NASA is getting ready to apply spray-on foam insulation (SOFI) to the outside of the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter (LVSA) that will fly as a part of the Space Launch System (SLS) launch vehicle on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). The LVSA is a roughly thirty feet by thirty feet conical spacer structure that connects the top of the SLS Core Stage with the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion System (ICPS) upper stage that will fly on EM-1.
Built by NASA and prime contractor Teledyne Brown Engineering, the LVSA will shortly begin preparations at the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Building 4707 at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, for a few months of foam application work.
Following some additional work at Marshall, the LVSA will be shipped to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida next year.
The flight article is the second unit completed; the first unit, a structural test article, was used in integrated structural tests at Marshall this year with the other elements that connect the Orion spacecraft with the ICPS and the SLS. In Building 4707 at Marshall, a clean area is ready for the foam application work to take place.
NASA and Teledyne Brown recently completed major welding of the LVSA at the Advanced Weld Facility at Marshall. The structure is primarily made up of sixteen 2195 aluminum alloy panels.
“2195 panels [and] 2219 rings,” noted Jon Street, manufacturing lead for the LVSA in the Marshall engineering directorate. “That’s a segmented ring on the bottom [and] a solid forging that’s machined into a ring at the forward end.” (2219 is another aluminum alloy that is used extensively on the SLS Core Stage structures.)
Due to its dimensions, the adapter had to first be welded into two cones, forward and aft, which were then welded to complete the structure.
“I don’t have a tool that can get twenty-eight feet tall,” Street added. “We build the forward cone first with vertical welds and there are eight of them. It takes about five weeks to do it. Basically what we do is we weld up seven of the joints and then we have to measure it to figure out the final arc length for the top and bottom that we need to do to maintain a cone.
“That takes about a week of scanning and analysis. Then we trim that last one and we weld it. So once you make that cone, you’re stuck with that cone, so the top and the bottom diameter has to be [correct].”
“I build it like a cake — I take the forward off, reconfigure the tool, and then I build the aft, and it’s a cone, so I’m trying to hit a target diameter, but I’m not trying to get too small or too short, either. So I’ve got to manage all that.”
“Once we weld those two together, I want to make sure the flange is centered — the axis to the top of the cone — and then once I weld that bottom, I trim that middle joint area, and load the top cone on, and then start trimming until I get the two pieces where I need it. Because you have to have the panels fairly flat — you cannot have ‘step’ in it.”
“The cone part of it that people have trouble with is if I trim it to meet a diameter, I could trim it so it’s too short. You can’t weld it unless you get the two diameters right so the biggest challenge was maintaining axial center and parallelism.”
The panels were welded using conventional friction stir welding, while the circumferential welds of the rings to the top and bottom used self-reacting friction stir welding. The rings at the top and the bottom of the adapter, also called flanges, are structural attach points to other parts of the launch vehicle.
The bottom flange is essentially identical to the flanges that will be on the Core Stage elements and will be bolted to the top flange of the Forward Skirt during vehicle integration in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The adapter’s top flange will attach with a frangible joint assembly to the ICPS.
During flight, the Orion-ICPS stack will separate from the Core Stage at the LVSA top flange, with the LVSA remaining attached to the Core Stage.
TPS foam application:
Unlike the static testing of the STA done on the ground, the flight unit needs thermal protection from the atmospheric heating it will see during ascent, so it received a coat of primer in preparation for applying spray-on foam insulation on top of that.
“There’s some pretty high heat loads in some places,” Mindy Nettles, the SLS manager for the LVSA said about the requirement for insulation. “We don’t have any cryo exposure, it’s just the ascent heating.”
Once work begins, the first task is to prepare the surface, beginning with cleaning.
“The first thing that we’ll do is a solvent wipe. We’ll wipe down the whole hardware with a…cleaner that we use for these substrates,” Michael Frazier, branch chief for the Non-Metallic Materials Division in Marshall’s Materials and Processes Lab added.
