NASA is working to make its new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System or “SLS” dependable and inexpensive. To do this, the space agency has tapped six proposed booster designs for use on the SLS. Each of the awardees will need to produce risk-reduction concepts that demonstrate the viability of their proposals.
The request for booster designs falls in line with policies within the space agency to make future rockets and spacecraft more flexible. Even Orion, which NASA is developing to send astronauts beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO) for the first time in four decades, is being developed with this philosophy in mind.It is hoped that the combination of SLS and Orion can send astronauts to places in the solar system that no one has ever traveled to before. These include destinations such as asteroids, the Moon and one day potentially Mars.
The first SLS configuration is planned to be a marriage between the massive Saturn V rocket which ferried astronauts to the Moon and the space shuttle which served as the method U.S. astronauts reached orbit for 30 years. Elements of each of these systems will be combined to create the first SLS systems.
The first test articles will have a 77-ton lift capacity, The first flight of this heavy-lift booster is currently planned to take place in 2017.
Later evolved versions will need far more advanced booster designs. These new systems will require more thrust than what is currently offered by existing liquid or solid fueled systems. This iteration of SLS will have two stages and need to hoist some 143 tons out of Earth’s gravity well.
“The initial SLS heavy-lift rocket begins with the proven hardware, technology and capabilities we have today and will evolve over time to a more capable launch vehicle through competitive opportunities,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “While the SLS team is making swift progress on the initial configuration and building a solid baseline, we also are looking ahead to enhance and upgrade future configurations of the heavy lift vehicle. We want to build a system that will be upgradable and used for decades.”
NASA’s total investment is $200 million, the proposals that were selected are:
- “Subscale Composite Tank Set,” Northrop Grumman
- “Full-Scale Combustion Stability Demonstration,” Aerojet
- “F-1 Engine Risk Reduction Task,” Dynetics Inc.
- “Main Propulsion System Risk Reduction Task,” Dynetics Inc.
- “Structures Risk Reduction Task,” Dynetics Inc.
- “Integrated Booster Static Test,” ATK
Each of these proposals is only valid for 12 months. This allows for greater latitude on how the proposals are managed and would allow NASA to modify contracts to improve the development of SLS throughout the evaluation process. This is the first round of selections under NASA’s Research Announcement procurement process. Phase two will be more formal contract awards. This will take place after the companies tapped and NASA conduct extensive reviews and negotiations.
Any funded proposals will be required demonstrations as to the viability of their designs submitted. The tests and demonstrations will be conducted over a period lasting two and a half years. The evaluation competition is currently scheduled to take place in 2015.
“We are building a new national capability to carry astronauts and science experiments beyond Earth orbit to new destinations in space,” said Todd May, SLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. “Our industry partners have presented a variety of options for reducing risk while increasing performance and affordability, and we’re looking forward to seeing their innovative ideas come to life.”