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  1. It’s official—NASA will subject the SLS rocket to another hot fire test "A second, longer hot fire test should be conducted and would pose minimal risk." Enlarge / The SLS core stage at NASA's Stennis Space Center after firing up for the Green Run test on January 16, 2021. Trevor Mahlmann 133 with 80 posters participating After completing a review of data collected from a hot fire test of its Space Launch System rocket in mid-January, NASA has decided it needs to test the large vehicle again. The all-up engine firing is scheduled to occur as early as the fourth week of February. During the January 16 test firing, when NASA intended to run the rocket's four main engines for up to eight minutes, the test was aborted after just 67.2 seconds. NASA said the engine firing was stopped due to a stringent limit on hydraulic pressure in the thrust vector control mechanism used to gimbal, or steer, the engines. In the days after the mid-January test firing, officials from NASA and Boeing were coy about whether they would need to test-fire the rocket a second time. While it would be useful to gain additional data, they said, there were concerns about putting the core stage, with its four space shuttle main engines and large liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel tanks, through the stress of repeated tests. (The SLS rocket is expendable, so it is intended to be launched only a single time.) According to the agency, the original hot fire test completed 15 of its 23 objectives. Four other objectives got most of the data sought, while three had partial data, and one no data. This last one was a test of how the liquid oxygen tank pressure would respond when liquid oxygen was largely used up and the tank emptied. Because the test objectives were not met, engineers within the agency have been pushing NASA and Boeing leadership to conduct a second test to lower the risk of a failure during launch. On Friday, NASA made it official. "After evaluating data from the first hot fire and the prior seven Green Run tests, NASA and core stage lead contractor Boeing determined that a second, longer hot fire test should be conducted and would pose minimal risk to the Artemis I core stage while providing valuable data to help certify the core stage for flight," the space agency said in a blog post. NASA said that running the engines for four minutes during this second test should offer enough data to provide confidence in the core stage performance but that the main engines would fire for up to eight minutes if all goes well. Following the second hot fire test—assuming that NASA and Boeing get the data needed—it will take about a month to refurbish the core stage and its engines. The vehicle will then be loaded onto a barge, shipped across the Gulf of Mexico and into the Atlantic, and delivered to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This is now unlikely to happen before late March or April. In its blog post, NASA says that once in Florida, the SLS core stage will be assembled with its solid rocket boosters and mated with the Orion spacecraft in preparation for its first launch "later this year." However, given that a 2021 launch date was predicated on shipping the core stage from Stennis Space Center in January, a 2021 launch of the SLS rocket now seems highly unlikely. It’s official—NASA will subject the SLS rocket to another hot fire test
  2. NASA likely to redo hot-fire test of its Space Launch System core stage Of 23 test objectives, full data was received for 15 of them. Enlarge / At 4:27pm central time on Saturday, the SLS rocket core stage ignited its four RS-25 engines at NASA's Stennis Space Center. The test was to last up to eight minutes. Trevor Mahlmann for Ars 26 with 23 posters participating Following the unsuccessful completion of a Space Launch System hot fire test, NASA is likely to conduct a second "Green Run" firing in February. On Tuesday, three days after the first hot-fire test attempt, NASA released a summary of its preliminary analysis of data from the 67.2-second test firing. The report highlights three issues, none of which appears to be overly serious but will require further investigation. The agency found that the test, conducted at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, was automatically shut down by an out-of-limits reading of hydraulic pressure in the thrust vector control mechanism used to gimbal, or steer, the engines. At 64 seconds into the test, the rocket began a pre-programmed sequence to gimbal its engines as if it were in flight. Shortly after, the pump-return pressure fell below the redline of 50 pounds per square in gauge, to 49.6. This pressure limit, the agency said, was more stringent than an actual flight redline and was set to protect against potential damage on the test stand. Another issue, the "major component failure" in Engine 4, actually appears to be a relatively minor problem in which a redundant sensor failed. This is good, because it means that NASA would likely not have to swap out this engine from the core stage. There are four space shuttle main engines used on the SLS rocket. Finally, the "flash" observed in the engine section seems to be fairly normal. A visual inspection of the thermal blankets between engines shows some scorching, but this is expected. There were no indications of a fire, leak, or other issue. To repeat or not repeat? The published NASA summary does not discuss whether the agency will press ahead with a second test of the core stage. Prior to the test, NASA had hoped to run the engines for at least 250 seconds to obtain a full suite of data about the core stage performance. Obviously, they only ran the engines for about one-quarter