Jurczyk: Artemis I Schedule To Firm Up in A Few Weeks

Jurczyk: Artemis I Schedule To Firm Up in A Few Weeks

NASA expects to firm up the schedule for the first Space Launch System (SLS) flight a few weeks after Thursday’s hot fire test. The agency is still holding November 2021 open, but a lot has happened since it was set two years ago including delays due to COVID-19, hurricanes, and technical issues.

Acting NASA Administrator Stephen Jurczyk. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky}

Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said in an interview today that it will take a few weeks after Thursday’s test to scrub the schedule and determine when SLS will be ready for that first launch, Artemis I, a test launch of an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon.

The SLS core stage is getting ready for a second attempt at the last in a series of eight “Green Run” tests at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, Mississippi.  The first attempt on January 16 ended after 67 seconds instead of 485 seconds because of the conservative test parameters that were set. NASA decided to redo the test and scheduled it for February 25, but a problem with a pre-valve forced another delay.

Now the test is scheduled for this Thursday during a two-hour window between 3:00-5:00 pm ET.  NASA TV will provide coverage beginning 30 minutes in advance.  The core stage outfitted with its four RS-25 engines is secured to a giant test stand at Stennis.

SLS core stage during the first hot fire test at Stennis Space Center, MS, January 16, 2021. Screengrab.

Jurczyk stressed it is a test, so there are no guarantees all will go well, but he is confident they completely understand and have rectified the earlier problems.

The goal is for an 8-minute test, the full duration the four RS-25 engines will have to fire to reach space during an actual launch, but engineers will have the data they need after 4 minutes so that is the minimum duration on Thursday.

Boeing is the prime contractor for SLS and built the core stage. Aerojet Rocketdyne builds the RS-25 engines, which are left over from the space shuttle program.  All four of these engines have flown multiple times already, but the shuttle used only three. The January hot fire test was the first time four were fired simultaneously and Thursday will be the second.

The SLS core stage with its four RS-25 engines, with red covers, leaving the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, LA to be loaded on a barge and shipped to the Stennis Space Center, MS for tests. January 8, 2020. Credit: NASA

If the test is successful, it will take about a month to get the core stage ready to ship to Kennedy Space Center, FL where it will be integrated with the other SLS components, including two 5-segment Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) from Northrop Grumman. NASA just completed stacking them last week, starting a 12-month clock before they would have to be destacked and inspected.

That sets an end date for the Artemis I launch window.  Jurczyk has “fairly high confidence” the launch can take place by then, but whether the window opens in November remains to be seen.

“We’ll know in a few weeks whether you can still have a reasonable shot with some amount of margin to make November or if we need to move to the right a little bit.”

After Thursday’s test, the SLS team will look at “optimizing the flow” of remaining work at KSC and assess the schedule.

He remains optimistic about launching Artemis II, the first flight with a crew, in 2023, but not so much for Artemis III in 2024. Under the Trump Administration, that was the date for sending the first crew to land on the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.  Many considered that an aggressive schedule and today Jurczyk agreed: “yeah, a little aggressive is an understatement.”

Still, he expects to award contracts for the Human Landing Systems (HLS) needed to get down to and back from the lunar surface at the end of April. The problem for HLS is that Congress appropriated only 25 percent of the money NASA requested for FY2021.  Jurcyzk appreciates the $850 million provided, but the request was $3.2 billion.

How much NASA will request for HLS and everything else in its FY2022 budget is still being negotiated with the White House. He said the budget might be submitted to Congress in May, but “they haven’t nailed that down yet.”

The Biden Administration has expressed support for Artemis, but has not indicated a timeline.

With such a long delay in releasing the budget request, Congress is even more unlikely than usual of enacting a new budget before FY2022 begins on October 1. That means NASA will have to operate under a Continuing Resolution (CR) for at least part of the new fiscal year, keeping the HLS funding at its FY2021 level, further constraining progress.

As for SLS itself, Congress directed NASA to build it in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act after the Obama Administration cancelled an earlier rocket (Ares V) designed during the George W. Bush Administration. In 2014, NASA committed to the first SLS launch in November 2018. That slipped to December 2019-June 2020, then to mid-late 2021.

Over the past decade, private sector companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have been developing their own big rockets generating controversy over whether SLS, funded by taxpayers through traditional cost-plus contracts with big aerospace companies, is necessary in this new era of commercial space. Dueling op-eds have appeared in recent days from supporters and opponents.

Congress continues to be strongly supportive and Jurczyk reiterated today NASA’s position that only SLS can launch astronauts in Orion spacecraft to the Moon and beyond, calling it the “backbone” of the Artemis program.

According to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), each SLS launch will cost $2 billion, a steep price tag unlikely to woo many users. Nonetheless, SLS advocates argue the per-launch price will come down if there are more launches and want NASA to use it for scientific spacecraft like the Europa Clipper to Jupiter’s moon Europa. For many years, Congress wrote into law that SLS must be used for Europa Clipper, but relaxed that requirement in the FY2021 appropriations bill. Now it only must be used “if the SLS is available and if torsional loading analysis has confirmed Clipper’s appropriateness for SLS.”

NASA recently determined the torsional loading will not work and issued a Request for Information from potential commercial launch service suppliers for an alternative. Rep. Brian Babin, the top Republican on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s space subcommittee issued a press release today complaining that NASA had not replied to a February 22 request to provide details of that analysis.

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