The Next Steps Are Here

Back in November, we debuted the first in a set of new videos, “No Small Steps.” Now, the next “Steps” is here!

The first video in the series explained why going to Mars is a very big challenge, and why meeting that challenge requires a very big rocket. (Hint: You need a whole lot of fuel.)

The second installment goes a step further, by discussing how NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) builds on the foundation of the Saturn V and the Space Shuttle, but then uses that foundation to create a rocket that will accomplish something neither of them could – sending humans to the Red Planet.

Illustration showing a Saturn V and SLS launch, with the text The physics of sending a rocket into space haven’t changed, but our engineering has.SLS takes advantage of some of the best concepts and systems from its predecessors. Like the Saturn V, SLS is a massive, staged rocket. Like the space shuttle, it uses solid rocket boosters and RS-25 engines. But unlike either of those vehicles, SLS will be able to support human missions to Mars. How do you combine elements of two different vehicles and produce a new one with a capability neither of the others had? You take the best of yesterday and INNOVATE.

Today’s teams have the added advantage of a few decades of technology development. The teams that built the Saturn and Shuttle were pioneers of rocket science, but today we’ve not only built on their foundation but also improved on things like welding science.

And while they may not be as glamorous as making smoke and fire, advances in things like modeling and analysis, welding techniques and software development add up to be a very big deal.

Why? Because on the journey to Mars, there are No Small Steps.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DesBgDPR22Q[/embedyt]


Next Time: Visiting the Rocket Factory

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The Path to the Pad

2016 is well underway. Another year over, another year begun.

For the SLS program, it means we’re even further past the halfway point toward launch readiness. It’s been only four years since the program officially began in September 2011, and we’re working toward being ready in less than three years for our first launch.

Artist’s concept of SLS stacking at Kennedy Space Center
The day this is a photograph instead of an artist’s concept will be a good day.

The bulk of the first four years was focused on completing the design. To be sure, there was smoke and fire and bending metal as we tested boosters and engines and began building the barrels for the core stage of the rocket. Building on the foundation of the Space Shuttle Program allowed us to move quickly into testing of the engines and boosters, and the design work on the core stage progressed rapidly enough to allow us to begin early manufacturing, and all of that was preparation for what would come when we completed the critical design review of the plans.

An RS-25 engine being raised into the test stand
RS-25 Engine 2059 is currently in the stand for testing at Stennis Space Center. A few years ago, it powered Atlantis’ longest mission, and a few years from now, it will loft SLS’ first crew into space.

With the design work all but done, the push toward the pad is well underway, and there’s a lot of work that entails.

For the rocket to roll out to the pad for launch, each element of the vehicle has to arrive at the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center to be stacked together with the Orion crew vehicle. And each part has its own road to get there.

For the upper stage portion of the vehicle, which will push Orion out of Earth orbit and into deep space, to be ready to fly, test articles will be built of the adapters that connect the upper stage to the rest of the rocket and to Orion, along with a test article of the upper stage itself. These three test articles will be placed in a stand together, and subjected to stresses and strains to make sure they’re ready for launch. Based on the results of that test, the actual flight articles of the upper stage and adapters will be completed and transported from Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., to Kennedy Space Center.

For the solid rocket boosters to be ready to fly, qualification motor tests will take place at Orbital ATK in Utah. The results of those tests will pave the way for processing, fueling and completion of the flight boosters, using hardware already at Kennedy Space Center. The boosters will be the first piece of SLS to be stacked in the VAB at Kennedy.

For the 200-foot-tall core stage, which its large fuel tanks and RS-25 engines to be ready to fly, the engines and the stage itself must each undergo individual preparation, and then be integrated together. Tests will be conducted at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi of individual engines, to make sure the RS-25 is ready for the environment it will encounter during launch. Test articles will be built of the large pieces that make up the core stage, and will be transported from Michoud Assembly Facility outside New Orleans to Marshall, where they’ll be placed in large test stands – which have to be built for this purpose – to undergo structural testing. Using the results of those tests, the actual first flight core stage will be completed. Engines will be transported from Stennis to Michoud to be integrated into the core stage, which will then be transported back to Stennis for the largest rocket test firing since the Apollo era. Once it has been tested, the stage will then be shipped down to Kennedy for stacking.