of that time. According to sources at the agency, program managers are in fact leaning toward conducting a second hot-fire test in Mississippi. Due to the need to obtain more propellant at the test site, conduct minor refurbishment to the vehicle, and possibly change the erratic sensor on Engine 4, the agency estimates it will require about three to four weeks before conducting another test. NASA and the core stage's primary contractor, Boeing, did collect a lot of data about the test. The agency said that, of its 23 test objectives, 15 were completed with 100 percent of the data sought. Four others got most of the data sought, while three had partial data, and one no data. (This was a test of how the liquid oxygen tank pressure would respond when liquid oxygen was largely used up and the tank emptied.) NASA engineers are now studying the data in greater detail and will soon perform a risk assessment to determine the hazards of skipping a second test. As it is standard practice to re-test in such circumstances, it is highly likely a second test will occur. It remains difficult to quantify what this means to the schedule for launching this core stage as part of the Artemis I mission. Before this delay, NASA was already going to struggle to make its goal of launching an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon before the end of 2021. There was not much margin left in the schedule, and a launch this year assumed smooth operations in stacking and integration—a big assumption. Now it appears likely that NASA will lose at least a month. NASA likely to redo hot-fire test of its Space Launch System core stage
  3. After a “corrective action,” Boeing back at work on SLS rocket core stage "There are many steps in engine installation that have to occur." First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all images. Nearly a month ago, NASA announced that Boeing had assembled the core stage structure that forms the backbone of its Space Launch System rocket. This meant that all technicians needed to do to complete the full core stage was bolt on four space shuttle main engines and connect their plumbing. Completing the core stage at NASA's rocket factory, the Michoud Assembly Facility in Southern Louisiana, would represent a significant milestone for the program. However, after assembling the core stage structure in September, two sources familiar with Boeing's work at the factory said the company had to "stand down" operations due to some issues. “Corrective action” Now, NASA officials have provided a little information about the causes of the delay. In a statement, the space agency's headquarters told Ars that "NASA initiated a forward looking corrective action request focused on improving the production system in preparation for Core Stage 2 and beyond." As a result of this corrective action, which was not specified, "Boeing chose to stand down in some areas and ensure the whole production team was aware of the intent behind the corrective action request." A spokesperson from Marshall Space Flight Center, which is managing construction of the SLS rocket for NASA, said the stand down was needed to "perform an intensive site process review." It is not clear what triggered the need for a corrective action, but one source suggested to Ars that Boeing technicians are having difficulty attaching the large rocket engines in a horizontal configuration rather than a vertical position. NASA and Boeing made a late change to the final assembly process, deciding to mate pieces of the core stage horizontally rather than vertically to save time. However, this source said horizontal mating of the engines has created problems. Despite this, NASA officials said progress is being made. "NASA and Boeing are expected to have the first engine soft mated to the core stage next week," Tracy McMahan, a spokesperson for Marshall Space Flight Center, said on Saturday. "However, there are many steps in engine installation that have to occur before the installation is complete." Nine years in NASA is hoping to complete core stage assembly as soon as possible, which would allow the rocket to be moved by barge from Louisiana to a large test stand at nearby Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi. There, at some point in 2020, the space agency plans to conduct a full-duration test firing known as a "Green Run" test to ensure the rocket is safe to launch. This core stage is expected to fly the Artemis 1 mission for NASA some time in 2021, although the agency has not set a formal date yet for this flight after several delays. Last week, in fact, marked the ninth anniversary of the SLS rocket program, which was created by a Congressional authorization bill in 2010. The rocket was originally supposed to be ready to launch by 2016. Before the rocket's first flight, NASA will have spent about $20 billion developing the SLS core stage, other elements of the rocket, and ground-support equipment. One of the architects of the authorizing legislation, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby (R), has demanded that NASA use the SLS rocket to launch humans to the Moon, despite the availability of the Falcon Heavy, which costs significantly less and has already flown three times. Listing image by NASA Source: After a “corrective action,” Boeing back at work on SLS rocket core stage (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  4. NASA rejects Blue Origin’s offer of a cheaper upper stage for the SLS rocket Each launch of the SLS rocket may cost on the order of $2 billion. Enlarge / A video still showing an Exploration Upper Stage in flight. NASA On Bullshit American crap, NASA posted a document that provides some perspective on the agency's long-term plans for the Space Launch System