - including start of work on the core "Green Run" stage, and for initial parts fabrication for the first SLS flight vehicle. 

The Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) uncrewed test flight of that first SLS with a complete Orion remained scheduled for late 2017, but a 2018 date seemed more likely.  It would be followed three or four years later by the first crewed, EM-2 flight.

On July 31, 2013, NASA completed its SLS preliminary design review (PDR).  The detailed review determined that the design of the vehicle and plans for production and ground support systems for SLS were able to meet program objectives.  The review ended the initial design and development phase for SLS.  The next milestone, called "Key Decision Point-C", was planned to be completed during January 2014.  Upon completion of "KDP-C", NASA was expected to shift the SLS program from its design phase to its implentation - its metal bending - phase. 

In the Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida, the first Orion spacecraft test flight article was in final assembly for its planned late 2014 EFT-1 test flight atop a Delta 4 Heavy launch vehicle from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 37B.  The cone-shaped Orion Command Module, yet to be clad in its outer thermal protection shell, was powered up for the first time during November 2013.   Its nonfunctioning Service Module was being prepared in the same facility for a planned mating of the two components in early 2014.  During the EFT-1 mission, the Delta 4 upper stage was slated to fire after a one-orbit coast to boost Orion to a nearly 6,000 km apogee, forcing the spacecraft to reenter the Earth's atmosphere at nearly 9,000 meters per second to test its heat shield.  Orion would splash down below three ringsail parachutes in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

slsdome1.jpg (29743 bytes)First Completed Core Stage Tank Dome Test Article at Michoud, December, 2013.

Production of the EM-1 Orion Command Module was set to begin in early 2015.  The shell of the spacecraft will be manufactured at Michoud, then shipped to KSC for outfitting.  The EM-1 European Service Module, an element based on ESA's ATV cargo spacecraft service module but outfitted with a NASA-supplied surplus Shuttle OMS AJ10 main engine, would enter production one year later.  Both elements were aiming for mid-2017 delivery dates, but the Service Module schedule was likely to lag due to the relatively late decision by NASA to accept its development in a trade for Europe's ISS obligations.

At KSC Launch Complex 39, work had begun to convert the mobile launcher built for the cancelled Ares I program for use by SLS.  The base of the towering structure will be reconfigured to support the SLS core, with its four RS-25D liquid hydrogen/oxygen engines, and the twin five-segment solid rocket boosters that will lift the core.  At liftoff the fully fueled EM-1 SLS launch vehicle and spacecraft will weigh more than 2,600 tonnes.  Crawler Transporter 1, which will move the massive mobile launcher, was also being modified with new generators, roller bearings, brakes and leveling cylinders.  Meanwhile, work was begun to refurbish the flame trench at Launch Complex 39B in preparation for construction of a new flame deflector for SLS in 2015.

vac.jpg (10316 bytes)core.jpg (4437 bytes)VAC (Left) Will Assemble SLS Core Stage (Right). 

By early January, 2014, three of the four massive welding tools for SLS core fabrication had been installed at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  The fourth tool, the Vertical Assembly Center, was expected to be completed in March, 2014.  Cylinders, domes, rings and other parts of the 8.384 meter diameter core stage are to be welded together in the massive vertical machine.  The 62.5 meter tall core will be the longest rocket stage ever built.     

The first SLS Core liquid hydrogen barrel segment, a "Confidence Article", was fabricated at Michoud by mid-2013 in a test of a new, three-story tall Vertical Weld Center.  The first SLS core stage dome test article was welded together in the Circumferential Dome Weld Tool using parts made in the Gore Weld Tool at Michoud before the end of 2013.  Up to 450 employees were expected to work on SLS production at Michoud. 

The dome was likely a structural test article, one of several structural test components planned to be tested beginning in 2015.  A new Structural Test Article tower will be built at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) as Test Stand 4693 to test articles as large as a complete core liquid hydrogen tank.

etf1sm.jpg (28309 bytes)EFT-1 Service Module at KSC O&C Building

A "Green Run" SLS core test article will be the first full stage assembled in the Vertical Assembly Center.   Fabrication of the Green Run stage was planned to begin in 2014.  It will be used to perform full static tests at Stennis Space Center's rebuilt B-2 test stand in 2016.  Construction of the first flight article, the EM-1 core stage, would follow beginning in early 2016.

