NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) has now reached a point in the program’s development that the agency’s cancelled Constellation program did not, with the recent completion of a major SLS review known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C)—something that no other exploration class vehicle has achieved since the United States built the space shuttle in the late 1970s. With the KDP-C now completed, the SLS program is transitioning from formulation to development, closing out the summer of 2014 with operations supporting SLS picking up pace at several NASA centers across the country. And while NASA announced the launch date of the SLS program’s first mission, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), just one of the SLS program’s many unknowns, will occur “no later than” November 2018, looking at the funding levels Congress has given the SLS program over the last four years points to a launch date in early 2017.
“Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right,” said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the KDP-C review process. “After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030’s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment.”
That funding level Lightfoot refers to was outlined in the KDP-C, which provides a “cost development baseline” of $7 billion between now and the EM-1 launch / flight test, which will fly the agency’s deep-space Orion crew capsule atop the initial 70-metric ton Block-1 version of the SLS as an unmanned pathfinder mission to the moon and back “no later than late 2018,” thus paving the way for deep space crewed missions starting early next decade.
But NASA made clear during the KDP-C announcement that the 2018 launch date of SLS is not built on projected Congressional funding levels, but on the Obama Administration’s expected funding levels, which is determined by the Office of Management and Budget’s Branch Chief for Science and Space Paul Shawcross. The difference between the amount annually appropriated by Congress and that proposed by the Obama Administration is important and sizable. In the budget year of 2014, that difference amounted to well over $200 million. And if this year NASA dodges the continuing resolution bullet, that difference will only grow in 2015 to over $300 million. That is good news for the SLS program.
Still, one has to consider for a moment the annual fights NASA’s SLS office faces. Each year, the SLS program has between 10 and 20 percent of Congressionally appropriated funds held back in order to cover any termination liability costs should SLS be canceled. Termination liability allows for funding to be withheld to pay for any liabilities associated with terminating a program, meaning it is very program specific and calculated on an on-going basis. NASA has great discretion in how it assesses termination liability of a program, basing it on a range of factors from Congressional support, to technical risk, to the number of programs canceled.
As 2010 NASA Authorization Act program of record, technically NASA cannot terminate the SLS program without a pass from Congress. Consider then the chances for that when Congress created the SLS program, subpoenaed, and nearly indicted NASA (and in particular the then-Deputy Administrator) over efforts to prevent the SLS program from starting, and has subsequently and consistently made clear in both NASA’s appropriated budgets and in the accompanying budget statements strong bipartisan support for the SLS program. So SLS program termination liability makes no political sense. Nonetheless, the White House Office of Management and Budget’s Branch Chief for Science and Space Paul Shawcross, in cooperation with NASA’s CFO Beth Robinson, maintains each year that SLS is vulnerable to termination, and therefore 10 to 20 percent of SLS program funds must be withheld for termination liability.
Were Congress to follow the Administration’s guidance in funding the SLS program, the termination liability withholding would have a detrimental impact on the program. As shown above, with a $200-$300 million funding gap, Congress seems to impart little or no importance on Administration budget guidance when developing annual SLS program appropriations. Most important, the gap in funding for SLS of hundreds of millions annually means that an additional $1 billion or more above the Obama White House’s budget for SLS will be appropriated over the next four years. As stated by one of our sources at NASA, that means the announced no-later-than 2018 launch date of the first SLS is pure fiction, and that the more likely launch date for Exploration Mission 1 is 2017. Absent the political hanky-panky the SLS program has faced, the “Big Rocket’s” first launch could have been much sooner, with another NASA source maintaining that, if the ESA wasn’t lagging behind schedule by over a year on the ESM, Congressional funding at past levels could have led to a late 2016 launch date for EM-1.
One program that fortunately does not face termination liability funding withholdings is the upgrades to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center infrastructure. KSC has been hard at work for some time now making changes in its infrastructure to support launching the giant rocket. From the outside the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) looks as impressive as it always has, but inside the agency’s Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program has been hard at work transitioning the 525-foot-tall rocket-stacking facility from space shuttle support operations to SLS support operations.
As outlined by AmericaSpace writer Emily Carney in a recent article on the VAB upgrades:
- A new platform system to allow access to the Orion spacecraft and SLS vehicles. The previously used platforms in High Bay 3 were removed in 2013. The new system, which has 10 platform levels, will be able “to move in and out, and translate up and down as needed,” according to NASA. For the first time in the VAB’s history, the building will be able to accommodate and service different vehicle configurations without major construction efforts. Computer-aided design (CAD) is being used to envision how needed infrastructure (power cables, high pressure fluid lines, communication lines, etc.) will move with this platform system.
- In addition, NASA announced that the high bay “will accommodate the 355-foot-tall mobile launcher that will carry the rocket and spacecraft atop the crawler-transporter to the launch pad.”