rocket. This is the agency's titanic booster that has been under development since 2010, has an annual budget of more than $2 billion, and will not fly before at least 2021. The new document, known as a Justification for Other Than Full and Open Competition, explains why NASA rejected a lower-cost version of an upper stage for its rocket. Early on, the space agency opted to build the large SLS rocket in phases. The initial version, Block 1, would have a placeholder upper stage. As a result, this initial variant of the rocket would be somewhat limited in its capabilities and only marginally more powerful than private rockets—most notably SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and Blue Origin's New Glenn boosters—developed without the deep pockets of US taxpayers. The much more capable Block 1b of the SLS rocket will stand apart from these private rockets. With its more powerful second stage, known as the Exploration Upper Stage, it will more than double the lift capacity of these private rockets. Additionally, it will have the capability to launch both large amounts of cargo and the crewed Orion spacecraft at the same time. At the outset of the program, NASA chose Boeing to build both the core stage of the SLS rocket, as well as the Exploration Upper Stage. In recent years, Congress has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars for the agency and Boeing to design this new upper stage to fit on top of the SLS rocket. The agency has yet to move into development of the upper stage, however. A comparison between the Interium Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage. NASA There are several reasons for this. NASA wants Boeing to finish the SLS rocket's core stage first, as it is already four years late. Moreover, because of Boeing's performance on the core stage and projected costs of the Exploration Upper Stage, the agency was curious if there were other aerospace companies interested in building a powerful upper stage for the SLS rocket. Two years ago this frustration, in part, led NASA to issue a request for industry to provide a "low-cost replacement" for the RL-10 rocket engine that powered the Exploration Upper Stage, as well as perhaps an entirely new stage itself. An agency spokesperson said at the time the request sought to "open up the field of possible responses" and reduce costs of the SLS rocket's proposed upper stage. Since that time, the issue of the Exploration Upper Stage has largely simmered behind the scenes. The new document released on Bullshit American crap, however, provides some clarity for what happened. And instead of opening upper stage bidding into a formal bidding process, NASA decided to stick with Boeing's version of the Exploration Upper Stage. Because this was a non-competitive process, NASA had to justify it with the new document. The bidders In the new paperwork, we learn that Boeing and its long-time competitor, Lockheed Martin, proposed to build the Exploration Upper Stage as designed, with four RL-10 rocket engines manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne. In addition, Blue Origin submitted an "alternate response" to the upper stage design. This design was based upon Blue Origin's BE-3U rocket engine, a modified version of the motor that powers the New Shepard launch system, which will also fly in the upper stage of the company's New Glenn rocket. A single BE-3U engine has more thrust than four RL-10 engines combined. So Blue Origin likely proposed an upper stage powered by a single BE-3U engine. The costs Rocket engine costs are something of a black box, but it is likely that a single BE-3U engine will cost about the same, or less, than a single RL-10 engine. Therefore Blue Origin's upper stage would almost certainly cost significantly less than the Exploration Upper Stage proposed by Boeing. (NASA's justification document redacts the agency's investment to date in the Exploration Upper Stage.) Various sources have suggested wildly different cost estimates for the Exploration Upper Stage. But one thing we know for sure from NASA's 2017 request of industry is that the agency sought to cut costs and must have believed Boeing's price was too high. How high was it? We can make an educated guess. Using the Advanced Missions Cost Model, we can roughly estimate the development cost of an upper stage with a dry mass of 13.1 metric tons at $2.5 billion (we rated the development difficulty factor as "high" rather than "very high"). Based upon this model, the total cost for eight Exploration Upper Stages—which NASA announced in October it was beginning to order—came in at $8.6 billion. Subtracting development costs, then, this gives us a per-unit cost of each Boeing upper stage of $880 million. It is not difficult to see the quandary here for NASA. Even if the agency succeeds in the herculean task of bringing the cost of a single core stage down to $1 billion, flying the Exploration Upper Stage will make each launch of its SLS rocket cost on the order of at least $2 billion. This is not the foundation of a sustainable space program. Indeed, NASA would find itself in the situation of the SLS rocket being too expensive to fly often, and unable to fly it often enough, to eventually make the SLS rocket affordable. Despite this, in NASA's new justification document, the agency rejects Blue Origin's less-costly alternative. Justification NASA sets out three reasons for not opening the competition to Blue Origin. In the document, signed by various agency officials including the acting director for human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, NASA says Blue Origin's "alternate" stage cannot fly 10 tons of cargo along with the Orion spacecraft. Moreover, NASA says, the total height of the SLS rocket's