Next, the weld lands where the panels were joined together side-by-side and top-to-bottom will be painted with primer.
“The panels came pre-primed and then we’ll just fill in the weld lands,” Amy Buck, thermal protection system expert in Marshall’s Materials and Processes Lab, said. “We will roll that material on with just paint rollers — that’s why we tried to minimize the area that we had to do.
“So the panels were pre-primed with a spray process and then we’ll do the rolling process on the weld lands. And then once we get all that done we’ll start the foam application.”
“We have a very skilled crew of technicians that are ready to do this job.”
The type of spray-on foam used on the LVSA will be manual spray. Although similar in chemistry, each of the three foam application processes used on SLS hardware has its own formulation.
Besides the manual spray foam, there is a robotically-sprayed foam (also called “auto spray”) that is used at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans on the barrels of the large Core Stage propellant tanks, and a pour foam that is used for hardware with more complex shapes, like Core Stage propellant feedlines and valves.
The manual spray foam was chosen for the LVSA for a few reasons.
“This is one of the largest manual sprays that’s ever been done,” Buck explained. “We don’t have the equipment to do the automatic spray in this facility. The automatic equipment we have here at Marshall is much smaller so we had to go back to a manual process to do the larger article here. So we’ll split it into sections and do a section at a time.”
“This manual spray foam that we have here is more robust as far as the temperatures and humidities that you can apply it in,” Frazier added. “We can apply that at room temperature. The robotically-applied foam that goes on the [Core Stage propellant] tanks [requires] a temperature and humidity controlled booth to do that operation.
“They are sprayed at much higher temperatures, environment-wise, and much lower humidities than what we’re able to do here with the manual spray foam. [Manual spray] gives us more range, more capability for applying foam.”
Additionally, since the SLS Block 1 vehicle is only planned to be flown once, producing this stage adapter is a “one-off” job, as is the foaming operation for it.
The sprays will be done by hand; two technicians standing up on a lift will alternate using a hand-held spray gun.
“We have a portable dispense unit that will carry the foam materials,” Buck said. “There will be two component materials that stay separate until [they get] to the gun. And so when they come together in the gun it will go straight onto the substrate and then react and rise. So it actually starts immediately when it gets into the gun.”
The materials will stay on the ground with hoses for each running up to the gun where they are combined.
“It will be one spray gun, two guys operating one gun,” Buck explained.
“They’ll switch off as they go up. The material that’s in the two drums will stay on the ground along with the actual pumping equipment will also be on the ground and the material will then go through hoses up. There will just be two guys and a hose with the gun.”
The team has been practicing for the work by spraying on a test panel.
“We have one of the panels — one sixteenth of the full article — over in our other development facility and we’ve been spraying on it so that we can get everything right,” she explained. “We’re spraying the whole acreage and then down here where this ramp is, where it goes towards the [bottom] flange, we will actually spray part of that, too.
“So our spray foam technicians have been working on how to make that ramp from a manual process in a net spray, so they won’t have to go back and shave [the foam] to get that ramp. They’re going to build it up as they spray the article.”
For the LVSA, the technicians will spray alternating strips on one panel at a time.
“[For] this particular operation we’re going to mask off sixteen vertical strips, because that’s about the limit that the guy can do in the cart that he’s going to be up in,” Frazier explained. “So we mask off everything but those strips that we’re going to be working on. We’ll spray that strip and then we’ll remove the masking.”
“We’re actually going to alternate a space over so we don’t get overspray onto the article next to it. And then after we do those sixteen alternating sprays, then we’ll come back and do the ones that are in between.
“We use what we call a tie-coat — you actually have to prep that surface of the foam that you did spray. You cut it and then you tie-coat it, it’s an adhesive material that you put in there. You let that dry and then you spray foam into those other alternating sixteen segments that you have.”
As they build up the foam, they will use a tool to measure until they reach the specified thickness.
“We have a dualscope gauge, which is an eddy current gauge,” Frazier noted. “We actually touch the surface of the foam and it can read the distance to the metal that is behind it on the substrate.”
