Rominger: SLS will reignite U.S.’ human space program
Former space shuttle astronaut and current ATK vice president of Strategy and Business Development Kent Rominger detailed how NASA’s new heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System or “SLS,” is poised to reignite the U.S. space program in a manner not seen since the heady days of the Apollo Moon landings.
SpaceFlight Insider had the opportunity to interview Rominger recently and discussed his background, passion for space exploration and NASA’s program of record. He explained things in a manner that was not only easy to understand but provided a new perspective on the value of deep space exploration.
SpaceFlight Insider: First, let me thank you for talking SLS with us today.
Rominger: “Not a problem at all it’s something I’m very happy to talk about.”
SpaceFlight Insider: First things first. Can you give us a little detail about what ATK has done to get SLS ready for its maiden flight?
Rominger: “We’re working on the five-segment solid rocket booster, the largest solid rocket booster ever in production. We’ve conducted three development motor test firings and we have the first SLS flight qualification motor being placed into the test stand for a firing later this year.
Just as important as preparing for the test, we have also streamlined our processes and procedures to ensure our production facilities are more efficient and affordable. By incorporating a process call Value Steam Mapping, we are able to manufacture SLS’s five-segment solid rocket motor in 46 percent less time with a much smaller workforce than we had for the four-segment version used on the space shuttle.”
SpaceFlight Insider: These boosters are different in a lot of ways from those that came before. Can you perhaps give us a bit more information on them?
Rominger: “Sure. The five-segment booster uses the baseline design from the shuttle booster, but it incorporates the latest technologies and higher performing materials. By using these new materials, we’ve taken a lot of weight out of the inert portions of the motor enabling the ability to produce higher thrust. The process changes I just spoke about also allow us to produce the booster at a lower cost, doing our part to ensure the SLS program remains well within budget and on schedule.”
SpaceFlight Insider: What has the customer been like throughout this process?
Rominger: “NASA has really been great to work with. As the shuttle program wound down, I think they started looking at the affordability issue and the tight budget. They have been working with us to sanction these Value Stream Mapping changes, and in so doing make us more efficient. NASA evaluated every change we made to ensure the product is reliable and safe as we prepare for human spaceflight.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Can you tell us why SLS and why the re is a need for both heavy-lift as well as commercial efforts?
Rominger: “Having both programs allows us to not only fulfill our commitment on the International Space Station (ISS) but opens new markets. Throughout history space exploration has been known for its spinoffs, and I see the commercial programs as an exemplifier of how NASA paves the way to help make that happen. As commercial crew programs work with NASA to develop the capability to launch crew to the ISS, NASA’s exploration program has their focus set on deep space exploration.
In the past NASA could only perform one major development at a time. Having the commercial crew to ISS being developed by outside organizations allows the SLS and Orion launch infrastructure, engine and booster testing, hardware manufacturing and wind tunnel testing along with new deep space technology development to be conducted simultaneously.
In short, the Commercial Crew program takes over the normal operations of launching to the ISS, allowing NASA’s heavy lift program to begin major exploration of the solar system ―which is what NASA is really all about.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Could we accomplish the same thing by using one of the smaller rockets to conduct multiple launches? When I spoke with Dan Dumbacher, NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, he stated that it would take multiple launches of smaller vehicles, and we would have to assemble the elements in space – whereas this would be lessened by SLS. Would you provide us with your take on this?
Rominger: “Dan is exactly right. Deep space exploration is hard. It took us more than a decade to assemble the Space Station and it is only 250 miles above earth. Human exploration to deep space and Mars is hard. It requires infrastructure, fuel, transfer vehicles, landers, habitats and then the humans, it will take somewhere between seven and ten launches using NASA’s SLS. If we were to use the next-largest rockets currently operated, it would take at least five times the number of launches. There is also the added difficulty of performing within tight launch windows that is required for deep space missions, making each launch more critical.”
“In short, probability of mission success reduces dramatically when you move from 7-10 launches to 30-40. In fact, models show that mission success with a higher required launch rate is approximately 50 percent, whereas the same mission requirements with only 10 launches is closer to 90 percent.”
SpaceFlight Insider: What about some of the other missions that have popped up over the last few years?