core stage with Blue Origin's upper stage exceeds the height of the Vertical Assembly Building's door, resulting in "modifications to the VAB building height and substantial cost and schedule delays." Finally, the agency says the BE-3U engine's higher stage thrust would result in an increase to the end-of-life acceleration of the Orion spacecraft and a significant impact to the Orion solar array design. Despite these reasons, perhaps the overriding rationale in the NASA document is that moving away from the Exploration Upper Stage's current design would require time the agency does not have in its rush to reach the lunar surface by 2024. NASA would "incur additional costs and schedule risk due to changes in the design and analysis cycles," the document states. "The alternate solution is a heavier stage with a different length and diameter than EUS. New wind tunnel models, load cycles, and integrated dynamics models would need to be produced and verified." A real competition? The irony in this document is that NASA said it would consider opening up a competition for the SLS rocket's new upper stage in 2017. And then two years later it told a bidder that proposed a commercial, cheaper upper stage that its bid failed because NASA and Boeing had already designed their rocket around Boeing's proposal. This seems like less than a fair competition. Moreover, NASA is already procuring an interim upper stage for the SLS rocket from United Launch Alliance, a company co-owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. United Launch Alliance has extensive experience with the RL-10 engine and building upper stages. It also has tooling and factory space for this purpose, and it likely would have been cheaper and faster for NASA to contract with ULA. However, this would have meant that Boeing had to share any profits from the upper stage with Lockheed. As a result, NASA has gone with a contractor that significantly under-performed on the SLS core stage, which is years behind schedule, billions of dollars over budget, and yet to prove itself in flight. Now it has bet the future of its deep space exploration program for at least the next decade on the same company. NASA fans can only hope that Boeing builds rockets as well as it does lobbying coalitions. Source: NASA rejects Blue Origin’s offer of a cheaper upper stage for the SLS rocket (Ars Technica)
  5. The White House puts a price on the SLS rocket—and it’s a lot Again, Congress is urged to allow a commercial launch of the Europa Clipper. Enlarge / Technicians at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans moved the Space Launch System's liquid hydrogen tank from the factory to the dock, where it was loaded onto the Pegasus barge on Dec. 14, 2018. NASA/Steven Seipel 149 with 79 posters participating After the Senate Appropriations Committee released its fiscal year 2020 budget bill in September, the White House Office of Management and Budget responded with a letter to share some "additional views" on the process. This letter (see a copy), dated October 23 and signed by acting director of the White House budget office Russell Vought, provides some insight into NASA's large Space Launch System rocket. Congress has mandated that NASA use the more costly SLS booster to launch the ambitious Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter in the early 2020s, while the White House prefers the agency to fly on a much-less-expensive commercial rocket. In a section discussing the Clipper mission, Vought's letter includes a cost estimate to build and fly a single SLS rocket in a given year—more than $2 billion—which NASA has not previously specified. "The Europa mission could be launched by a commercial rocket," Vought wrote to the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby. "At an estimated cost of over $2 billion per launch for the SLS once development is complete, the use of a commercial launch vehicle would provide over $1.5 billion in cost savings. The Administration urges the Congress to provide NASA the flexibility called for by the NASA Inspector General." Independent estimates have pegged the SLS cost this high, but NASA has never admitted it. A $2 billion cost to launch one SLS rocket a year raises significant questions about the sustainability of such an exploration program—the government killed the similarly sized Saturn V rocket in the early 1970s because of unsustainable costs. Marginal versus fixed The letter also references a report published by NASA's Inspector General Paul Martin last May, which recommended that NASA scientists and engineers, rather than Congress, choose the best rocket for their science mission to Jupiter's Moon Europa. This report, however, placed a much lower cost estimate on the SLS rocket. It stated that "NASA officials estimate the third SLS Block 1 launch vehicle’s marginal cost will be at least $876 million." This discrepancy can likely be explained by the difference between marginal costs and marginal plus fixed costs. Martin's estimate is for "marginal" cost alone, meaning how much it would cost NASA to build an additional rocket in a given year. This likely does not apply to the Europa Clipper mission, however, as NASA would like to launch the Clipper spacecraft in 2023 or 2024, a time when the SLS rocket's core stage contractor, Boeing, will probably not be capable of building more than one booster a year. The real cost for an SLS rocket should therefore include fixed costs—such factory space at NASA's Michoud Assembly in Louisiana, the workforce, and all of the other costs beyond a rocket's metal and other physical components. In other words, if you are only capable of building and flying one rocket a year, the total price must include fixed and marginal costs, which