The work is planned to take a few months.
“We will have the article through December working on it, to spray it,” Buck said. “We have about two months of foam work and about a month of primer.”
Like house painting, most of the time involved is getting set up to do a spray.
“There’s more time spent probably prepping the hardware and getting it ready than is [spent on] the actual operation of putting the foam and the paint on. It’s more masking and removing and curing, letting stuff go through the normal process and then checking the thicknesses. There’s a lot of [work besides] just applying the material to the hardware.”
After the foam application is complete, the LVSA will be moved to another area for additional work.
“When we’re through, then we’ll move to another building, that’s taller and we will attach the frangible joint assembly,” Nettles said. “Teledyne Brown will then finish up some work on the interior of the cone, some internal platforms that have to be used for work to get to the cryo propulsion stage (the ICPS) and then we will board the Pegasus barge and go to the Cape.”
Nettles said the barge trip for the adapter from Marshall to Kennedy is currently planned for the summer of next year.
The LVSA will eventually take its place on the rocket in the VAB at Kennedy, when it is stacked on the Core Stage. It will be lifted up into High Bay 3 and positioned on top of the Forward Skirt, where workers on an elevated platform on Level E will install 360 bolts around the circumference where the flanges on the two pieces meet.
The same type of manually sprayed foam will then be used to “closeout” the bolted flanges.
Some time later, the ICPS will be lifted into the High Bay 3 integration cell and attached to the frangible joint assembly on the top of the LVSA.
Machining for NASA's Orion spacecraft, scheduled to fly on the second integrated flight with agency's Space Launch System rocket, is well underway at Ingersoll Machine Tools in Rockford, Illinois. The new deep space spacecraft will take humans farther into the solar system than we have ever traveled before.
Seen here, the barrel of Orion's crew module, which arrived at the facility weighing about 12,000 pounds, will be reduced to approximately 880 pounds before it is shipped to NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Four of the crew module's parts are being machined at Ingersoll before they ship for welding and assembly this summer. The crew module is the part of the spacecraft where astronauts will live, work, exercise and eat during their missions beyond the moon.
Engineers at Orbital ATK’s facility in Elkton, Maryland, recently completed a successful test of the Orion Launch Abort System motor designed to steer the astronauts away to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency. The Launch Abort System includes three motors, and the motor tested was the attitude control motor. This motor consists of a solid propellant gas generator, with eight proportional valves equally spaced around the outside of the three-foot diameter motor. Together, the valves can exert up to 7,000 pounds of steering force to the vehicle in any direction upon command from the Orion spacecraft and are designed to safely steer Orion after an ascent abort. This is a critical safety enhancement of Orion for our journey to Mars. The test was a success thanks to the collaborative efforts of NASA, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK.
When astronauts return to Earth from destinations beyond the moon in NASA’s Orion spacecraft and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, they’ll still need to safely get out of the spacecraft and back on dry land. Using the waters off the coast of Galveston, Texas, a NASA and Department of Defense team tested Orion exit procedures in a variety of scenarios on July 10-14, 2017.
During the crew egress testing, a joint team from the Orion and Ground Systems Development and Operations programs, along with assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force, evaluated how the crew will get out of the capsule with assistance and by themselves.
Astronauts and engineering test subjects wore Orion Crew Survival System spacesuits, modified versions of NASA’s orange Advanced Crew Escape suits in development for use during Orion launch and entry, making the testing as true to mission scenarios as possible.
Orion’s three main orange and white parachutes help a representative model of the spacecraft descend through sky above Arizona, where NASA engineers tested the parachute system on Sept. 13, 2017, at the U.S. Army Proving Ground in Yuma. NASA is qualifying Orion’s parachutes for missions with astronauts.
