Monthly Archives: July 2016

The 83rd Thing Learned from QM-2

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View from the forward end of the QM-2 booster during the test firing

During the two-minute booster test, 537 instrumentation channels provided data to meet 82 different test objectives.

They came for an awesome display of pure propulsive power.

They got a lesson in the realities of spaceflight. …Followed by an awesome display of pure propulsive power.

While engineers in Utah prepared for the second Qualification Motor (QM-2) test of a Space Launch System (SLS) solid rocket booster, another team of NASA engineers from Marshall Space Flight Center visited the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama to give a presentation to Space Camp trainees and museum guests explaining what would be happening during the test, how the boosters work, what the next steps are to get the boosters ready for the first launch, and how Space Launch System will play a key role in NASA’s Journey to Mars.

The museum, which is home to Space Camp, is practically in the backyard of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where SLS is managed. On the morning of the test, museum attendees and Space Camp trainees filled a theater at the museum to watch the two-minute-long firing of the 17-story solid rocket booster, the most powerful ever built for human spaceflight. The firing would provide information to answer 82 questions about how the booster performs, including how it would respond in cold-weather conditions.

What they ended up seeing that day was a huge milestone for the Space Launch System and a major step toward human exploration of deep space. The motor performed as anticipated for the burn. The inside of the motor, where the propellant had been cooled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit to simulate a cold day at the launch site, reached nearly 6,000 degrees, and the flames leaving the booster melted sand into glass. The test clears the way for qualification of the solid rocket boosters as ready to fly on the first launch of SLS in 2018.

Marshall engineer Karen Bishop gives a presentation

While the test was delayed, attendees of the viewing heard a NASA engineer explain information about the test and boosters, and their path from QM-2 to the launch pad.

In addition to the test and presentation, they also got a real-life lesson on the challenges in developing and flying space systems. As hundreds of children took their seats, the live NASA TV feed appeared on the giant theater screen, showing the booster mounted in the test stand – and the word “hold” underneath it.

A technical issue had delayed the test – a problem with a sequencing computer. When one listens to the audio feed of a rocket or shuttle launch, you can hear announcements of the steps being taken as the countdown clock nears zero – “vehicle is on internal power,” “main engines start,” etc. For a rocket to launch, numerous things have to all happen properly, and all in the correct order, one event paving the way for the next. The booster test required that same sort of preparation and precision – many things had to happen properly, and in the proper order, both before and after ignition of the booster. When the computer responsible for managing that sequence failed to function correctly, the test had to be delayed.

From a big picture view, the delay was relatively minor – after a discussion on how best to proceed, the software was changed out, the clock was reset, and the test took place just one hour after it was originally scheduled.

During the delay, the audience heard the NASA team’s presentation and got a big-screen viewing of last year’s first qualification motor test (QM-1) test. But they also got a real-world demonstration of what they’d been learning in Space Camp – the best word you can hear in the space business is “nominal,” meaning everything is proceeding as expected, but there are sometimes you don’t hear that word. You work as hard as you can to make sure that you do, and you work as hard as you can to be prepared for when you don’t. When an “off-nominal” challenge arose, the NASA and Orbital ATK team in Utah rapidly assessed the problem, identified options for moving forward, evaluated the risks and benefits, and implemented a solution that allowed the test to proceed quickly and successfully.

Museum visitors and Space Camp trainees watching the QM-2 test at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama

Museum visitors and Space Camp trainees watching the QM-2 test at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

While some of the original attendees had to leave in favor of hands-on activities like microgravity water-tank training, when the test took place, the remaining audience counted down to the firing, and cheered when the booster ignited and extinguished, the giant screen showing the close-up shots at almost life size and the sound system doing its best to do justice to the roar of the motor as it turned desert sand into glass. There was excitement over the observation that the next time a booster like this is lit, it will be powering SLS off the launch pad for its first flight.

The one QM-2 solid rocket motor, by itself, produced more thrust than it takes to lift most rockets off the ground and send them into space, and required millions of pounds of concrete in the test facility to make sure it didn’t move.

Next time, there will be nothing holding it back.


Next Time: All Roads Lead to Florida

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Happy (Earth-) Independence Day!

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Artist concept of an American flag in front of an SLS launch

Work is progressing rapidly in preparation so this artists concept can become a reality.

On Monday, the United States celebrated the Fourth of July. Fireworks and backyard grills were ignited across the country.

A couple hundred miles above us, the International Space Station orbited Earth with two spacecraft attached to it.

What do these two things have in common? A quest for independence.

The Fourth of July, of course, is the United States’ Independence Day, celebrating the anniversary of the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence, announcing that the former colonies were becoming a sovereign nation.

The International Space Station is an early, but prominent step in NASA’s effort to achieve “Earth independence” in human deep-space exploration, a key part of our Journey to Mars. On the station, we are learning how to live off the Earth by conducting investigations to learn how the human body adapts to space and testing new technologies needed for longer missions. However, the two spacecraft docked to the space station demonstrate that our human spaceflight operations today are “Earth dependent.” While astronauts float freely in the microgravity aboard the station, they remain tethered to our planet by a supply chain of provisions needed to survive. Deliveries of food, science experiments, spare parts and gifts from home arrive and depart by spacecraft on a regularly scheduled basis. Earlier this year, the number of docked spacecraft reached six: American Dragon and Cygnus cargo ships, and Russian Progress cargo ships and Soyuz crew vehicles. Should something go wrong, the return to Earth is only a short distance away.

