A Model Employee

This week, I’d like to introduce guest blogger Jared Austin, a fellow writer on the SLS Strategic Communications team, for a peek into a part of the SLS team that is rarely seen, but creates some of our most-seen tools. — David

Parts of SLS models during assembly
Ever wonder what the sides of the new SLS booster design look like? Now you know!

Few people know Barry Howell and what he’s done for the space program for decades. Neither astronaut nor engineer, through his work as a master model maker Barry has helped NASA visualize spacecraft before they existed.

For more than 40 years, Barry’s “office” has been a space model workshop filled with the past, present and futures of NASA. Barry has created models of many of NASA’s greatest endeavors – from the mighty Saturn 1B and Saturn V, to the iconic Space Shuttle, to early concepts of the International Space Station, to the Hubble Space Telescope, and many other vehicles. Those models aren’t the mass produced, off-the-shelf toys that little Timmy or Sarah receives for their eighth birthdays. Barry’s models are works of both artistic and technical mastery that are painstakingly crafted to scale in a variety of sizes from models that will fit on your desk to a giant that is over 12 feet tall.

Barry Howell with a freshly updated 1-to-50 scale model of SLS
Barry Howell with a freshly updated 1-to-50 scale model of SLS.

You don’t last forty years at a job unless you’re extremely passionate about what you do. Barry’s craft is a rare calling – there are only a small handful of modellers at Marshall Space Flight Center, and only a few NASA centers have model shops. Model makers who get a job like this tend to keep it for a long time, so turnover is low and opportunities are infrequent. Barry came to the job from a background in machining, which he started working while in high school. But when there is an opening in the model shop, there really is only one job qualification – be the best at what you do. There’s no particular education or experience requirement, unmatched skill is the determining factor.

Over the course of his career, Barry’s work has helped solve the agency’s most challenging problems, letting engineers visualize the hardware they are designing and building, and to prove concepts such as the shade on Skylab. After Skylab’s launch, NASA had only 10 days to design and build a sunshade for the space station. Barry helped build a model to demonstrate that the umbrella-like shade that Marshall engineers were designing would properly shield Skylab from the sun’s heat. And his work is rather unique within NASA.

Now Barry is taking his decades of experience in modeling all types of NASA systems and using it to produce models of America’s next great rocket, the Space Launch System.

A row of Saturn-era models in the model shop archive
In decades past, Barry created his models directly from vehicle engineering blueprints.

During his tenure in the model shop, Barry has seen changes in technology and process, along with classic methods that have stood the test of time. In the old days of Saturn and early Shuttle, each and every model would be carefully machined according to actual blueprints that allowed Barry to ensure they were precise representations of the real rockets. Working with aluminum or plexiglass blocks, Barry would carefully drill into blocks with a mill or strip away pieces with a lathe, using nothing more than his focused eye, steady hands, and well-honed judgment to carve the individual parts of the rocket from those blocks.

Today, for SLS, model production is a combination of old and new techniques. There’s no longer a need to individually handcraft each model that’s produced; resin casting allows for mass production of models, allowing the model shop to churn out the models at a faster rate and lower cost. But in order to produce the mold for that casting, the old ways are still best. To this day, Barry produces his initial master for each model line with the meticulous same mill and lathe machining process that he used during Saturn.

Close-up of parts for SLS models
In order to capture the fine detail of an official Marshall model, Barry machines the prototype for each model series the shop produces.

Recently, though, even more modern techniques have entered the model shop in the form of 3D printing, creating small astronaut figures, handheld models of the rocket, or small versions of the SLS engines. It’s a new area that the modelers have just begun to explore and holds many possibilities for improving the way they make SLS models going forward.

“I truly love every part of the model-making process, as well as the variety of different models that I’ve gotten the chance to make at NASA,” Barry said. “And the young guys I get to work with, they come up with a lot of great ideas on how to make things even better.

Barry has also been very gracious in passing on his knowledge to others. Modelers who create their own models at home will often request Barry’s inputs to help them make custom-made parts that look more realistic.

