Spaceflight Insider

Space Launch System (SLS) upper stage testing begins

Mike Roberts, NASA / MSFC Structural Test Branch team lead, explains Space Launch System (SLS) ISPE testing. Photo Credit: Scott Johnson / SpaceFlight Insider

Mike Roberts, NASA / MSFC Structural Test Branch team lead, explains Space Launch System (SLS) ISPE testing. Photo Credit: Scott Johnson / SpaceFlight Insider.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — A series of structural qualification tests on the Space Launch System (SLS) Integrated Spacecraft and Payload Element (ISPE) – a test version of the SLS upper / “in-space” section – is underway at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). The tests began on Feb. 22 and are expected to be completed by mid-May.

Graphic depicting Space Launch System (SLS) ISPE testing. Image Credit: NASA / MSFC

Graphic depicting SLS ISPE testing. (Click to enlarge) Image Credit: NASA / MSFC

The ISPE is composed of an SLS core stage simulator, a launch vehicle stage adapter (LVSA), a test version of the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS), the structural portion of a frangible joint assembly, the Orion stage adapter, and the Orion spacecraft simulator.

Last month, on April 19, SpaceFlight Insider was on hand for one of these tests as the ISPE was pushed, pulled, and twisted – hydraulically – subjecting it to loads expected during flight. The results of this test have not yet been made available.

Mike Roberts, NASA / MSFC Structural Test Branch team lead, explained, “When the SLS rocket flies, the thrust from the engine is pushing up and the atmosphere is pushing back, so all of those loads, associated with that flight, all that pressure, all that torque and tension and bending moment and shear, all of that we have to replicate here on the ground” in order to qualify it for flight.

For testing, the tanks of the ICPS portion of the ISPE are filled with inert liquid nitrogen (LN2) instead of the combustible liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX) with which they will be filled for flight.

The ISPE is located in Test Stand 4699. However, the testing is monitored from about a mile away in Building 4583 – a 1950s heritage facility that is now the location of a new control room – the Test and Data Recording Facility.

The 4699 / 4583 complex is capable of applying up to 24 simultaneous loads on the ISPE, with several hundred thousand pounds of force, and recording test results on approximately 1,900 data channels.

SLS is NASA’s new super-heavy-lift launch vehicle, which, among other missions, will be capable of carrying astronauts to orbit in the agency’s new capsule, Orion, for deep-space missions to Mars and beyond. Its first flight, Exploration Mission One (EM-1), an uncrewed flight around the Moon, is expected to take place in 2019.

For more SpaceFlight Insider photos from the April 19 test, click here.

And here’s NASA / MSFC video of ISPE stacking / testing:



Scott earned both a Bachelor's Degree in public administration, and a law degree, from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He currently practices law in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood. Scott first remembers visiting Marshall Space Flight Center in 1978 to get an up-close look at the first orbiter, Enterprise, which had been transported to Huntsville for dynamic testing. More recently, in 2006, he participated in an effort at the United States Space and Rocket Center (USSRC) to restore the long-neglected Skylab 1-G Trainer. This led to a volunteer position, with the USSRC curator, where he worked for several years maintaining exhibits and archival material, including flown space hardware. Scott attended the STS - 110, 116 and 135 shuttle launches, along with Ares I-X, Atlas V MSL and Delta IV NROL-15 launches. More recently, he covered the Atlas V SBIRS GEO-2 and MAVEN launches, along with the Antares ORB-1, SpaceX CRS-3, and Orion EFT-1 launches.

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