During this test, engineers replicated a situation in which Orion must abort off the Space Launch System rocket and bypass part of its normal parachute deployment sequence that typically helps the spacecraft slow down during its descent to Earth after deep space missions. The capsule was dropped out of a C-17 aircraft at more than 4.7 miles in altitude and allowed to free fall for 20 seconds, longer than ever before, to produce high aerodynamic pressure before only its pilot and main parachutes were deployed, testing whether they could perform as expected under extreme loads. Orion’s full parachute system includes 11 total parachutes -- three forward bay cover parachutes and two drogue parachutes, along with three pilot parachutes that help pull out the spacecraft’s three mains.
Engines near ready for NASA's next Space Launch System mission
While NASA's massive Space Launch System won't be taking off from Cape Canaveral until at least 2019, its engines are close to ready.
The four RS-25 engines that have been assembled and tested in the past year at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama will now be sent to NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to be hooked up with the massive core stage and tested before it all makes its way to Kennedy Space Center.
“NASA’s priority is to deliver hardware for the first flight of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft,” said John Honeycutt, SLS program manager at Marshall Space Flight Center.
The engines are the leftovers from the space shuttle program, having been flown on 21 missions, but now upgraded to support the new NASA rocket that will launch the Orion crew capsule. Before they head to Kennedy, the engines will undergo torque testing, leak checks, and an avionics software check.
No manned launch of Orion will take place until at least 2022, but more likely 2023. The unmanned Exploration Mission 1 for the Space Launch System is planned no earlier than 2019.
The four engines headed to New Orleans are part of 16 engines that helped support the 135 missions of the space shuttle era. Several have been used for testing in the last year to ensure new controllers work properly. NASA has also ordered six new RS-25 engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne for use in future missions.
“NASA has transformed these phenomenal engines that served so well in the past for a new bold mission -- the first integrated launch of SLS and Orion,” said Steve Wofford, the SLS liquid engines manager at Marshall. “For engines needed beyond the first four flights, we are working with our industry partner Aerojet Rockedyne to streamline manufacturing and make future engines more affordable.”
Meanwhile, the core stage that will be taller than a 20-story building and hold more than 700,000 gallons of propellant, is in production, with the welding completed on its liquid hydrogen tank marking the last of its five parts that will now be assembled. Those also include the liquid oxygen tanks, engine section where the RS-25 engines will be housed, the intertank and the forward skirt.
A full-scale mockup of the core stage has also been produced to ensure everything goes smoothly for when the actual core stage is ready for transportation to Kennedy Space Center via barge.
“This rocket is happening now,” said Honeycutt. “The Space Launch System team has made great progress and has an exciting year ahead as NASA conducts crucial structural tests at Marshall, assembles the core stage and the four RS-25 engines at Michoud and delivers more hardware to the launch pad at Kennedy.”
Quelle: Orlando Sentinel
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — NASA is still up to a month away from setting a new target launch date for the first flight of the Space Launch System, but agency officials said they still expected it to take place in 2019.
NASA has not set a new date for Exploration Mission (EM) 1, which will launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a test flight into lunar orbit and back, since announcing in May that it would delay the flight to 2019 after deciding not to put a crew on the mission.
In September, the agency said in a statement that it would announce a new target date for EM-1 in October, citing the need to account for a range of issues, including progress on the European-built Orion service module and shutdowns at NASA centers from hurricanes in August and September.
However, an update in October is increasingly unlikely. “Within a few weeks, I think [NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot] intends to codify whatever that date is going to be,” Todd May, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in remarks at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium here Oct. 25.
Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA, offered a similar assessment. “Probably in the next month, maybe sooner,” he said in an interview.
During a panel discussion at the conference, Hill said two key elements of the EM-1, delivery of the Orion service module and completion of the core stage of the SLS, were driving the schedule for the mission. “Those are our two critical paths right now, and they’re kind of neck-and-neck for getting to a launch date,” he said.
The service module, being built by Airbus Defence and Space in Bremen, Germany, is in advanced phases of assembly, according to Mark Kirasich, NASA’s Orion program manager. The last components of the module should be in plance by March or April next year. He expected the service module to be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center “some time in the summer of next year” to be integrated with the crew module already there.
