NASA Managers: SLS/Orion on Track for Fall 2018 Launch

NASA Managers: SLS/Orion on Track for Fall 2018 Launch

The NASA program managers for the three components of the Space Launch System (SLS)/Orion program, the centerpiece of the agency’s plan for future human space exploration, painted an optimistic outlook today for the first SLS/Orion launch without a crew in 2018 and the first with a crew in 2021. 

As directed by Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, NASA is building SLS, a rocket bigger than the Apollo-era Saturn V; Orion, a crewed spacecraft to go with it; and associated ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) through the Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) program.  The program managers for each of those three components — John Honeycutt, Mark Kirasich, and Mike Bolger, respectively — provided an update to the Space Transportation Association (STA) at an event on Capitol Hill today.

NASA has committed to the first SLS/Orion launch — Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) — in November 2018.  That launch will not carry any people, but will test the rocket and spacecraft out to lunar orbit.  NASA has no plans to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon, but expects to spend the decade of the 2020s testing hardware, software, and human beings in “cis-lunar” space before committing to sending them to Mars in the 2030s. The second flight, EM-2, will be the first to carry a crew.  NASA committed to launching that mission in 2023, but says it is working towards an internal date of 2021.

Orion program manager Kirasich is confident Orion will be ready for EM-1 in the fall of 2018 and for EM-2 in 2021.  The Orion spacecraft for EM-1 is already at KSC and will be outfitted with a variety of systems over the next 18 months.  Orion EM-1’s service module is being provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) and a structural test article is half way through tests at NASA Glenn Research Center’s Plum Brook facility in Ohio. 

ESA agreed to provide at least one Service Module as part of a barter arrangement it has with NASA over common operating costs for the International Space Station (ISS).

SLS is also making good progress according to Honeycutt: “This is becoming real.”   Manufacturing and testing of the core stage are well underway at Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunstville, AL and at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, LA as well as qualification tests for the Solid Rocket Boosters.   Progress is also being made on the Interim Cyrogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) needed to send Orion around the Moon. 

NASA intends to use the ICPS on EM-1, but there is disagreement about what happens next.  A more capable Exploration (or Enhanced) Upper Stage (EUS) is needed for missions beyond EM-2.   NASA’s FY2017 budget request assumes that ICPS will be used for both EM-1 and EM-2, with EUS following thereafter.   However, EUS advocates argue that there is no point in human-rating ICPS for one crewed mission and NASA should get EUS ready in time for EM-2.  Congress is persuaded by those arguments and directed NASA to build EUS now.  Despite the fact that the NASA budget request pending before Congress assumes ICPS for EM-2, Honeycutt assuredly spoke of using EUS on EM-2.

The ground systems to support SLS and Orion get less attention, but as Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) said “no ground systems, no launches.”  Posey opened the event today and remained for the presentations.  He represents KSC.   NASA owns only two launch pads, 39A and 39B, both at KSC.  It has leased 39A to SpaceX and is transforming 39B into a “multi-user” launch pad that can accommodate a variety of launch vehicles, including SLS.   NASA plans only one SLS launch per year, so the pad would be available for other launches the rest of the time. 

SLS ground systems include the launch pad, mobile transporter, and other facilities at KSC, as well as recovery operations for the Orion spacecraft after it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, which were tested in the December 2014 EFT-1 flight. GSDO program manager Bolger said the mood at KSC was “electric” during that two-orbit mission, which took place three years after the final space shuttle flight, instilling optimism about the future of U.S. human spaceflight.  “The Journey to Mars begins here” at KSC, he enthused.

Honeycutt said he hopes SLS will launch more often than once per year and cited science missions, like the Europa project, that could utilize the rocket, which will be available in several different configurations launching 70, 105 or 130 metric tons.  He also noted that 800 contractors in 43 states are working on SLS.  He said that his biggest worry is annual funding.  All the speakers expressed appreciation to Congress for providing robust funding for these programs. 

Congress has added substantial sums above the President’s request for these programs over the past several years and seems poised to do so again this year.

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