- Low-voltage power sources are being upgraded, starting in High Bay 3. State-of-the-art fiber optic cabling is replacing copper wiring and lead-shielded cabling from the Apollo and Shuttle programs. In addition, water, sewage, and drainage piping will be upgraded, along with the building’s fire protection system.
- All four of the vertical-lift doors have been “repaired and upgraded.” The agency also stated: “In the F tower, a second elevator will be added. Old or unnecessary ground support equipment has been removed, including large beams in High Bay 1, where the Apollo/Saturn V was stacked, and a 125-ton bridge crane in High Bay 4 that has not been used in 20 years.”
- As the building has aged, naturally some corrosion from the elements can be expected. Investigations are underway to determine possible steel/ground support equipment corrosion and aging of concrete. Any affected areas will undergo repairs and revitalization.
A few miles from the VAB, in the Operations and Checkout building, technicians with Lockheed Martin are working to ready the Orion for its first spaceflight this December on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission. Currently scheduled to launch at 8:03 a.m. EDT on Dec. 4, Orion will carry out the first flight of a human-rated spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) in nearly 40 years. The upcoming 4.5-hour unmanned EFT-1 flight will launch atop ULA’s mammoth Delta-IV Heavy rocket, America’s biggest and most powerful launcher, which will fly from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex-37B to send Orion to orbit the Earth twice before splashing down off the California coast. The mission will give engineers the opportunity to evaluate Orion’s launch and high speed re-entry systems, such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes, computers, software, guidance and control, the separation events, and the critical heat shield, all of which will help to further perfect the spacecraft’s design before its first flight on the SLS.
ATK recently completed the Critical Design Review (CDR) for the powerhouse five-segment solid rocket boosters (SRB’s) as well, which will provide the critical extra “push” SLS needs to break away from Earth’s gravity to send astronauts on deep space missions of exploration. A full-scale ground static firing of the booster, Qualification Motor-1 (QM-1), is planned for late this year/early next year at ATK’s facility in Promontory, Utah.
The first SLS RS-25 engine test is also on the horizon at the Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., where engine number 0525 is already installed at the historic A-1 test stand. The first hot-fire test is expected to occur in the very near future, but no date has been specified. Preliminary tests will be run on the engine to collect data on the performance of its new controller, which regulates valves that control the flow of propellant to the engine and determines the amount of thrust generated during a hot-fire, to ensure its engine startup and shutdown sequences occur as expected.
The space agency’s new 170-foot-tall Vertical Assembly Center (VAC), which will be used to assembly elements of the SLS, is now complete at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans as well, and the welding for the massive core stage of the SLS for EM-1 will begin later this week after a ribbon cutting ceremony with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on Sept. 12. The VAC will used to join domes, rings, and barrel segments to complete the SLS fuel tanks (all of the segmented support flight rings needed to connect and provide stiffness between barrels and domes of the SLS core stage for EM-1 have already been welded). It will also be used to perform evaluations of the completed welds that will make up the mammoth core stage of the rocket.
Engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., have also conducted several acoustic tests scale model SLS vehicles, even as recently as a couple weeks ago, to understand how loud the rocket will be at liftoff, using the data to design the water suppression system that will reduce the violent liftoff vibrations on the vehicle on the launch pad. A year-long construction project to build the structural test stands for the gigantic SLS core stage is already well underway too at Marshall. The stands, one of which will be built on the foundation of the stand where the Saturn-V F-1 engine was tested, will be used to test the largest cryogenic fuel tanks ever used on a rocket to ensure that the huge structures can withstand the incredible stresses the skyscraper-size vehicle will experience during launch.
NASA’s F/A-18 Hornets are also in on the action to support SLS development, having conducted in-flight tests over Armstrong Flight Research Center in southern California to evaluate the autonomous flight control system for the SLS. Known as the Launch Vehicle Adaptive Control (LVAC) experiment, the tests saw several Hornet flights conducted to test the Adaptive Augmenting Controller, which will allow SLS to respond to various conditions—such as winds and vehicle flexing—during the launch/ascent phase of the mission (no previous NASA launch vehicle has had the capability to adjust autonomously during actual flight, and the SLS Adaptive Augmenting Controller’s ability to make real-time adjustments to the autopilot should make for enhanced performance and a safer flight). The NASA Hornet took to the skies over Edwards Air Force Base to simulate those launch conditions SLS might encounter as it thunders away from Earth. The flight tests are crucial in evaluating the SLS’s flight control system and will help engineers to design a system capable of autonomous adjustments to unexpected conditions as SLS pushes toward space.
Whatever one’s opinion on the SLS is one thing is for certain, SLS is well on its way to becoming a reality, with work occurring at many facilities across the country in developing the infrastructure, tools, hardware, and components to support a deep-space human exploration program for the United States starting next decade.
Article written by both Mike Killian and Jim Hillhouse.
AmericaSpace will be visiting both Michoud Assembly Facility and the Stennis Space Center later this week to see some of the progress being made, so check back regularly for updates.