The SLS core stage has suffered welding problems that have slowed its construction. “It’s our big new development,” said John Honeycutt, NASA SLS program manager. The flight core stage will be completed next year while pathfinder units undergo testing.
“The big milestone for the public is when that core stage gets integrated and rolled out of the factory” at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and is shipped to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for testing, he said. “We’re working to a scheduled today that shows that we get the core stage out of the factory in December 2018.”
Those schedules would allow for an EM-1 launch in 2019, agency officials said. “2019 is where we think we can that done,” May said when asked when he thought the EM-1 launch would take place.
He was not more specific, but if NASA is able to maintain a 2019 launch for EM-1, it likely would be late in the year. NASA notified Congress in June that its estimated launch date for EM-1 was no earlier than October 2019, according to an Oct. 19 report by the Government Accountability Office.
Program managers, though, warned of the potential of additional problems that may crop up as the agency goes through the development and testing process of SLS and Orion, and associated ground systems at KSC, for the first time.
“We have learned that first-time events in manufacturing create challenges for us,” Honeycutt said. “When we get to do them a second time, we usually do pretty good.”
Construction crews at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center are making steady progress outfitting the Space Launch System’s mobile platform with umbilical connections and access arms, and the walkway for astronauts to board the rocket is the most recent arrival at the Florida spaceport.
The mobile launch platform was originally built for NASA’s Constellation program conceived under the George W. Bush administration, in which astronauts would have launched on missions to the International Space Station, and eventually the moon, atop Ares 1 rockets derived from the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters.
The towering structure stands nearly 400 feet tall and weighs 10.5 million pounds, and it was finished in 2010, the same year the Obama administration canceled the Constellation moon program after development costs soared.
The Obama White House and Congress agreed on a new path for NASA’s human spaceflight program, which included turning over responsibility for missions to Earth orbit to the commercial sector and designing and building the SLS heavy-lift rocket, a huge launcher powered by surplus shuttle-era liquid-fueled engines and solid rocket boosters.
The SLS is being built to transport astronauts into deep space, perhaps initially to a miniature space station near the moon, then to the lunar surface and on to Mars, according to NASA’s long-term plans. Crews fastened inside Orion capsules will blast off atop the Space Launch System.
NASA decided to modify the Ares rocket’s mobile launch platform for the SLS, upgrades that included cutting new holes in the structure’s two-story-tall base to accommodate the heavy-lift launcher’s core stage engines and twin side-mounted boosters, instead of the single-stick Ares 1 configuration.
Those large-scale structural changes are now largely complete, and work to install swing arms to the platform’s tower is now underway.
The walkway for astronauts to board the Orion crew capsule is next to be lifted into place on the mobile launch platform. The crew access arm arrived at the Kennedy Space Center earlier this month, where it is being stored in a parking lot until it moves to mobile launch platform’s worksite just north of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building.
A crane will soon hoist the crew access arm to the tower’s 274-foot-level, where crews will connect it to the structure with a hinge. The appendage includes a white room, where astronauts will prepare to enter the Orion capsule’s hatch.
Earlier this year, construction crews installed the Orion Service Module Umbilical, which will connect the spacecraft’s propulsion and power section with ground supplies of electricity and liquid coolant. A swing arm with the SLS Core Stage Forward Skirt Umbilical — designed to provide conditioned air and gaseous nitrogen to the upper part of the first stage — was attached to the tower’s 220-foot-level in June.
The platform’s Aft Skirt Electrical and Pneumatic Umbilicals have also been added to the mobile launch platform where the solid rocket boosters will be located, and workers earlier this month hoisted the SLS Core Stage Inter-tank Umbilical for a fit check. It will be permanently installed in the coming months to provide connections to the first stage between its cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant tanks.
The inter-tank umbilical’s primary function is to vent excess gaseous hydrogen from the rocket’s core stage, NASA said, along with providing conditioned air, high-pressure gases, power and data to the core stage.
