ULA gives sneak peek at SLS’ second stage before it gets shipped to Florida
DECATUR, Ala. — United Launch Alliance (ULA) invited media to their 1.6 million-square-foot (148,645 m2) rocket factory in northern Alabama to get a look at the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) flight hardware prior to it being shipped to Florida. SpaceFlight Insider was on hand at this event and had a chance to speak with industry insiders about the progress being made on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).
One major component complete
Though a significant amount of hardware has been manufactured for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) – the first flight of the super-heavy-lift rocket – the SLS is still very much a vehicle waiting to be assembled. However, while large portions of the mammoth rocket have yet to leave the manufacturing floor, progress has been steady and completed flight hardware is beginning to take shape.
ULA was tapped by Boeing – the prime contractor for SLS’ core stage – to construct a modified Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) to support the SLS for its first flight. After delivering a test article of the ICPS to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in 2016, the company is now ready to cross a key milestone in SLS’ construction: the completion of a major propulsion system for the vehicle.
“This is the first piece of integrated flight hardware for the SLS system to be shipped down to the Cape in preparation for our very first launch,” said Jerry Cook, Deputy SLS Program Manager for NASA. Cook noted that the ICPS test article is currently undergoing stress and load tests at Marshall.
Not a paper rocket
The completion of the ICPS is yet another landmark in SLS’ development, though some contend it’s still a drawing-board vehicle. John Shannon, Boeing’s Vice President and General Manager of the SLS Program, disagrees.
“The SLS has, in various forms, been called a paper rocket […] and, if I think you look to your right, you’ll see that absolutely is not true,” stated Shannon. “If you had the opportunity to go to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where we’re putting the bigger core stage together, you would also see that it is not true because we are putting hardware together as we speak.”
Shannon also noted that the Boeing team at Michoud is nearly back up to 100 percent after the facility sustained damage from a direct hit by a tornado.
Speaking of Michoud
Considering the damage sustained by the facility, SpaceFlight Insider was interested in how the flight hardware at Michoud fared in the wake of the tornado and asked Cook the disposition of the pieces already constructed.
After noting that no one was killed or seriously injured in the incident, he went on to discuss the hardware itself.
“From an assessment of the flight hardware, we haven’t seen anything that has sustained any type of major damage,” Cook told SpaceFlight Insider.
Beyond that, there were some minor dings and scratches, and some buildings are still without power. Cook hopes to have a complete analysis of the state of Michoud in the next 2–3 weeks.
Though the facility is designed to support a flight cadence of 1–2 launches per year, Boeing’s Shannon told SpaceFlight Insider he holds a more optimistic view.
“I would like to see us, certainly, get to two a year; though, with some minor modifications to the facility, we could get to four a year.”
What next for SLS?
Recently, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that he was directing the agency to study the feasibility of converting EM-1 to a crewed mission. Until a firm plan comes to light, though, the agency and its partners will continue to work toward a “late 2018” date for the uncrewed launch of EM-1.
Whether or not EM-1 carries crew is not as relevant to Astronaut Butch Wilmore as what the rocket represents. He sees the SLS as the vehicle needed to advance human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit.
“Right over here in this test cell is the start of taking humans to deep space,” stated Wilmore.
If NASA has anything to say about it, that may be sooner than many had anticipated.
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.