Spaceflight Insider

NASA Glenn to oversee construction of Universal Stage Adapter for SLS

NASA Glenn Director Janet Kavandi speaks at last week's press conference announcing the center's plan to oversee the design and construction of the Universal Stage Adapter (USA) for the Space Launch System (SLS). Also speaking at the event were panelists, from left to right, Bryan Smith, director of Space Flight Systems at Glenn; Stephen Creech, director of Spacecraft and Payload Integration and Evolution Office at Marshal Space Flight Center; Joe Roche, sub-element manager for USA at Glenn; and Kathy Schuber, deputy director of Safety and Mission Assurance at Glenn. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / Spaceflight Insider

NASA Glenn Director Janet Kavandi speaks at last week’s press conference announcing the center’s plan to oversee the design and construction of the Universal Stage Adapter (USA) for the Space Launch System (SLS). Also speaking at the event were panelists, from left to right, Bryan Smith, director of Space Flight Systems at Glenn; Stephen Creech, director of Spacecraft and Payload Integration and Evolution Office at Marshall Space Flight Center; Joe Roche, sub-element manager for USA at Glenn; and Kathy Schuber, deputy director of Safety and Mission Assurance at Glenn. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / Spaceflight Insider

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Officials at NASA’s Glenn Research Center announced last week their plan to oversee the construction of the Universal Stage Adapter (USA), an important component of the Space Launch System (SLS). The USA’s primary function will be to connect the Orion crewed spacecraft to the SLS launch vehicle.

A press conference at NASA Glenn last week announced the beginning of the process of requesting proposals from industry to construct the USA.

“This will probably be the largest commercial space flight contract we’ve had since the late 1990s,” said Bryan Smith, director of Space Flight Systems at NASA Glenn.

This early in the process, officials could not reveal even an estimated dollar amount of the contract, nor how many of NASA Glenn’s staff will be directly involved in the project. Those details and the many possible variables on how to procure the hardware will ultimately be determined by negotiations between Glenn and the winning bidder.

“In early August we issued a draft request for proposals, offering companies the opportunity to design and build the adapter,” said NASA Glenn Director Janet Kavandi. “Today many of those companies are here at Glenn, meeting with our project managers, asking questions and offering feedback.”

Kavandi said the project is the beginning of an important new partnership between Glenn and Marshall Space Flight Center and kicks-off the process of building this component of the SLS.

Although the USA is a structural component that mates Orion to the SLS, that is not its only function.

“The adapter itself has many purposes,” Smith said. “It’s a bit of a misnomer to call it an adapter.”

The USA will be positioned between the Orion spacecraft and the SLS’s Exploration Upper Stage booster. In that configuration, it will also serve the purpose of housing and protecting what the planners call co-manifested payloads.

These payloads may be habitat modules that will be proven out in early cislunar missions or other hardware for exploration missions. There will also be room for smaller secondary payloads in addition to the co-manifested payload.

“Secondary payloads would be 6U CubeSats, breadbox-sized CubeSats,” said Stephen Creech, director of Marshall’s Spacecraft and Payload Integration and Evolution Office. “And the co-manifested payloads can be up to 10 metric tons in mass.”

USA infographic

An expanded view of the Space Launch System Block 1B Crew version. Near the top of the stack, the Universal Stage Adapter connects Orion with the exploration upper stage, encapsulating any payload in between. Image Credit: NASA

Performing the function of a fairing, the adapter will have a thermal protection system to shield the payload from aerodynamic loads. It will also have a purge system to protect its contents and vent heat while it is sitting on the pad in the hot Florida sun. Additionally, it will have an acoustic attenuation system to protect the payload from the tremendous noise created by the SLS propulsion.

“It also has to have a separation system,” said Joe Roche, Glenn’s sub-element manager for USA. “That system will separate the adapter from the launch vehicle and expose the secondary payload or payloads to space and set them on their way.”

“We’ve been working with Glenn since the beginning of the SLS project,” Creech said. “They have a lot of heritage in fairings kind of work for launch vehicles. And this has got a lot of similarities to fairings work with the acoustic protection and so forth. There is a lot of expertise here.”

Roche echoed Creech’s comments concerning NASA Glenn’s strong background for the project.

“Right now, the project itself exploits the advanced materials expertise and structures expertise here at NASA Glenn,” Roche said, “and partnering with the Langley Space Flight Center for some large structures help as well.”

The contract is structured for Glenn to procure the first adapter for use on the Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2), the first crewed flight of Orion and the SLS, currently scheduled for some time in 2023. The lengthy process of bidding and selection on the contract is expected to be completed by August of next year.

The contract for the winning bidder will most likely include the production of two test articles to demonstrate the design’s full functionality, prior to production of the flight model for EM-2.

From there, NASA Glenn may exercise further phases of the contract to include the production of six additional adapters. Those six adapters will start flying after the 2023 time frame, with the delivery of one adapter per year for missions EM-4 through EM-9.

Overall, the contract is expected to be an 11-year effort for Glenn.

SLS Evolution

While the Block 1B is expected to be NASA’s heavy-lift workhorse for at least the next decade, an even more powerful Block 2 version could begin flying by the 2030s. Photo Credit: NASA

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Michael Cole is a life-long space flight enthusiast and author of some 36 educational books on space flight and astronomy for Enslow Publishers. He lives in Findlay, Ohio, not far from Neil Armstrong’s birthplace of Wapakoneta. His interest in space, and his background in journalism and public relations suit him for his focus on research and development activities at NASA Glenn Research Center, and its Plum Brook Station testing facility, both in northeastern Ohio. Cole reached out to SpaceFlight Insider and asked to join SFI as the first member of the organization’s “Team Glenn.”

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