Spaceflight Insider

As NASA’s SLS gains new avionics, critic calls for cancellation of program

NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) has achieved "First Light" in terms of its avionics systems. Image Credit: NASA

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.

Boeing utilizes a wide array of complex, advanced machinery to produce to SLS' various elements. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

Boeing utilizes a wide array of advanced machinery to produce to SLS’ various elements. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

“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:

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver gave a bizarre interview where she question when SLS will fly and what its mission was. Given that NASA has stated the first flight will take place in 2017 and that the White House has directed it for an asteroid rendezvous mission four years late, it is unclear why Ms. Garver would make such statements. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

Former NASA Deputy Administrator gave a recent interview where she questioned when SLS will fly and what its mission was. NASA has stated the first flight be in 2017 and the White House has tasked it to fly an asteroid rendezvous mission four years later. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

“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.

NASA plans to launch the first SLS in 2017. Image Credit: NASA / ATK

NASA plans to launch the first SLS in 2017. Image Credit: NASA / ATK

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.

The first versions of SLS will have a capacity of lifting 70 metric tons to orbit, with later versions carrying up to 130 metric tons. Image credit: NASA

The first versions of SLS will have a capacity of lifting 70 metric tons to orbit, with later versions carrying up to 130 metric tons. Image credit: NASA

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,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

My compliments Jason, on your very diplomatic deportment and well-tempered commentary.

The space community needs more articles like this, that speak truth to power. It’s time for people to start waking up from the ‘NASA-is-wasteful’ mentality that is so prevalent today.

Well done, Jason!

Jason is being a tad disingenuous here. He is well aware that the cost problems have led many critics including legendary Apollo manager Chris Kraft to conclude the SLS will never be used to fly to any destinations, whether to the Moon, an asteroid, or Mars.

Bob Clark

Mr. Clark,
I’m unsure where I state anything “disingenuous.” I merely relayed the facts. If you can point to where I posted anything factually inaccurate – I’d appreciate it. If you can’t – I’d respectfully suggest you not post comments of this nature.
Kraft retired from NASA more than 30 years ago. Garver was Deputy Administrator during the implementation of SLS. In essence, you’re comparing apples to oranges in an effort to paint me as dishonest – all the while failing to mention this fact as well as the full context of the interview you allude to.
Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

The implication was that there was just ONE critic of the SLS when in fact criticism of it is wide spread among space advocates.
BTW, I’m not one calling for SLS cancellation. I am a big proponent of commercial space, as is Garver. Many if not most commercial space supporters regard the SLS as an impediment to commercial space flourishing. I don’t, or at least not in a way that will matter. Going forward, the cost savings by commercial space will become so apparent that it will become the predominate means of developing spacecraft whether or not the SLS funded.

Bob Clark

Mr. Clark,
Garver made her comments at the time the story was written – as the two related – they were placed together. If two other officials had made similar comments during that period – they’d have been mentioned as well. Your comment was disrespectful & the fact you’re unwilling to apologize is disappointing.
You said I was being a tad “disingenuous” – all the while mentioning very specific comments edited out of a broader article from a former NASA official who hasn’t been with NASA since the 80s – that, Mr. Clark, is “disingenuous.”
Anyone within aerospace knows there are numerous supporters & detractors on both sides. You seem bent on painting me as “anti-commercial” – all because I highlighted Garver’s words. If you’d read my articles on commercial space, you’d find I’m unbiased. Perhaps the fact I don’t take sides – is the real issue here.
Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

Ok, I apologize for my phrasing. I’m actually a fan of your writing on the space program. Space advocates too often want to separate themselves into opposing camps of supporters of commercial space and the SLS. I think it is possible to have both.

Bob Clark

Thank you Mr. Clark, I appreciate that. My personal feelings are that NASA should serve as a “pathfinder” – as such, it should be continuously pushing outward. As it does so, the destinations on the road behind it – should be ceded to private companies (much as how LEO is starting to shape up). I don’t think there’s any benefit to the argument that it needs to be all one way or the other. I’m with you, I think it’s not only possible, but necessary to have both.

I have found that often the “many” critics are far more than a tad disingenuous in that they want SLS/Orion cancelled so that the same taxpayer dollars can be funneled to their favorite corporation to build their version of a heavy-lift system to carry us BEO. Either that, or they prefer that we remain endlessly in LEO where we can wave to the Chinese and Russians as they pass us on their way to Mars.