Rominger: “The capability of SLS and Orion allow for many mission possibilities and they are all exciting. One example is the Moon or a Lagrangian point on the other side of the Moon that faces away from Earth. You can take a habitat and a crew to cis-lunar orbit on a single launch of the SLS/Orion system! An asteroid redirect mission would also be a possibility; in fact there is a Keck Institute study that supported a 10 year mission cycle if using a smaller vehicle; the SLS cuts several years out of that mission and increases the probability of success.
The Inspiration Mars group researched the various launch vehicles available and came to the conclusion that the only rocket that could accomplish it was SLS and Orion. The fact is, when it comes to sending humans to Mars, you need a very large rocket.
Perhaps, Taber McCallum of the Inspiration Mars Foundation, seeking to use the rocket for a human Mars flyby mission, said it best: “We thought we could do this philanthropically and be outside of the government. But we found ourselves saying yeah, you’ve gotta use the SLS to go to Mars! Wow, NASA was right! How do you like them apples?”
“The physics are the physics,” that’s what McCallum said.
SpaceFlight Insider: Let’s talk using legacy hardware on new missions…
Rominger: “Yes let’s!” (Laughs)
SpaceFlight Insider: Can you give us some info about SLS’ use of these types of systems?
Rominger: “You bet. The fact is everyone uses heritage hardware, whether it is your car, the airplane you fly in or the latest rocket. As new technologies are developed, we leverage the past to improve the design and build the best product possible, which could not be truer for human space flight.
NASA’s Space Launch System is the newest and largest rocket built in America. It uses an optimized version of the RS-25 which was used as the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME), which, by the way, is one of the most reliable and powerful liquid rocket engines ever developed. Similarly the solid rocket boosters for SLS are based on the latest design of the four-segment booster that flew 221 times successfully. With the upgrades in materials and performance, I personally believe it will be the most reliable booster propulsion we’ve ever put humans on.
You will also find expertise, facilities and tools in place that were used on past programs as the SLS core stage is being developed. The same thing is occurring at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39 as SLS and Orion modifications are made―similar to what occurred as the Apollo Program ended and preparations for shuttle began.
Evolving what has been done already rather than starting from scratch, is an efficient and cost-effective practice. As a taxpayer, I expect that and so should you.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Can you talk a bit about Orion?
Rominger: “Orion is a beautiful thing, that’s going to be the most capable capsule ever to carry humans into deep space. The very first time a crew is on it, it will take them farther into space than anyone has ever been. In just a few months, the program is preparing for its first flight test, a major accomplishment for the program, and you can feel the energy within the team.
One of the best features of Orion is the safety systems, including the launch abort system (LAS), which will provide a high-level of safety for the crew―something that is personally very important to me.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Have you noticed any trends in terms of politics and human space exploration?
Rominger: “One common thread I have seen in this administration and past administrations is that they all agree on one destination for human spaceflight—Mars. Everyone around the globe, and certainly in America, thinks putting a human on Mars would be fantastic. I see that same excitement within both NASA and industry―we realize this is the ultimate goal, and SLS and Orion will allow us to do that.
To gain the knowledge and experience you need to go to Mars and really live independent of Earth will require shorter duration missions such as to an asteroid or the Moon. With that said, I really believe the right mission for us to concentrate on is going to Mars. We need to lay out the program and the requirements, schedule and budget and execute to those requirements.
Another is international interest in heavy lift vehicles. This is evident in the fact that both Russia and China have released concepts that show systems very similar to our SLS that they are proposing to develop. The difference is we are doing it now, setting us apart as the leader of a likely international partnership that will explore deep space—hundreds of thousands of miles away from Earth. Nothing else on the planet exists today that can do this. It will distinguish us as Americans and as being the leaders in human space flight.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Do you view NASA as a pathfinder organization? Essentially they develop the methods to reach a destination and once there and they’ve done that they turn operations over to a commercial company. Do you view the space agency that way?
Rominger: “I do. As I said earlier the space program has been the incubator for many technologies and commercial spin-offs. It allows NASA to stay focused on the research and technology development that will enable us to explore deep space and Mars. Doing things in this manner, as a path finder, develops technologies and puts the infrastructure in place that can be leveraged by commercial companies when the timing makes sense.
