As NASA’s SLS gains new avionics, critic calls for cancellation of program
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift booster has had its flight software and avionics integrated and activated during a Jan. 9 powered test at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The test was given the moniker of “First Light” and comes at a time when a former NASA official criticized the program – and called for its cancellation.
Thursday’s events should serve NASA’s efforts to validate that the systems function as advertised. SLS’ avionics direct the launch vehicle where to go and point the rocket’s engines so that SLS can stay on the proper heading.
“We continue to make good progress developing SLS,” said NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Dan Dumbacher. “The avionics are like the central nervous system for the launch vehicle. They’re of critical importance and testing them early helps us build a more robust rocket.”
The avionics package is located, along with the booster’s flight computer, in SLS’s core stage. When all is said and done, the core stage will stand more than 200 feet tall and will also contain the rocket’s cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen which will fuel SLS’ RS-25 rocket engines.
Meanwhile, NASA’s former Deputy Administrator, Lori Garver, has made comments which run in stark contrast to comments made by her during her time with the space agency. During an interview on the Diana Rehm Show Garver stated the following:
“The SLS. It was something that Congress dictated to NASA, it had to do with the Orion spacecraft. It is a holdover from Constellation, which the Obama administration tried to cancel, and it’s $3 billion a year of NASA’s $17 billion. Is that how you would be investing in the space program? Where is it going to go? When will it even fly?”
These comments are odd as SLS’ first targeted launch is scheduled for 2017. Moreover, the White House has directed NASA to use SLS for a planned 2021 mission to an asteroid as well as to send crews to Mars in the 2030s. It is unclear why the former Deputy Administrator would ask questions which have answers that are common knowledge within the aerospace community. They also do not resemble how Garver described SLS as of November 2012, where she said the following:
“We just recently delivered a comprehensive report to Congress outlining our destinations which makes clear that SLS will go way beyond low-Earth orbit to explore the expansive space around the Earth-Moon system, near-Earth asteroids, the Moon, and ultimately, Mars,” Garver said.
As mentioned, NASA plans on launching the first test flight of the massive rocket from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B in Florida in three years time. The test flight will use the configuration of the rocket which has a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lifting capacity. It will carry an uncrewed version of NASA’s next crewed spacecraft beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO). However, this is just the planned opening act for NASA’s new booster.
Later versions of the rocket will have a lifting capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons) to allow astronauts to travel to distant destinations.
SLS is designed to ferry NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and other payloads to orbit. Its mission is to return NASA to the business of sending astronauts beyond the orbit of Earth for the first time in more than four decades.
Orion’s first test flight is scheduled to take place in approximately nine months time. It will use a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy to start its mission. Known as Exploration Flight Test 1, the test flight will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 in Florida. The spacecraft will travel out some 3,600 miles away from Earth – and will return at speeds reaching 20,000 miles per hour. It will test the spacecraft’s heat shield, avionics and other systems prior to the first flight of SLS.
Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS’ core stage as well as its avionics. The company has already provided the flight computers as well as the supporting avionics hardware, this is according to a recent press release issued by NASA. The release went on to add the following:
NASA’s Integrated Avionics Test Facilities team provided and installed the structure and simulation capability to model the environments the vehicle will experience during launch. With the avionics hardware units arranged in flight configuration on the structure and with the flight software, the facility will replicate what will actually fly the rocket.
During a prior interview that SpaceFlight Insider’s Senior Editor and Founder Jason Rhian, Dan Dumbacher, NASA’s former Deputy Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate discussed the agency’s efforts to use the booster to send crew’s to the Red Planet.
“The way we at NASA look at it is, the ‘horizon’ destination that we are going to is Mars—sending humans to Mars is the goal that we are working toward. That’s currently what we are doing right now is to research the various ways that we can send humans to Mars and then bring them safely back home,” Dumbacher said. “We need to get crew beyond Earth orbit, and we need to get crew home from beyond-Earth orbit—and that’s the role of Orion.”
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.