Michael Dickemore

I would like to see in articles that are written about SLS when the critics of the program who speak out against it if they do hold a vested interest in the companies who are part of the commercial effort. Does Mrs. Garver hold a seat on the board of directors at SpaceX as an example question. Or something like Does your husband hold any stock or hold a position of employment at SpaceX? How about at Sierra?

Michael Gallagher

Over the past few years, both SLS/Orion and the Commercial crew program have grown on me, and I support full funding for both endeavors. (Personally, I’m a fan of CST-100 and Dream Chaser.) Even the asteroid redirect mission is starting to appeal. But it took me years to get here after Constellation was canceled. The months of wrangling to get to where we are now were emotionally draining, and I dread going through it again if either Commercial Crew or SLS/Orion get the axe. Politicians need to elucidate a clear, consistent policy for the HSF program that they can feel comfortable putting on their web sites (“space” is missing from the “issues” menu at the white house web site); NASA can then create a road map. THEN decide what to keep, what to modify, and what to throw away. Canceling SLS and Orion now with no clear alternative committed to just puts us right where we were in February, 2010. And the program will not achieve anything if we go through this every 4-8 years.

You’re exactly right Michael, we need a human spaceflight program that doesn’t lurch to and fro like a little ol’ lady trying to steer a Cadillac down a narrow street after drinking too much sherry at the book club. Perhaps more than any other endeavor, space exploration needs long-term planning because of the time necessary to quite literally invent heretofore unknown technology on demand, and create operational strategies for something that has never been done before. A bill was introduced in the House last year to try to remove NASA from the wide swings of the American four year election cycle, but, no surprise, it went nowhere. It would have made the NASA Administrator like the Director of the FBI with more stability and less partisanship, would have created an advisory panel of astronauts (former and present) astrophysicists engineers and aerospace professionals to set long-term goals with a systematic approach to achieve those goals, and it would have eliminated the “feast or famine” (usually famine) funding of NASA by providing a fixed, stable means to fund the program. In the increasingly polarized political climate I’m concerned that NASA, which has often been spared the worst of the partisan infighting, may find itself in the midst of the fray. As you pointed out Michael, SPACE is not even on the White House website list of issues. Obviously it didn’t, but I had naively hoped that a Chinese rover on the Moon would have served as a wake up call that we need a stable, consistent space exploration policy with well established, easily understandable, popularly supported, adequately funded goals. To quote King Arthur, “It is a dream I have.”

The comments that Lori Garver recent comments are not valid because she has changed her opinion since leaving NASA can be explained by she has left NASA and SLS was forced on NASA by congress. Lori Garver was towing the company line when in NASA, now she has left she can say what she really feels.
In a world of unlimited budgets funding Commercial and SLS would be great. Unfortunately there is limited funding and SLS takes $3B per year just on development and NASA is saying it would be lucky to launch one SLS every few years. This compares with commercial re-supply 12 flights for 1.6 billion and development of Crew lucky to get $0.5B per year and having its funding cut causing delays. Which means spending more on Russian seats to ISS. In fact the “saving” in cutting commercial crew funding is less than the direct cost of more Russian seats let alone the indirect loss in jobs and taxes. It also ignores the delay it is causing to commercial human flight from US soil.
In addition SLS/Orion provides no major additional capability over what is being developed by SpaceX with Falcon 9 for crew and Falcon Heavy for cargo at much lower costs than SLS, even before they become re-usable.
All proposed versions of SLS are only Apollo plus and can not do a manned deep space mission without multiple launches, so it offers nothing above Falcon Heavy unless the aim is a flyby or short trip to the moon. That is not worth the delay SLS fundiing to Commercial crew.

When individuals state that commercial interests can develop programs cheaper than NASA, does anyone know if infrastructure costs are allotted to private enterprise when that comparison is made? My concern is whether there is a true apples to apples comparison.

Ted. Yes. Apples to apples. When excluding infrastructure, SpaceX had proven it’s ability to develop and execute relatively cost effective. The principle qiestion is if government want to rely solaly on commercial parties.

I am a passionate visitor of real life experience and also this exploration is among my faves.

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