Now, as Barry rides off into the sunset of retirement in a couple of months, he’ll be leaving behind a legacy of models showing NASA’s greatest technological achievements. Barry has helped tell the exploration story and by capturing NASA history in 3D for decades.

Close-up of parts for SLS models
In addition to providing a way to share the vehicles NASA is building, Barry’s models have allowed engineers to visualize concepts that have been proposed.

Next Time: A Model Worker

Join in the conversation: Visit our Facebook page to comment on the post about this blog. We’d love to hear your feedback!

Next Giant Leap, No Small Steps

Our focus today at the Space Launch System (SLS) program is on building a new rocket – the most powerful in the world. On its first test flight, Exploration Mission-1, SLS will carry atop it an uncrewed Orion spacecraft, which will someday carry astronauts on a journey to deep space.

A similar scene was unfolding at NASA 48 years ago. On Nov. 9, 1967, the Saturn V rocket launched for the first time, carrying an Apollo spacecraft.

Less than two years later, a Saturn V rocket and Apollo spacecraft sent three astronauts sailing through the void between two worlds, culminating in two members of the crew becoming the first to set foot on another celestial body. The words spoken as the first boot dug into the powdery gray lunar regolith took their place among the most famous ever said.

“That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.”*

Launch of Apollo 4
The launch of Apollo 4 was the first from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

With SLS, Orion, and a revitalized space launch complex, we are developing capabilities for our next pioneering endeavor – a journey to Mars.

We continue to make progress toward that journey. Testing has begun on the boosters and engines for the Space Launch System rocket. The One-Year Crew is currently aboard the International Space Station, learning more about living in space for long durations. Our robotic explorers on Mars discovered flowing water and the history of the Martian atmosphere. The Orion vehicle made its first spaceflight, traveling 15 times higher than the orbit of the space station before successfully returning to Earth. These accomplishments, and many more over the last year, bring us closer to the “next giant leap” to Mars, but are all important in their own right. The journey to Mars is hard and the “small steps” along the way aren’t really that small.

And that’s the general idea behind a set of new videos we’re launching today – “No Small Steps.” The challenge of going to Mars is monumental, and it’s going to take a monumental rocket to make it possible. In an entertaining and informative format, “No Small Steps” gets into the “how” of making that happen – taking rocket science and making it relatable to answer questions like how you power a rocket designed for Mars, how you build a rocket the same size as the Saturn V but make it more powerful, how SLS combines the best of NASA’s greatest launch vehicles and makes it even better. We’ll release the next two installments about a month apart, so stay tuned.

Because when it comes to our journey to Mars and beyond, there are no small steps.


Next Time: A Model Employee

Join in the conversation: Visit our Facebook page to comment on the post about this blog. We’d love to hear your feedback!

*My take on the “for man”/”for a man” discussion: Neil was pretty awesome either way.

CDR, Orange Rockets And A Sense of “Since”

Artist’s version of SLS during launch
NASA’s Space Launch System: New look, same great ability to enable human exploration of deep space!

Who knew signing some paperwork could be so exciting?

Already in 2015, the Space Launch System team has done things like successfully fired an incredibly powerful qualification test version of the solid rocket boosters, completed an entire series of full-duration tests of a RS-25 core stage engine, built a structural test article of the first flight’s upper stage and filled a factory floor with 50 barrels, rings and domes, all 27.6 feet around, all waiting to be stacked into sections of the core stage.

And, amidst all the smoke and fire and bending giant pieces of metal, there was the Critical Design Review. While it may not have generated the exciting pictures and video those other milestones did, the Space Launch System CDR is a huge step forward and one for the history books – the first CDR of a NASA crew launch vehicle since the space shuttle almost 40 years ago.

The design documents for a rocket are incredibly complicated, and the CDR process is an incredibly complicated review of an incredibly complicated design. Two teams – one chartered by the SLS program and the other an independent review board consisting of aerospace experts – go through the documents looking for any issues – from big-picture concerns about the function of the vehicle to “minor” discrepancies between two pieces of documentation. They go through the design with a fine-tooth comb, and then go through the results of that with an even finer-tooth comb.