And that’s just the big pieces. In the meantime, work must be done on things like making sure the software that controls the rocket is ready to go.

A new SLS test stand being built at Marshall Space Flight Center
At Marshall Space Flight Center, work is taking place now on the stands that will be used for the test versions of core stage components.

We’ve already made a good start on this “building” phase of the program. In March of last year, we conducted the first qualification test of the solid rocket boosters, and we’re currently preparing for the next, which will take place later this year. At the same time, we’ve started working on the flight hardware for the boosters for SLS’s first launch.

We’ve completed the first series of individual engine tests, using an unflown development engine, and are about to start the second early this year, using an engine that has flown on shuttle missions and will fly again on the second flight of SLS.

We’re almost finished with the upper-stage element test articles, and will use them to conduct structural tests over the course of this year. At the same time, work has already begun on the actual upper stage that will be used to push Orion beyond the moon on SLS’s first flight.

We’re well underway building the pieces that will be used to finish the core stage test articles and the stands on which they’ll be tested. Very soon, we’ll be welding together test articles of the rocket’s liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen tanks, as well as other core stage components. Those, in turn, will be followed by the flight articles for the first core stage.

It’s an exciting time, and making it more exciting is the fact that this work is taking place in the modern era of digital media, giving you an unprecedented look at the process. As we continue to grow closer, one step at a time, to launch, you’ll be able to follow us every step of the way.


Next Time: May The Forces Be With You

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Orion, At Your Service (Module)

What do NASA’s Orion spacecraft and nuclear-powered airplanes have in common? Here’s a hint: It’s something they also both have in common with actor Samuel L. Jackson.

The answer, of course, is that they’ve all been to NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio.

The Orion service module test article with a model of SLS
The piece of hardware on the left fits roughly were the NASA logo is on the rocket to the right.

Plum Brook, a branch of NASA’s Glenn Research Center, was originally created to allow the agency to conduct nuclear research, first related to airplanes and then to nuclear rockets. Today, it’s a unique facility that allows testing that replicates extreme conditions encountered in spaceflight – from vacuum and thermal environments found in orbit to launch-like acoustic levels that would turn a human body into a puddle.

On an average day, the Space Power Facility at Plum Brook is engaged in tasks like using a a vacuum chamber made of aluminum equivalent to about one billion soda cans to test large payload fairings for SpaceX rockets. And on special occasions it’s used for more unique purposes, like serving as a set for Marvel’s The Avengers (in case you’ve ever wondered why there was a NASA banner hanging behind Jackson’s Nick Fury in the opening scene).

I had the opportunity to visit Plum Brook last month for the arrival from Europe of a test article of the Orion crew vehicle’s service module.* Orion, of course, is the aforementioned deep-space spacecraft, which will be launched on SLS to enable human missions beyond the moon and eventually to Mars. Orion is designed to meet the robust demands of human space exploration, from providing life support to keep up to six astronauts healthy and safe to withstanding the high temperatures generated by a high-speed entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

In order to do that, Orion has requirements that dwarf those of a mission to low Earth orbit. Even after it separates from SLS, Orion will need more than twice as much propellant as a spacecraft on an orbital mission. It will have to have four times the ability to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and will have to carry five times as much oxygen and drinking water.

Infographic of Orion capabilities
Just some of the ways Orion is designed uniquely for a unique purpose.

Which is where the service module comes in. It’s a combination of a propulsion system and a storage unit for all those helpful things like air and water that keep astronauts alive while traveling hundreds of thousands of miles from home. Orion’s service module is provided by the European Space Agency, in a partnership agreement that has its roots in NASA’s cooperation with ESA on the International Space Station. The service module builds on the success of the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, which has carried cargo to the space station since 2008.

Work is well underway on the service module for the first flight of SLS and Orion on Exploration Mission 1, but, in the meantime, the recently arrived test article will be put through a variety of stresses and loads to make sure the design is ready to fly. Being at the event marking the arrival of the test article was a glimpse into the future of international space exploration – an overlapping of different accents and different languages, united in a common message of working together to do things we’ve never before done.

