Cabana Hopes Second Mobile Launcher Under Contract in 10 Months

Cabana Hopes Second Mobile Launcher Under Contract in 10 Months

NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director Bob Cabana hopes to have the second Mobile Launcher (ML) for the Space Launch System (SLS) under contract in the next 10 months and ready to support SLS launches 5 years from now.  He also is excited about the first commercial crew test flights that are scheduled to take place this year.

Bob Cabana, Director, NASA Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Cabana spoke at a Space Transportation Association (STA) luncheon on Capitol Hill today.  George Nield, who recently retired as head of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, also was presented with STA’s Leadership Award at the luncheon.

In somewhat of a surprise move, Congress appropriated $350 million in the FY2018 appropriations bill for NASA to build a second ML — or Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) as it was called in the bill.  Neither the House-passed nor the Senate Appropriations Committee-approved funding levels for NASA included that money, but it appeared in the final version of the 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act that cleared Congress in March.

Cabana expressed gratitude for the funding.  The one ML that exists today was originally designed for the Ares I rocket that was being developed under President George W. Bush’s Administration for the Constellation Program.  Constellation and Ares were cancelled.  Ares was replaced by SLS, which has a completely different design.  The ML has been undergoing a redesign to accommodate the initial (Block 1A) version of SLS, which will use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) as an upper stage.

The next version of SLS, Block 1B, will use the much larger Exploration Upper Stage (EUS). The plan was to modify the ML again to accommodate the SLS/EUS combination, which is 44 feet taller than SLS/ICPS.  That would require 33 months, almost 3 years, during which no SLS launches could take place.

With permission and money to build a second ML, that gap should be avoided and the first flight of a crew, Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), could be accelerated from its current date of 2023.  That would mean launching it with the less powerful ICPS upper stage, however, since Cabana estimates that it will take 5 years — until 2023 — to build the second ML.

NASA Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson. Photo Credit: NASA

That includes the time needed to get the project under contract.  Cabana hopes to shorten that process as much as possible and get it done in 10 months.  A Request for Information was issued on May 11 seeking interest to design, build, or design and build the new ML.

He was enthusiastic about the opportunity to design a new ML rather than trying to retrofit the existing ML yet again.  “I was concerned about our ability to modify ML1 another time.  It’s essentially been modified three times to get to where it is right now.  …  Designing [the second one] from the ground up, you can make it structurally right and make all the interfaces right and I really think having a design-build where one company is responsible is the right thing to do.”

Like other NASA officials, Cabana strongly suggested that the first SLS launch is very likely to slip into 2020.  Whenever it does take place, Cabana said it will be NASA’s first female launch director, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, who will be in charge of the final go/no-go decision.

In other news, Cabana was upbeat about the first test launches of the two commercial crew systems this year, calling this “the year of commercial crew.”  Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon are both on the books for uncrewed test flights in August and crewed test flights in November and December, respectively.  As for whether the crewed test flights actually occur this year, “we’ll see how that works out,” he said, but expressed confidence that the uncrewed tests will fly in 2018.  NASA has four astronauts in training to fly the two vehicles and he said he expects crew assignments to be made in the “not too distant future.”


Correction:  An earlier version of this article misidentified Blackwell-Thompson as a flight director.  She is a launch director.

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