The CDR process officially determines that the design for the vehicle is mostly complete – a requirement that SLS exceeded – and is ready to move into manufacture and assembly. In the case of SLS, where the major elements of the vehicle had previously completed individual CDRs and are already under construction, this milestone paves the way for assembly and testing as those elements become the complete vehicle.

Along with the completion of CDR, we were excited to make one other announcement – the official new look of SLS.

Expanded view of the elements of Space Launch System
All the ingredients needed for building an exploration-class rocket.

When we first announced Space Launch System four years ago, the rocket was still in the very early phases of design, and the artist’s concepts we revealed then didn’t have nearly as much technical detail to go on. Now, the designs and processing plans for the vehicle matured to the point that we were ready to make updated decisions about the appearance of the vehicle.

With CDR, we’re proud to reveal a look of the rocket based on the results of four years of work maturing the design – integrating the engineering reality of the vehicle and a lot more color.

On the surface, the new look may appear to be a cosmetic change, but those changes speak to the depth of complexity involved in maturing the design for a rocket – the trade-offs between extra thermal protection versus extra payload capability, the balancing act of making sure some parts of the rocket don’t get too hot while other parts don’t get too cold.

You may recognize the orange color of the core stage; it’s the natural color of the spray-on foam insulation that covered the external tank of the space shuttle. Under the white-and-black exterior we’ve been showing the foam has always been there, and for essentially the same reason as on the shuttle’s external tank. Inside the structure are tanks holding super-cold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, and the insulation helps prevent the cryogenic liquids from evaporating as well as mitigating the formation of ice on the outside of the stage.

By not adding paint to the core stage, we’re reducing the weight of the rocket, which increases payload capability, and saving cost of both paint and the equipment needed to apply it. During the first year of the space shuttle program, the external tank was painted white to provide additional protection. After the first two flights, the decision was made that the benefit of the increased payload capability without paint outweighed the protective benefits the paint provided. While today it would be possible to paint the larger SLS core stage with less paint than was used on the external tanks, it was discovered during those missions that paint could actually cause the foam to absorb so much water that, in the case of SLS, the combined impact of paint and water could reduce payload capability by a thousand pounds.

Launch of the STS-135 space shuttle mission in July 2011
If the orange color looks familiar, it’s because you have seen it somewhere before. (Also, one of the engines in this picture of the final launch of the shuttle will be flying again on the first flight of SLS. Cool, no?)

While most of the core stage consists of the large hydrogen and oxygen tanks, the orange foam will cover two other sections as well – the intertank structure between the two tanks and the forward skirt at the top of the core stage above the liquid oxygen tank. The foam in these two areas will also contribute to maintaining propellant temperatures and to ice mitigation, but serves another purpose as well. During launch and ascent, the foam protects sensitive equipment inside those areas from the high temperatures on the vehicle’s exterior.

Also insulated with the orange foam is the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, the conical section that connects the core stage with the upper stage. Because this section widens so much from top to bottom, it will experience extreme aerodynamic heating during launch, and the foam will protect the metal underneath from the high temperatures.

We made one other change to the look of the vehicle, a design on the solid rocket boosters that reflects the upward momentum of the rocket. Unlike the core stage tank, the booster design has negligible impact on payload, and gives SLS a unique look entirely its own, fitting for a 21st century launch vehicle.

And while the new look may make the rocket seem a little more real, the Critical Design Review marks a huge step forward toward a completed rocket. There can be motivation in a sense of “since.” We test-fire an RS-25 engine, and it’s a first since we retired the shuttle. We complete the CDR, and it’s the first of its kind since the shuttle was in development. You look at what happened the last time NASA did these things, and you realize the significance of what we’re doing.

And they’re just going to get bigger. CDR was a first since shuttle development, and it paves the way for the test firing of core stage in a couple of years. And the combined thrust of four RS-25 engines in a test stand at Stennis Space Center will be the most not just since shuttle, but since the Apollo program. And that paves the way for the first launch of SLS, which will send Orion farther into space than Apollo ever ventured. At some point, “since” stops, and is replaced with “never before.”

And that “never before” will be just the beginning.


Next Time: A Model Worker

Join in the conversation: Visit our Facebook page to comment on the post about this blog. We’d love to hear your feedback!