The Red Planet is waiting. And people from around our planet are already working together to get there.

Speakers in the acoustic testing chamber at Plum Brook
The acoustic test chamber at Plum Brook will subject the test article to 163 decibels of sound.

*If you’d like to join Orion and Samuel L. Jackson in having a Plum Brook connection, your chance is coming. Plum Brook Station and Glenn Research Center, in Cleveland, will hold open houses in 2016, on June 11-12 and May 21-22, respectively, in connection with Glenn’s 75th anniversary.

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Help Wanted: Be An Astronaut

Actors playing astronauts walk through smoke
These are actors from a video about the first launch of Orion. The actual roles of “Orion crew members” are yet to be cast.

Many moons ago, an Orion program executive asked on a Twitter chat what advice he would have for the first crew that will fly on the spacecraft the team is building.

The answer could have gone in any number of directions, from how the steering’s going to handle to what to pack for the trip. But what he said was this:

“Hang on! You’re about to make history!”

For me, that response was a good reminder – it’s one thing to remember the historic significance of the first crewed flight of Orion and SLS as a huge stepping stone in human exploration of the solar system, but it’s another thing altogether to appreciate that step as an incredibly unique experience for the individuals involved. When the crew returns to Earth at the end of the mission, they will share stories of what it was like to have the personal experience of looking past the moon and seeing our home planet in the distance beyond.

Others will follow them, and come back with their own incredible stories – living long periods farther from Earth than anyone ever has, voyaging deep into the expanses of space, being the first to interact with raw relics of the formation of our solar system floating in the void. And as those pioneers carry us farther in our journey to Mars, others will remain closer to home, performing revolutionary scientific research aboard the International Space Station.

Not long after that Twitter chat, I was privileged to sit in on a briefing about SLS to a unique audience: NASA’s 2013 class of astronaut candidates. It was interesting to watch them as the presenter talked about the rocket we’re building. At the end of the presentation, they were shown a video – an animation of a crewed launch of SLS and Orion. The video included a scene of a crew walking out to board the vehicle, and, to be honest, I was a little envious watching the future astronauts realize it would be them who would be doing that in real life, seeing them get excited about the possibilities and opportunities that lay before them.

But that moment was also a healthy reminder – we’re building this rocket to carry these people, and others like them. SLS and Orion will open the solar system for exploration by humankind, but will do so by carrying not faceless representatives of our species, but by safely transporting real individuals through the unmatched fires of launch and the unrelenting void of space and the unforgiving heat of entry. It is our job to give them a good ship for the journey.

Spacesuit engineers demonstrate how four crew members would be arranged for launch inside the Orion spacecraft, using a mockup of the vehicle at Johnson Space Center.
Spacesuit engineers demonstrate how four crew members would be arranged for launch inside the Orion spacecraft, using a mockup of the vehicle at Johnson Space Center.

And that focus permeates everything we do. When NASA founded the SLS program, one of our key tenets was safety. Before we built, the vehicle was modeled on computers and in small scale. We test the engines and boosters again and again and again. Flight hardware is preceded by test articles that are subjected to incredible stresses to see how they will withstand the dynamic pressures of launch. Where possible, redundancy is included to add an additional level of safety. Contingencies are identified and preparations are made. Spaceflight is an endeavor that will never be without risk. We carry the responsibility of equipping pioneers to face that risk as safely as possible.

Today, NASA is looking for the next group of men and women that will carry forward our work in space, both aboard our outpost science laboratory in Earth orbit and on the proving ground missions that will prepare for missions to Mars, flying on a new fleet of American spacecraft including not only SLS and Orion but also Commercial Crew vehicles.

If you want to apply to be an astronaut, among the credentials you’ll need are a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological, physical or computer science or mathematics and at least three years of related professional experience, or at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. Visit USAJobs.gov and search for the keyword astronaut to apply online.

And for those who are selected, we’re working hard to build you a great ship. Hang on, you’re about to make history!