A Dragon capsule is being berthed to the International Space Station

American Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft can be seen here at the International Space Station, joining Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles.

In order to travel to Mars, astronauts will have to survive without that tether. When they depart Earth, they will sail into the void of space without the comfort of frequent visits from resupply ships. They will have no quick return; should something break or go wrong, Earth is potentially more than a year away. These pioneers will rely on themselves and what they have with them, or what has been sent ahead. They will be the first to be independent of our home planet, with both the freedom and responsibility that carries with it.

Significant challenges await us as we move from Earth dependence into Earth independence, learning to operate in space in a way we never have before. To accomplish this, we will carry out “proving ground” missions – missions where we will, innovate, test, and validate new systems and capabilities that will help us learn to live longer and farther away from home. The first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion crew vehicle will mark our entry into this proving ground era, relying on new systems farther from Earth than any human spaceflight mission has ever ventured. SLS and Orion will allow us to launch habitats and other equipment that will support the first astronauts to not only visit, but to live in deep space around and beyond our moon.

A spacecraft approaches Mars and its moons

Astronauts in deep space will need to be able to survive without frequent resupply missions from Earth or being able to return quickly to Earth.

When we have demonstrated the ability to live and thrive in deep space, the time will come for the first mission to leave the neighborhood of the Earth and moon and extend human existence into the solar system, a mission that will not only be a major step toward human landings on Mars but will be our declaration of Earth-independence.

In that moment, the word “Independence” will designate the time when humankind became an interplanetary species.

Get the grills and fireworks ready, because that will be an occasion to celebrate.

Next Time: A Real-World Space Lesson


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SLS Avionics: The Brain Without a Body

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By Martin Burkey

If you compared NASA’s powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to a human body, the avionics and software would be the nervous system and brain that monitor the body’s condition and makes and sends decisions. Just a few of the hundreds of operations that they make include: liquid propellant flow, engine throttling, engine and booster exhaust nozzle steering, trajectory updates, receiving and sending data to the crew and ground control, and responding to off-nominal issues such as wind gusts or an engine failure.

The avionics are required to work in environments of temperature, pressure, sound, etc. that no human body – and actually few machines – could tolerate. So everything from the boxes, to the boards, to the individual processors are “ruggedized” and tested at every step in development to survive launch.

Ultimately the avionics boxes and software have to work perfectly. But how can you be sure without putting it on the world’s largest rocket and seeing how it works? That’s the focus of the Integrated Avionics Test Facility – or IATF – at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where the computer, routers, processors, power, and other black boxes and software collectively known as “avionics” are being tested in preparation for the planned 2018 first flight of SLS.

Possibly the coolest thing about the test facility is that it can create an artificial vehicle operating in an artificial world and virtually “fly” SLS hundreds of times – from pre-launch activation and checkout to liftoff to core stage separation at about 17,500 miles per hour and 100 miles in space – to test the entire avionics package.

Expanded view of SLS showing various avionics locations.

Location of avionics aboard SLS Block 1.

Avionics can be found all over SLS: in the booster aft skirt and forward skirt, the core stage engine controllers mounted on the engines themselves, in the core stage engine section, intertank, and forward skirt, in the launch vehicle stage adapter, and in the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage. Of course, avionics for the Orion crew vehicle are also linked in to the performance of the whole vehicle. So basically top to bottom.

An overhead view of the SLS IATF at Marshall Space Flight Center.

The heart of the Integrated Avionics Test Facility at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The Systems Integration Test Facility-Qualification is shown left background. The System Integration Lab is in the foreground. The SLS booster Hardware In the Loop facility is in the middle background.

Inside the test facility, the vehicle avionics boxes are mounted on a semi-circular, 18-foot-tall frame in the same relative position they will be inside SLS – right down to the length of the connecting cables. Outside the frame, several large towers house the equipment for simulating the SLS “world” and running test after test.

The virtual world of SLS is created by a pair of software tools, ARTEMIS and MAESTRO. They stand for A Real-Time Environment for Modeling, Integration and Simulation (ARTEMIS) and Managed Automation Environment for Simulation, Test, and Real-Time Operations (MAESTRO). (How do engineers come up with this stuff?) ARTEMIS is a suite of computer models, simulations and hardware interfaces that simulates the SLS and its virtual “world.” For instance, it simulates the Earth’s rotation, gravity, propellant tank sloshing, vehicle bending in flight, engine and booster pressure, temperature and thrust, and weather, from hot sunny days to cold stormy nights, and inputs from the Orion crew vehicle and launch facilities. In fact, ARTEMIS has far more lines of software code than SLS itself. MAESTRO serves as the test conductor for the virtual missions. This software configures and controls test operations, sets up the external conditions, monitors the tests, and archives all test data for analysis. That’s where engineers and software writers find out if their code needs fixing or supplementing.

The actual flight avionics for SLS will never be tested in this facility – only their flight-like equivalents. The actual flight avionics will be installed directly into the core stage at the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana and tested there prior to flight. The test team at Marshall can already say that they’ve flown SLS “virtually” thousands of time to help ensure that SLS flies safely on its first real mission in a couple of years.


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