brings the SLS cost to "over $2 billion." Getting to Jupiter The political wrangling over the launch vehicle has put NASA and the Clipper mission planners at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California in a difficult position. There are basically three different rides to Jupiter, and each would involve modifications to the spacecraft. To make a 2023 launch, the Clipper's design really needs to be locked down soon. The powerful SLS booster offers the quickest ride for the six-ton spacecraft to Jupiter, less than three years. But for mission planners, there are multiple concerns about this rocket beyond just its extraordinary cost. There is the looming threat that the program may eventually be canceled (due to its cost and the emergence of significantly lower cost, privately built rockets). NASA's human exploration program also has priority on using the SLS rocket, so if there are manufacturing issues, a science mission might be pushed aside. Finally, there is the possibility of further developmental delays—significant ground testing of SLS has yet to begin. Another option is United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy rocket, which has an excellent safety record and has launched several high-profile missions for NASA. However, this rocket requires multiple gravity assists to push the Clipper into a Jupiter orbit, including a Venus flyby. This heating would add additional thermal constraints to the mission, and scientists would prefer to avoid this if at all possible. A final possibility is SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, with a kick stage. This booster would take a little more than twice as long as the SLS rocket to get the Clipper payload to Jupiter, but it does not require a Venus flyby and therefore avoids those thermal issues. With a track record of three successful flights, the Falcon Heavy also avoids some of the development and manufacturing concerns raised by SLS vehicle. Finally, it offers the lowest cost of the three options. In the end, however, the rocket decision will probably not come down to technical and cost considerations. Politics, rather, will have the final say. And the Senator to whom Vought's letter was addressed, Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), has championed the SLS rocket for nearly a decade. (The vehicle is designed and managed at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, his home state). So for NASA to get its Europa mission, which the science community generally agrees is a high priority due to the presence of a large water ocean beneath the Moon's icy surface, taxpayers may have to pay an additional $1.5 billion to placate a powerful policymaker. Source: The White House puts a price on the SLS rocket—and it’s a lot (Ars Technica)
  6. NASA does not deny the “over $2 billion” cost of a single SLS launch "NASA is working to bring down the cost of a single SLS launch." Enlarge / The Space Launch System was created as part of a political compromise between US Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and senators from Alabama and Texas. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images For the first time, a government cost estimate of building and flying a single Space Launch System rocket in a given year has been released. This estimate of "over $2 billion" came in the form of a letter from the White House to the Senate Appropriations Committee first reported by Ars this week. In the nearly decade-long development of the SLS rocket, NASA officials have studiously avoided providing a so-called "production and operations" cost. This is partly because it can be difficult to estimate flight costs during development, but also very likely because doing so might give lawmakers who have backed the project some measure of sticker shock. After all, a fully expendable version of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which has two-thirds of the lift capacity of a Block 1 version of the SLS rocket, can be bought today for $150 million. After publication of the White House letter, the agency did not deny the estimate that producing and flying one SLS rocket in a given year—which is the production capacity core stage contractor Boeing may be able to reach by the early 2020s—will be more than $2 billion. The first SLS launch could come in 2021. "NASA is working to bring down the cost of a single SLS launch in a given year as the agency continues negotiations with Boeing on the long-term production contract and efforts to finalize contracts and costs for other elements of the rocket," an agency spokesperson, Kathryn Hambleton, told Ars. Don’t forget development costs The White House number appears to include both the "marginal" cost of building a single SLS rocket as well as the "fixed" costs of maintaining a standing army of thousands of employees and hundreds of suppliers across the country. Building a second SLS rocket each year would make the per-unit cost "significantly less," Hambleton said. What the White House cost estimate did not include, however, was development costs. Since 2011, Congress has appropriated approximately $2 billion per year for the "development" of the SLS rocket (this does not include hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually on ground systems "development" for the rocket at Kennedy Space Center). If these costs are amortized over 10 launches of the SLS vehicle during the 2020, the per-flight cost would be approximately $4 billion per flight. Moreover, this is just for the SLS rocket's core stage, side-mounted boosters, and a basic upper stage. Developing and adding the Exploration Upper Stage will add hundreds of millions of more dollars. Then there is the cost of the Orion spacecraft, which NASA recently valued at approximately $750 million for the first six missions. Adding all of this up, the true cost of a Space Launch System mission with Orion on top in the 2020s, including the rocket's development but excluding ground systems and Orion development costs, appears to be in the ballpark of $5 billion per flight. Let's hope the astronauts are served more than just pretzels after takeoff. Source: NASA does not deny the “over $2 billion” cost of a single SLS launch (Ars Technica)