Next Time: An Orion Overview

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One Giant Rocket, Batteries Not Included

This week, guest blogger Jared Austin, a fellow writer on the SLS Strategic Communications team, is back for a look at an example of the innovative technology work taking place in the SLS program. — David

Terry Rolin holds an ultracapacitor
Terry Rolin has a job with real power – researching ultracapacitors for spaceflight purposes. (Get it? “Real power”! Ha!)

Would you like a cellphone, tablet, or laptop that is lighter and more powerful and will recharge for use in a matter of seconds? If your answer is “Yes!” then the Space Launch System Program is working to make your life a little bit better. (If your answer is “no,” are you sure you’re in the right place?)

Rockets and smartphones may not seem like they have much in common, but one thing they do share is a need for reliable power for electronic systems. And that’s where ultracapacitors come in.

Ultracapacitors are small devices, as small as roughly the size of a business card, which means more room and less weight than a traditional battery. On top of that, ultracapacitors charge rapidly.

Close-up of an ultracapacitor power storage unit
Close-up of an ultracapacitor power storage unit

NASA’s new Space Launch System will be NASA’s exploration ride for decades to come, and that presents a unique challenge. While the first version of the rocket will be ready to fly in three years, NASA will continue to evolve it into more powerful configurations through the 2020s, meaning that NASA engineers are working today to make sure the final version of the rocket will still be state-of-the-art when it flies. To accomplish that, engineers are already engaged in the long-lead work of maturing new technologies for spaceflight.

For instance, every NASA system – from small “CubeSats” to rovers, satellites, and even rockets – has an electrical system that requires power. The most common power source is a battery. Despite their widespread use, rechargeable batteries come with a number of drawbacks. They are slow to charge up (hours) and are necessarily bulky in order to meet power requirements. Batteries heat up during use (feel the bottom of your laptop after an hour’s use), and that overheating can wear on the device its powering. On top of that, batteries contain harmful chemicals that are bad for the environment, and suffer from early wear-out, especially in the harsh environments of space where many NASA systems operate.

Meet avionics failure analyst Terry Rolin, who kept seeing battery failures that were creating problems for NASA systems.

“I have learned that failures present opportunities for individuals to learn new ways of doing things, build character, and teach new pathways for problem solving,” Terry said.

Rolin at his workstation
The work that Rolin and is team are doing has the potential to benefit not only SLS but also electronics devices.

In 2012, he learned about ultracapacitors and was sure he had found the future.

The ultracapacitors can be significantly smaller than batteries, allowing more room for payloads, which is especially important to CubeSats where every centimeter matters. Ultracapacitors do not heat up during use, which is good for the system it’s powering. Also, due to their solid-state design (batteries contain a liquid core), the harsh environments of space – radiation, extreme temperatures, and pressures – do not affect them the same way they do batteries.

While ultracapacitors pose substantial promise for spaceflight applications, there was one major issue that had to be resolved before they could be rocket-ready. To build the compact ultracapacitors in a way that would maximize their capacity to store energy, they need to be as thin as possible; an ultracapacitor’s ability to store electrical charges actually decreases as it grows in size. Terry and his team won an innovation fund in the summer of 2012 to develop ultracapacitors that could power NASA systems using 3-D printing techniques and nanotechnology in order to manufacture the smaller ultracapacitors.

For SLS, despite the enormous size of the rocket, there are numerous small avionics computer boxes requiring power systems that fit in a tight space. Ultracapacitors are being evaluated for use down the road, either as the primary power system, or in a hybrid combination with batteries taking advantage of the best of both power sources.

“I was seeing increases in the ability of the capacitors to store energy by several orders of magnitude, and getting charging times of seconds rather than hours,” Terry said. “It was very exciting.”

But Terry’s team had difficulty reproducing their efforts. They found micro- and nano-fractures in their ultracapacitors, so they reached out to industry and academia for help.

Rolin at his workstation
In order to use 3-D printing to create the ultracapacitors, Rolins and his team had to find a way to prevent the devices from being damaged by the heat of printing.

It turned out that the nanoparticles in the commercial electrode ink they were using during the 3-D printing process the devices required a temperature so high that it damaged the ultracapacitors. So, Terry’s team developed a new ink that would sinter, or “print,” at lower temperatures, but still work for commercial manufacturing processes. Because of this work, down the road, commercial companies could release a nanoparticle ink that lets anyone with a 3-D printer to create their own ultracapacitors to power their electronics.