During December 2013, in preparation for full-scale structural tests, Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) performed a series of crushing tests on a tank shell made from leftover Space Shuttle External Tank elements.  The shell was compressed until it failed in the structural test area at the Center near Huntsville, Alabama.  The shell did not represent an actual SLS core element because it was made of Aluminum Lithium with orthogrid patterns machined into the metal. Boeing's SLS core will use AL-2219 Aluminum machined with isogrids.

eft1cm.jpg (28767 bytes)EFT-1 Command Module at KSC

On January 9, 2014, engineers powered up the SLS avionics system for the first time at MSFC.  During the "first light" test, flight software and avionics for SLS were integrated and powered.  The set up will be used to test flight software and avionics communications. 

At Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, the A-1 Test Stand was being prepared for RS-25D rocket engine testing.  The stand had been used for J-2X testing until September, 2013.  The first RS-25D engine was to be placed in the stand in May, 2014 for an initial hotfire test in July, 2014.

In December, 2013, at Promontory, Utah, ATK performed a pair of hot fire avionics tests for the SLS solid rocket boosters.  The tests operated the booster's thrust vector control (TVC) system, tested communication between ground and flight systems, and triggered a simulated motor ignition.  Both booster avionics and electronic support equipment (ESE) was tested.

eft1d4h.jpg (19870 bytes)Delta 4 Heavy Configuration for ETF-1 Orion Test Flight

ATK also continued to work toward the first qualification motor (QM-1) test firing of its SLS five segment booster, a test originally planned for 2014 but now delayed into 2015.  The delay resulted from propellant insulation debonds and voids found in two consecutive attempts to pour a test motor aft segment during 2013.  An intense investigation was underway to discover the root cause of the problem.  Manufacturing methods that had changed since the Shuttle era were being evaluated.  

ATK performed three successful development motor tests at its Utah test site before 2012, an effort that was originally part of the Ares I effort.  The tests took place on September 10, 2009 (DM-1), August 31, 2010 (DM-2), and September 8, 2011 (DM-3).   A precursor test of a five segment motor, assembled using an extra segment from a Shuttle four-segment motor, occurred on October 23, 2003 (ETM-3). 

Boeing planned to begin fabrication of the EM-1 ICPS (Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage) near the end of 2014.  The stage would be similar to the Delta 4 Heavy second stage already in production at United Launch Alliance (ULA) in Decatur, Alabama, but would have a slightly larger liquid hydrogen tank.  Since similar stage designs were involved, spacecraft adapter hardware developed for the Delta 4 Heavy EFT-1 mission would be used for EM-1.  The ICPS would likely be the first SLS flight hardware fully assembled for the EM-1 mission.

slscargo.jpg (11432 bytes)Potential Space Launch System Cargo Version

NASA was contemplating plans to use a Delta 4 Heavy type payload fairing for a cargo version of SLS.  A cargo SLS could be used for advanced deep space unmanned exploration missions, or for support of NASA's human missions.  One potential early SLS cargo mission would launch a robotic asteroid capture vehicle on an ambitious mission to attach itself to and move a small asteroid into a "Distant Retrograde Orbit" (DRM) some 70,000 km from the Moon.  There, it would be visited by astronauts in an Orion spacecraft, possibly during the 2021 EM-2 mission.  This mission, whether EM-2 or later, would be called the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM).  Orion would dock to the capture vehicle, allowing astronauts to perform a series of spacewalks to the small asteroid to collect samples.

Plans for EM-1 had been modified to make it a 25 day unmanned dress rehearsal for portions of the EM-2 asteroid retrieval mission.   During EM-1, the SLS ICPS will boost Orion Orion out of low Earth orbit toward a lunar flyby.  There Orion will fire its European Service Module engine to insert itself first into a "deep" elliptical retrograde orbit that will extend out to 70,000 km from the Moon.  At first apogee, a point that will not be reached until 10 days after launch, the ESM will fire again to place Orion into a more circular distant retrograde orbit of the Moon.  This long duration orbit will skirt past the Earth-Moon L1/L2 Lagrangian points.  Orion will stay in this orbit for six days, during which it will only complete a portion of one orbit, before firing its engine to drop once more into an elliptical retrograde orbit of the Moon.   While flying by the Moon, the ESM will perform a lunar flyby burn to begin the journey back to Earth.  

arm.jpg (20071 bytes)Potential Asteriod Redirect Crewed Mission

The ARCM crew would travel further from Earth than any previous humans. 

Both SLS and Orion continue to face challenges, including political resistance.  Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and former NASA Johnson Space Center Director Chris Kraft were among those who called for SLS and/or Orion to be cancelled.  Nonetheless, during January 2014 President Obama signed a budget that assigned SLS $1.6 billion and Orion $1.2 billion during the year.    

Questions/Comments to

Ed Kyle