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SLS Approved To Move To Preliminary Design Phase

NASA’s next-generation heavy-lift booster has been approved to move on to the preliminary design phase. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s next heavy-lift launch booster, the Space Launch System (SLS) has completed a review by the space agency and will now enter into the preliminary design phase. This is big step toward the production of the rocket that it is hoped will one day power the Orion spacecraft. The combine SLS / Orion package could see astronauts fly into deep space for the first time in more than four decades. 

This review laid the standards for the cost, technical and performance requirements for the SLS. It is hoped that these requirements will keep SLS on time and on budget. To make sure this happens an independent review panel will oversee the rocket’s development. The review board was comprised of experts from across the agency. The board determined that is ready to move past the concept development phase and on to the preliminary design phase.

This exploded-view image of the 70 ton version of the Space Launch System (SLS) shows the different boosters, stages and engines used on both the launch system itself as well as the orion spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA

“This new heavy-lift launch vehicle will make it possible for explorers to reach beyond our current limits, to nearby asteroids, Mars and its moons, and to destinations even farther across our solar system,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The in-depth assessment confirmed the basic vehicle concepts of the SLS, allowing the team to move forward and start more detailed engineering design.”

As one might imagine there is a lot of coordination and integration that is required between any launch system and the spacecraft that it carries. These reviews verified that the overall SLS architecture is ready for integration into the centers that will play a predominant role in the rocket’s development and employment – Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida and Johnson Space Center (JSC) located in Texas. JSC is the center responsible for the development of the Orion spacecraft. 

Different iterations of SLS are planned. The version on the left is for crewed transport, the version of SLS depicted on the right is designed to deliver large payloads to orbit but not astronauts. Unlike the Apollo Program which saw everything required for the Moon landings delivered on a single rocket, SLS would split the payload into two separate launches. Image Credit: NASA

“This is a pivotal moment for this program and for NASA,” said SLS Program Manager Todd May. “This has been a whirlwind experience from a design standpoint. Reaching this key development point in such a short period of time, while following the strict protocol and design standards set by NASA for human spaceflight is a testament to the team’s commitment to delivering the nation’s next heavy-lift launch vehicle.”

SLS has reached this point just 10 months after the program was started. The process that made this rapid progress possible is different than how things were handled in the past. NASA has worked to streamline the normal process. This does not mean that the space agency has cut any corners however. This review was comprised of not one but two assessments conducted by technicians and engineers from across the agency. Only after this was completed was the determination was made to move on to the preliminary design phase.

The SLS is moving ahead at a rapid pace that has been made possible by streamlined measures implemented by NASA. NASA hopes that this will allow them to conduct the first test flight by 2017. Image Credit: NASA

Near the end of 2013 SLS is scheduled to complete the next hurdle in its development – the preliminary design review. The year after that should see the first Orion spacecraft take to the skies atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket (dubbed Exploration Flight Test 1 or “EFT-1”). All of this work is just a preamble to 2017 when NASA plans to conduct a test flight of the 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity version of the SLS.

NASA plans to evolve the SLS rocket into a three-stage launch vehicle that will be capable of ferrying some 130 metric tons (143 tons) into space. This will provide NASA with the capability of sending astronauts to destinations such as the Moon, asteroids and potentially Mars.

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