Items still to be added to the mobile launch platform include the Vertical Stabilizer, which will help protect the 322-foot-tall (98-meter) rocket from winds. An umbilical line to feed propellants into the SLS upper stage — called the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage — is also planned for installation.
The first SLS test flight, known as Exploration Mission-1, will use an upper stage originally designed for United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 rocket with a single RL10 engine.
Construction crews Tail Service Masts will also be fitted to the platform’s base to route cryogenic propellants to the SLS first stage.
Engineers are testing the umbilical connections at a separate KSC facility to demonstrate how the lines will disconnect and pull back from the SLS at or just before liftoff.
Once the mobile launch platform is ready, engineers will move it inside the VAB for further testing.
Exploration Mission-1’s target launch date was expected to occur this year when the SLS program was announced in 2011, but is now scheduled no sooner than late 2019. NASA is expected to announce a more specific timeframe for the flight in the coming weeks.
The test flight will be the first for the Space Launch System, and the second for the Orion spacecraft after a shakedown cruise in Earth orbit in December 2014.
A rocket of SLS’ size is required to send the Orion spacecraft to more distant destinations, and the flight plan for EM-1 calls for the capsule to fly into a high-altitude orbit around the moon for a planned three-week mission.
EM-1 will not carry any astronauts. That capability will debut with Exploration Mission-2 in the early 2020s, after engineers complete development of Orion’s life support system and cockpit controls, along with a more powerful four-engine upper stage for the Space Launch System.
The upgraded SLS will need a redesigned mobile launch platform because it will stand around 40 feet (13 meters) taller than the rocket slated to fly on EM-1. Construction crews will need to fabricate new umbilicals and reposition others on the tower, a process expected to take a couple of years.
Meanwhile, preparations for the inaugural Space Launch System flight are also progressing inside the Vehicle Assembly Building and at launch pad 39B.
Ten new work platforms were installed inside the VAB high bay that will house the SLS during its build-up and assembly, replacing equipment that was tailored for the space shuttle.
At pad 39B, construction workers installed the last of about 96,000 heat-resistant bricks inside the north side of the flame trench in May. The bricks are built to withstand temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit from exhaust generated by the SLS core stage engines and solid rocket boosters.
Current work at pad 39B involves the positioning of a new flame deflector under the launch mount to redirect all of the rocket’s exhaust to the north side of the pad. That is a change from the pad’s shuttle-era configuration, in which exhaust was routed to both the north and the south.
Once the Space Launch System is fully stacked inside the VAB, one of NASA’s Apollo-era crawler-transporters will transfer it to pad 39B for final countdown preparations.
NASA is performing a series of tests to evaluate how astronauts and ground crew involved in final preparations before Orion missions will quickly get out of the spacecraft, if an emergency were to occur on the pad prior to launch. This testing took place the week of Oct. 30, 2017, using the Orion mockup in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. In this photo, engineers used fake smoke to imitate a scenario in which astronauts must exit the capsule when their vision is obscured.
Before astronauts launch to space in Orion, they will cross the Crew Access Arm, 300 feet above the ground, and climb inside the crew module. Ground personnel trained to help them strap into their seats and take care of last-minute needs will assist. For testing, markings on the ground indicate where the Crew Access Arm would be located and help guide the crew.
This testing is a collaborative effort between the Orion and Ground Systems Development and Operations programs. It is helping engineers evaluate hardware designs and establish procedures that would be used to get astronauts and ground crew out of the capsule as quickly as possible. Flight and ground crew are required to get out of Orion within two minutes, to protect for a variety of failure scenarios that do not require the launch abort system to be activated, such as crew incapacitation, fire or the presence of toxins in the cabin. Previous egress testing at Johnson and in the Gulf of Mexico has evaluated how crew will exit the spacecraft at the end of their missions.
The first crewed test flight for the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket, Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2), is targeted to launch from NASA’s modernized spaceport at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2021. The mission’s primary goals are to demonstrate Orion’s crew capabilities and the upgraded SLS rocket.