While their full potential is still being researched by Terry and his team in the space systems department at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, ultracapacitors show promise to not only make NASA systems smaller, lighter, more durable, easily rechargeable, and more environmentally friendly, but to potentially bring those same benefits to electronic devices in your home or pocket.

Ultracapacitors are only one of the many technologies the SLS program has been developing, both internally with NASA engineers and in partnership with industry and academia. NASA has a long history of “spin-offs” that have taken space system research to make lives on Earth better, from Hubble software that helps with cancer detection to filtration systems that help provide clean drinking water in remote areas.

A rocket for missions to Mars that makes life better on Earth? That truly is the best of both worlds.

Next Time: Hey, Want A Ride?

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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

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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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOYXa9jx-TI[/embedyt]


Next Time: A Model Employee

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*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

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Movies, Mars Missions and Why Murphy Was An Optimist

Graphic showing a rocket launch and an astronaut walking on Mars

If Murphy’s Law were actually true, things would arguably be much easier.

The old adage that “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” has a reputation of being the apogee of pessimism, but think about how much simpler it would make things if it were true. Spaceflight is full of unknown possibilities, and if Murphy’s Law were really true, you’d only have to prepare for the worst of them.

It’s true for a college exam and it’s true in life or in engineering – it’s not the hard questions that will get you, it’s the ones you never imagined you’d be asked.

There’s a movie out now that captures the spirit of that. “The Martian” tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on Mars who, to put it lightly, gets the opportunity to learn about what can go wrong in space exploration, and his survival depends on working with the NASA team back on Earth to answer questions none of them had ever imagined.

In many ways, “The Martian” is a spiritual successor to “Apollo 13,” both the 1995 movie and the 1970 NASA mission on which it was based. On that mission, a failure in an Apollo service module put the lives of the crew in jeopardy, and only through quick thinking, hard work and a lot of endurance was the crew able to survive.

Both movies are edge-of-your-seat stories about the risks of spaceflight and the merits of duct tape, but while one is fiction and the other is based on a true story, they both are ultimately, in a very real way, stories about NASA — about who we are, and about how we rise to the challenge of answering those unexpected questions.

The real-life carbon-dioxide scrubber assembly from Apollo 13
A square peg in a round hole — The real-life carbon-dioxide scrubber assembly that helped save Apollo 13.

I’ve talked to engineers who have cited Apollo 13, both the mission and the movie, as something that inspired them to pursue engineering. There’s a scene in the movie where a collection of the items aboard the spacecraft are dumped on a table on Earth, and the engineering team is challenged to use them to figure out how to put a square peg in a round hole. More than one person has told me they saw that scene and said, “THAT’S what I want to do!”

The Apollo 13 mission has been described as being perhaps “NASA’s greatest moment.” I talked once with an astronaut who said this title should really go to a 10-day span in May 1973. When the Skylab space station launched on May 14, its first crew was supposed to follow it on the next day. An anomaly during launch caused the heat shield to be lost and the solar power system to be crippled, endangering the space station. In 10 days, NASA figured out multiple ways to save Skylab, designed and built two different solutions, and was able to launch the first crew on May 25. Apollo 13 was primarily a story of a crew and mission control, but the Skylab rescue was a nationwide effort.

You may never see a movie about the Skylab rescue. The world may pay more attention when lives – real or fictional – are in danger, but answering the unknown is something we do every day. When we do it successfully, it means that we prevent those lives from being endangered in the first place.

It made me happy that one of the first conversations I had with a coworker about “The Martian” wasn’t about what was right or wrong with the movie, but what could have been done differently to make sure the situation it depicts never happened in the first place. On a program developing a new vehicle, our job right now isn’t solving Apollo 13- or The Martian-style problems, it’s preventing them.

Which doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges on the Space Launch System program. We prepare for the worst and we prepare for the best and sometimes we get the unknown. A material doesn’t function in reality the way it does on paper. A proven system behaves differently in a new environment. And when that happens, just like in those movies, we roll up our sleeves and we find an answer to the unexpected question.

