During his visit to Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke with workers and media at an event to discuss the status of the Space Launch System (SLS), and the ongoing efforts to ensure the vehicle’s readiness for its maiden launch in the latter half of 2018 on Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1). Highlighting the event was a “progress report”, of sorts, of two large towers, which are designed to stress-test the core stage’s large liquid hydrogen tank.
Though not yet complete, it’s awaiting the installation of a massive “cross head” that will bridge both towers, the already impressive structures rise nearly 190 feet above the ground, and will top-out at 215 feet upon completion in late 2016. It's worth noting the history related to the stands current site. It sits in the same location as Stand 4696, which was used to test the Saturn V’s F-1 engine.
According to NASA, the new stand will use dozens of hydraulic cylinders to place loads and stresses on the rocket’s components, similar to what the vehicle may experience during various stages of its flight, from liftoff to stage separation. Forces range from the steady buildup of forces along the rocket’s axis, to twisting and shock loads due to environmental conditions and separation events. In order to approximate realistic launch and flight conditions, the liquid hydrogen tank will be filled with cryogenic fluids. Additionally, the components may at some point be tested to failure, far beyond nominal flight loads, so that engineers will better understand the vehicle’s capabilities.
Robert Bobo, an engineer in the test lab at Marshall, went into detail about how the stands will apply the mechanical loads to the tanks. “We try to test, as much as possible, like we fly.”, Bobo explained, which is why so much effort is going into the development and construction of the testing facilities. The stand will be able to apply 3 million pounds of compression force (pushing), and 2 million pounds of tension (pulling)…and can impart “…several hundreds of thousands of pounds…” of lateral (sideways) force to the test articles.
Engineers will have access to nearly 4,000 ‘channels’ of real-time data during a test so that they can verify the design is behaving as expected. Each one of the hydraulic cylinders used in the test stand weighs approximately as much as the average automobile.
Taking a moment to thank the workers for their progress, Bolden made special mention of Jennifer Speers, the Structural Engineer of Record for the stand. Bolden highlighted Speers' leadership and her "the buck stops with me" attitude. Appearing to be unused to the spotlight, Speers nonetheless accepted the compliments with a smile as Bolden continued speaking with the various project principals in attendance.
Asked about the apparent schedule slippage for Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2) from 2021 to ‘no later than 2023’, Bolden told Cosmic Chicago, “…that the agency’s goal is to send humans to Mars. That’s the bottom line.” He further explained that, as the current agency Administrator, it’s his responsibility to make sure that both schedules and costs are met. Mentioning that he made a promise to Congress to keep the program on schedule and on budget, Bolden said, “I have no reason to believe, right now, that we won’t do that.”
On prominent display was a scale model of SLS, sporting the latest look of the vehicle: orange foam insulation on the core stage tanks, along with covering the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter (LVSA)…and the 5-segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) “dressed” in their ‘swoosh’ livery. When asked about the reception to the "new look", SLS Core Stage Manager Steve Doering replied, “You know, it’s like anything else, right? You have people making fun of us for putting racing stripes on a rocket. You have others that really think it’s cool. In the end, somebody, somewhere at Headquarters thought it would be a good idea to do it that way, and that’s what was chosen…so…I think it looks pretty good, myself.” Noting that the core stage was always likely to be covered in the orange insulating foam, the Critical Design Review (CDR) surprised many by recommending that the LVSA also be covered in the foam on its exterior surface.
NASA and its industry partners are working diligently to ensure SLS is not only the most powerful rocket ever built, but also the safest. As the agency continues on its goal to land humans on Mars, the pace of construction and testing will not abate. From the stress stands at Marshall, to engine testing at Stennis…and from stage construction at Michoud, to ground systems upgrades at Kennedy, SLS’s testing, construction, and launch will be a multi-Center effort.
Astronaut Butch Wilmore was also on-hand to discuss the agency’s solicitation for applicants to the new astronaut pool. Applications are currently being accepted, and selected candidates can expect to fly on one of four vehicles used by U.S. astronauts, including the in-development Orion spacecraft. When Orion eventually carries a crew, they will be the first humans to venture beyond low Earth orbit since Apollo 17 in December 1972.
Wilmore made special mention that teachers, by measure of their profession, meet the 3-year operational requirement portion of the application. Additionally, Bolden emphasized that diversity is a key goal in the selection of the next astronaut class and strongly encouraged anyone who meets the qualifications to apply.
There had been speculation that Bolden would make an announcement as to status of the Marshall Space Flight Center’s Director position, the duties of which are currently being discharged by Acting Center Director Todd May, but that did not happen. May was appointed to the Deputy Center Director’s position in August 2015, after having served as SLS Program Manager since August 2011, and has been Acting Center Director following Patrick Scheuermann’s retirement as Center Director in November 2015. With the end of the calendar year approaching, it is unlikely any decision will be announced until the beginning of 2016, at the earliest.
Notes From the Field:
▶ While at Marshall, Bolden was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Alabama - Huntsville, though he seemed to politely eschew the honorific, noting that he had a family member that had earned the title through much harder work than had he.
▶ When informed by someone in the crowd, Bolden expressed surprise at the approach of the 30th anniversary of his first Shuttle flight.
▶ It appears that Pluto has one very highly-placed fan in the Administrator’s office: Bolden congratulated Marshall on its involvement with New Horizons, and said he believes Pluto is a planet and will continue to call it as such.
Curt has been a "space nut" for has long as he can remember, which stretches back to the Enterprise Approach and Landing Tests. While he purports to be antisocial and an introvert, we think he's fibbing a bit since he seems to love chatting about everything from space to technology, from Doctor Who to Sherlock, and everything in-between. He can be reached on Twitter at: @Crow_T_Robot