WASHINGTON — A day after NASA announced a new launch date for the first flight of the Space Launch System, the chairman of the House Science Committee said he found the development delays “disappointing” and warned further problems could undermine congressional support.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), in an opening statement at a Nov. 9 hearing by the space subcommittee on NASA’s exploration systems, said that additional delays for the SLS and the Orion crew vehicle could build support for unspecified alternatives, jeopardizing the overall program.
“Congress needs to have confidence in NASA and the exploration systems contractors, which I don’t believe we have now. That confidence is ebbing,” he said. “If it slips much further, NASA and its contractors will have a hard time regaining their credibility.”
Smith’s remarks showed a clear frustration with delays, largely due to technical issues with SLS and Orion, that have pushed back the Exploration Mission (EM) 1 launch from 2017 to no earlier than December 2019. NASA announced the 2019 date a day before the hearing, while acknowledging that technical reviews concluded that June 2020 was a more likely launch date.
“After all these years, after billions of dollars spent, we are facing more delays and cost overruns,” Smith said. While he noted that some delays were caused by factors out of NASA’s control, like a tornado that damaged the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in February, “many of the problems are self-inflicted.”
“It is very disappointing to hear about delays caused by poor execution, when the U.S. taxpayer has invested so much in these programs,” he added.
Smith, who announced Nov. 2 he would not run for reelection next year after more than three decades in the House, including serving as chairman of the science committee since 2013, warned about eroding support for the programs should there be additional delays.
“NASA and the contractors should not assume future delays and cost overruns will have no consequences,” he said. “If delays continue, if costs rise, and if foreseeable technical challenges arise, no one should assume the U.S. taxpayers or their representatives will tolerate this forever.”
“The more setbacks SLS and Orion face, the more support builds for other options,” he said, not elaborating on what those options would be.
Smith’s comments represent one of the strongest rebukes to date by a leading member of Congress regarding progress on SLS and Orion. Other members of the committee expressed few, if any, reservations about the programs at the hearing despite the latest delay.
“We must launch the Space Launch System in order to push beyond low Earth orbit,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee, in his opening remarks. “We must finish developing the Orion capsule in order to operate in deep space.”
Babin noted the delays but also highlighted the “significant progress” the overall exploration program has made. He offered his own warning, though, to the agency and companies working on the program. “NASA and the contractors have to execute. Failure to do so could have dire consequences for the program, and there will be no one else to blame,” he said.
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that NASA had overcome the issues with welding on the SLS core stage that delayed its progress. The agency is helping the European Space Agency on the Orion service module, another source of delays, such as providing NASA support for an American-built helium valve for the module that has been experiencing manufacturing problems.
One lesson from these problems, he said, was that program schedules didn’t provide adequate time to deal with issues that arose as NASA and companies went through the construction of SLS and Orion for the first time.
“I think we just need to be prepared, as we build schedules going forward, to know that these first-time things that we have never done before, or at a magnitude that has never been done before, may need a little bit of extra time that first time through, and not be overly optimistic in our schedules,” he said.
In an interview after the hearing, Gerstenmaier said there was no specific confidence level associated with the December 2019 launch date that NASA said Nov. 8 it was managing to for the EM-1 launch. Instead, he said the date provided focus for those working on SLS, Orion and their ground systems.
“It’s the right date for us to work to,” he said. “It’s the right pressure on the teams. If we move all the way to June , that relaxes us to where I don’t think it’s healthy.”
He said NASA had the flexibility to adjust development and testing schedules as needed, depending on the progress of components like the Orion service module. “It’s a good target,” he said. “We’ll move as we need to.”
Gerstenmaier, in his testimony, emphasized the progress the agency had achieved, including hardware built for the various components. “The amount of work completed to date for the deep space exploration systems is large,” he said. “We need to be careful not to focus on a single launch date projection, but rather take time to examine the quality, quantity and future benefit of the work completed.”