MICHOUD ASSEMBLY FACILITY, NEW ORLEANS, LA — The first step on NASA’s “Humans to Mars” objective has begun with the start of construction of the first core stage fuel tank of the agency’s colossal Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that will one day propel astronauts to the Red Planet.
The high-tech marvel of machinery that will weld and integrate the initial elements of the SLS rocket’s very first core stage is now “open for business,” following a marquee grand opening ceremony headlined by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014, at the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the stage is being manufactured. AmericaSpace was on hand for the milestone event and toured the Michoud facility. See our photos herein.
“This is the rocket that will take humans to Mars.”
“The road to Mars and asteroids begins right here at Michoud … and Mississippi,” said Bolden, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the base of the enormous 170-foot-high welder at Michoud’s Vertical Assembly Center (VAC), which will join the pieces of the over 200-foot-long core stage fuel tank.
“We are on our way to Mars!”
“It all begins right here. Nothing goes to space that doesn’t go through Mississippi [and the Stennis Space Center]. Because that’s where all the engines get tested!”
“This is a big day. This is the beginning of our trip to Mars. This state of the art tooling will weld together the massive core stage which is the heart of the Space Launch System, America’s next rocket. We are doing this for the young people of this nation.”
The state-of-the-art welding giant stands 170 feet tall and 78 feet wide.
“SLS is a game changer.”
“To get a sense of its size, at over 200 feet long the core stage is over 46 feet longer than the space shuttles External Fuel Tank. And with the RS-25 engines integrated at the base it’s over 58 feet longer than the ET. So it’s big!”
“This is big because just two days ago we rolled Orion out from its assembly facility at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout building at the Kennedy Space Center. “That’s where the astronauts will be. Orion is now being fueled for its first flight, this December, just months from now!”
“That’s significant because it’s the first time in more than 40 years that this great nation of ours has built a spacecraft designed to send humans beyond low Earth orbit.”
“That’s a big, big deal!”
“This NASA rocket is a game change for deep space exploration. The SLS will launch NASA astronauts to investigate asteroid and the surface of Mars while opening new possibilities for science missions as well.”
Bolden was joined by a host of dignitaries lined up to cut the ribbon at the welder’s base, including NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, Roy Malone, Michoud Assembly Facility Director, Todd May, SLS program manager, Louisiana U.S. Senator David Vitter (LA) , New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and U.S. Representative Steven Palazzo (MI 4th CD).
“Today’s ribbon cutting on the Vertical Assembly Center tool signifies the final installation of all the major tools required to build the core stage of our nation’s next great spaceship, the Space Launch System,” said Roy Malone, Michoud Assembly Facility Director.
“We are now ready to begin welding the massive core stage, putting it all together, testing it and getting it down to the Cape in order to take our next step on our journey to Mars.”
“This [weld] facility will provide over 600 jobs to Michoud with the construction of the core stage,” Bolden noted. “You should all be really, really proud.”
“Thank you for providing this cutting edge tool. And thank you for the bipartisan support from the Congress.”
The Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) weld tool completes NASA’s world-class welding tool kit that will use the technique known as friction stir welding (FSW) to join together assorted pieces of the SLS core stage.
This includes multiple domes, rings, and barrel segments that have already been manufactured and await delivery to the VAC welder for integration into the mammoth maiden unit. AmericaSpace got an up-close tour of the stage’s components.
The SLS core stage towers over 212 feet (64.6 meters) tall and sports a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 m).
Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage and its avionics.
The core stage stores cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.
The SLS core stage derives from the heritage from NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. It is based on the shuttle’s External Fuel tank. All 135 flight units were built at Michoud during the three-decade-long shuttle program.
The cryogenics feed the quartet of four RS-25 space shuttle main engines, which provide the propulsion and power the core stage. The engines are being adapted and tested at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
A pair of enhanced five segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs), also derived from the shuttle’s four segment boosters, round out the first stage.
The initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version of the SLS stands 322 feet tall and provides 8.4 million pounds of thrust. That’s about 10 percent more thrust at launch than the Saturn V moon landing rockets that launched NASA’s Apollo lunar landing missions, including the Apollo 11 moon walkers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. The SLS can carry more than three times the payload of the NASA‘s trio of retired space shuttle orbiters.
The inaugural test flight of the SLS is targeted for November 2018. It will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version.
On its first flight, known as EM-1, the SLS will launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft for a roughly three-week-long test mission journeying beyond the Moon to a distant retrograde orbit, according to William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
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