Nothing is more of a testament to this as Orbital and SpaceX who have begun cargo transportation to the ISS and I congratulate and commend them on their success. I look forward to seeing the commercial crew providers develop their systems and begin to launch astronauts to the ISS.”
SpaceFlight Insider: SLS and Orion are getting close to the day when they will take to the skies. What do you think the most important thing about these rapidly-approaching milestones should be?
Rominger: “These milestones validate that Orion and SLS are on schedule and operating within budget.” With Orion flying this year and SLS just thee year later, these upcoming milestones are game-changers. I can already sense a difference within the teams as the tests and launch dates come closer. There is an excitement and energy that is only found as people come together and build something that will rewrite exploration history as we embark on this journey. There is something incredible about building a rocket that can take us to another planet.”
SpaceFlight Insider: So you see SLS and Orion as a driving force to both empower and reenergize the space agency?
Rominger: “I really do―and not just NASA but the whole planet. I can think back to the transition period between Apollo and shuttle when we had stopped flying Apollo, and the space shuttle hadn’t flown yet. When you don’t see astronauts flying out of the U.S., you tend to think the worst. I wondered if we’d ever get the shuttle into the air or if it would get cancelled, and it was fairly close to being cancelled along the way. But in the end, there was triumph.
The same thing holds true with the International Space Station. When I was at NASA and the space station was supposed to fly and Freedom got cancelled, it looked for a while like we might not have a space program. The space station survived – by just one vote. There was also a lull in the ISS; however, once that first element of the space station went into the air, there was a huge momentum shift.”
I see the same thing happening right now with SLS and Orion. We’re coming out of that valley and making such great progress. We will be launching Orion in just a few months and there are more flight qualification milestones shortly after leading to the SLS launch in 2017. There will be a huge amount of excitement once this system starts flying. At that point the American public will realize they’ve got the most capable launch system in the world.
SLS is the largest, most powerful rocket in the world to launch the Orion crew capsule into deep space. I am really proud of this system, I am proud of the team that is building it. We are on the verge of taking the largest step towards exploration that has ever been taken.”
SpaceFlight Insider: That’s all we have for you and we’d like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us!
Rominger: “Not a problem, stay tuned – the best is yet to come.”
If everything continues according to plan. NASA and United Launch Alliance will launch an uncrewed version of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 on September 18. The spacecraft will conduct two orbits of the Earth, traveling out 3,600 miles away from Earth (more than 10 times further than the International Space Station currently does). It will reenter Earth’s atmosphere at the blistering speed of 20,000 miles per hour.
ATK’s role on getting NASA back into the human space flight business will follow about three years later in 2017. SLS will first flight will send another Orion capsule into cislunar space before it returns home. After this first flight of SLS, dubbed Exploration Mission 1, the “all up” flight should take place in the early 2020s. This will be a crew flight and as highlighted by Rominger will be historic in that those astronauts will travel further out into the black than anyone before them has ever gone.
Kent Rominger is a five-time space shuttle veteran. He served as pilot on STS-73, STS-80 and STS-85 and commander of STS-96 and STS-100. Rominger was tapped to be an astronaut in 1992. During his time with the space agency he logged more than 1,600 hours on orbit. He concluded his time with NASA as the head of the Astronaut Office.
Rominger is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, having gained his commission in 1979. He has completed more than 7,000 hours flying 35 different types of aircraft, is a graduate of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, more commonly known as “Top Gun.” He has logged more than 7,000 hours in 35 different types of aircraft. He has completed 685 carrier landings and served in Desert Storm.
Rominger currently serves as ATK’s vice president of Strategy and Business Development. His responsibilities include the testing of propulsion systems. After his time with NASA and the U.S. Navy, he joined ATK in 2006 as the aerospace firm’s vice president of Advanced Programs.
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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.
Thank you for this very informative, exciting interview Jason. When someone with the outstanding credentials of Kent Rominger says, “There is something incredible about building a rocket than can take us to another planet,” it’s GREAT to hear! SLS/Orion will without doubt reinvigorate our human spaceflight program.