And the moments when we do, the moments you never see in movies when we make sure the next Apollo 13 never happens or the next Mark Watney is never stranded on Mars – THOSE are NASA’s greatest moments.

(For more about the Apollo 13 and Skylab rescues, along with other great “NASA Hacks,” check out this feature.)

Next Time: Who’s The Boss?

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David Hitt works in the strategic communications office of NASA’s Space Launch System Program. He began working in NASA Education at Marshall Space Flight Center in 2002, and is the author of two books on spaceflight history.

 

Mars: Gateway to the Solar System

Graphic of rocket flying with Mars background

The demands of going to Mars are immense.

Meeting that challenge will require delivering our best, and then continuing to do better.

Designed to enable human exploration of deep space, NASA’s Space Launch System will be, from its first launch, the most powerful rocket in the world today. The first SLS to depart Earth will carry about triple the payload of the space shuttle, provide more thrust at launch than the Saturn V, and send Orion further into space than Apollo ever ventured.

But even that power is only a fraction of what is needed for human landings on Mars. To continue the Journey to Mars, we will have to take the most powerful rocket in the world and make it even more powerful.

Engineers prepare a 3-D printed turbopump for a test at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama
NASA is doing research today on technologies like composite materials and 3-D printing that will be used to make future versions of the rocket more powerful.

Engineers at Marshall’s Space Flight Center, where the program is based, and other engineers across the country, are already in the planning phases for the first major upgrade, which will come in the form of a more powerful upper stage. This will create a version of the rocket that will serve as the workhorse for “Proving Ground” missions that will test out new systems and capabilities in the vicinity of the moon before we heard toward Mars. With the new upper stage, SLS will be able to carry additional payloads to lunar space with Orion, allowing astronauts to make longer stays in deep space.

Then, in order to enable the leap to Mars, SLS will receive new, advanced booster rockets that will make it even more powerful. The SLS Program is already working with industry partners to demonstrate new technologies that will make sure the new boosters are state-of-the-art when they begin flying.

Mars is sometimes discussed as a “horizon goal” in human space exploration. While Mars is a focus of our efforts, it is neither the first step of the journey nor the last. Just as we will develop our capabilities in the Proving Ground near the moon before heading toward Mars, once we have reached the Red Planet, our voyage into deep space will continue.

Space Launch System not only represents a foundation for our first steps on the Red Planet, the robust capability necessary to accomplish that goal will also give us the ability to carry out many other ambitious space missions.

Jupiter hangs in the sky above the surface of a moon
Far beyond Mars, SLS could speed space probes far faster than ever before to the outer solar system.

With the ability to launch far more mass than any rocket currently flying or in development, SLS could be used to help pave the way to Mars with large-scale robotic precursor missions, such as potentially a sample return, that would demonstrate systems needed for human landings.

SLS’s unrivaled ability to speed robotic spacecraft through our solar system offers the potential to revolutionize our scientific expeditions to distant worlds. Reducing the time it takes to reach the outer planets could make it possible to conduct in-depth studies of icy moons that are promising destinations in the search for life.

With payload fairings that make it possible to launch five times more volume than any existing rocket, SLS could be used to launch gigantic space telescopes, which will allow us to peer farther into space, and with greater detail, than ever before, revealing new secrets of our universe.

In addition to the Orion crew vehicle and other large payloads, SLS will be able to carry small, low-cost secondary payload experiments, some not much larger than a lunchbox, providing new opportunities to for research beyond the moon and through the solar system. This will make it possible for groups that otherwise might not be able to afford a dedicated rocket launch to fly innovative ideas that can help pave the way for exploration.

The first launch of the initial configuration of SLS will be just a first step toward these and other opportunities; each upgrade will give us progressively greater ability to explore.

Mars – and the solar system – are waiting.

For more about how NASA is preparing for the Journey to Mars, check out our page, The Real Martians.

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David Hitt works in the strategic communications office of NASA’s Space Launch System Program. He began working in NASA Education at Marshall Space Flight Center in 2002, and is the author of two books on spaceflight history.