Spaceflight Insider

Space Launch System test hardware damaged in incident

Space Launch System in flight

An artist’s rendering of the Space Launch System in flight. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

The aft dome of a liquid oxygen tank test article for the Space Launch System (SLS) core stage was damaged in an incident at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, according to a Marshall Space Flight Center public affairs officer.

NASA and Boeing are forming independent investigation teams to look into the incident, which occurred on May 3, 2017, in the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC).

“Initial assessments indicate damage to the rear (aft) dome of a liquid oxygen tank, which is part of the rocket’s 212-foot core stage,” Kim Henry, a Public Affairs Officer at Marshall, told SpaceFlight Insider in a May 11 e-mail. “There were no injuries.  As required by protocol, the Vertical Assembly Center tool was shut down and secured.”

Henry said that NASA is currently evaluating next steps to safely resume operations with the VAC. The dome is part of qualification hardware, not flight hardware.

It is unclear what is the extent of the damage, if it is repairable, or exactly how much it will cost. However, Space News reported that the incident was classified by NASA as a “Type B” mishap, which, according to NASA documents, covers incidents that cause between $500,000 and $2 million in damage.

How this will impact the schedule for the first flight of the SLS, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), is also unclear. Recently, a NASA official confirmed that, based on a Government Accountability Office report, the agency is looking to re-target the first SLS launch for sometime after its current no-earlier-than November 2018 launch date.

The GAO report cited a number of reasons for the delay, including the tornado that struck Michoud in February and design changes in the European-built Orion service module.

Moreover, the U.S. space agency has yet to make a decision on whether it will change EM-1 from an uncrewed shakedown test to a crewed flight, which would also significantly affect the schedule.

Boeing is the prime contractor for the core stage of the 321-foot (98-meter) tall Block 1 SLS. At the bottom will be four Aerojet Rocketdyne-built RS-25 engines that were formerly used during the Space Shuttle Program.

Strapped to the side of the core stage will be two five-segment Solid Rocket Boosters built by Orbital ATK. Combined with four RS-25 engines, the massive SLS will lift off the pad with some 8.4 million pounds-force (37,365 kilonewtons) of thrust.

The upper stage for the Block 1 is expected to be a modified Delta IV upper stage called the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage. It is being supplied by United Launch Alliance.

When it launches, the Block 1 Space Launch System will be able to lift some 70 metric tons to low-Earth orbit.



Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

Reader Comments

Clive Bashford

If the first flight is manned I will be watching it from behind the sofa, if at all. I would rather they did something safe and useful with it, like sending a Lunar rover to look for ice.

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