  7. Rocket scientist says that Boeing squelched work on propellant depots "Boeing became furious and tried to get me fired." Enlarge / The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket’s liquid oxygen tank structural test article was manufactured and stacked in June 2019 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. NASA Nearly a decade ago, when Congress directed NASA to build a large rocket based upon space shuttle-era technology called the Space Launch System, the agency also quietly put on the back burner its work to develop in-space refueling technology. It has long been rumored within aerospace circles that funding for NASA's efforts to develop so-called propellant depots, and the capability to store and transfer cryogenic rocket fuels in orbit, was curbed due to the threat it posed to the SLS rocket and its prime contractor, Boeing. After all, if smaller, cheaper rockets could launch rocket fuel and stash it in low-Earth orbit for staged missions to the Moon or beyond, why should NASA spend $2 billion a year annually to develop the SLS rocket? Why not just use that money to buy commercial launches, starting with the Delta IV Heavy and later the Falcon Heavy, and build an exploration program around existing capabilities? It would likely be quicker and cheaper. Now, thanks to comments on Twitter by George Sowers, a physicist in the middle of this controversy, we have confirmation of sorts. In the early and mid-2010s, Sowers was leading the advanced programs group at United Launch Alliance (ULA), the rocket company co-owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Propellant depots were among the technologies he was working on. Sowers is now a professor at the Colorado School of Mines. ULA works on depots One of ULA's chief assets was its Centaur upper stage, and the company wanted to build an innovative version that could be refueled in space, and reused, called the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES. As part of this development, in 2011, ULA proposed an in-space test of depots to NASA that would cost less than $100 million. "We had released a series of papers showing how a depot/refueling architecture would enable a human exploration program using existing (at the time) commercial rockets," Sowers tweeted on Wednesday. "Boeing became furious and tried to get me fired. Kudos to my CEO for protecting me. But we were banned from even saying the 'd' word out loud. Sad part is that ULA did a lot of pathfinding work in that area and could have owned the refueling/depot market, enriching Boeing (and Lockheed) in the process. But it was shut down because it threatened SLS." United Launch Alliance concept for a propellant depot based on its ACES upper stage. United Launch Alliance A spokesman for Boeing said he would look into these comments, and Ars will update this story if Boeing responds. The chief executive of United Launch Alliance, Tory Bruno, told Ars late in 2018 that ACES development remained "further out" on the company's roadmap. Sowers' suggestion that "depots" should not be uttered in public is consistent with observations at the time that a US Senator from Alabama, Richard Shelby, had told NASA to stop talking about propellant depots. The NASA spaceflight center that manages the SLS rocket's development, Marshall Space Flight Center, is based in Alabama. Can't count on Falcon Heavy? Publicly, in the early and mid-2010s, proponents of the large SLS rocket were critical of depots because they asserted the technology was not ready for prime time. Then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also said the agency could not plan its exploration plans around the Falcon Heavy and propellant depots because the SpaceX rocket was not a real rocket. "Let's be very honest again," Bolden said in a 2014 interview. "We don't have a commercially available heavy lift vehicle. Falcon 9 Heavy may someday come about. It's on the drawing board right now. SLS is real. You've seen it down at Michoud. We're building the core stage. We have all the engines done, ready to be put on the test stand at Stennis... I don't see any hardware for a Falcon 9 Heavy, except that he's going to take three Falcon 9s and put them together and that becomes the Heavy. It's not that easy in rocketry." SpaceX privately developed the Falcon Heavy rocket for about $500 million, and it flew its first flight in February 2018. It has now flown three successful missions. NASA has spent about $14 billion on the SLS rocket and related development costs since 2011. That rocket is not expected to fly before at least mid or late 2021. The depot topic has flared back up this week because NASA's Space Technology program announced that it would work with SpaceX, as part of a Space Act Agreement in which no funds are exchanged, to help develop on-orbit refueling for the company's Starship vehicle. It marked the first time NASA has really formally recognized Starship. It also signaled that NASA now appears to be willing to take the concept of on-orbit refueling seriously again. This has likely been spurred by senior officials in the White House. Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the National Space Council and has been supportive of commercial efforts, has even mentioned propellant depots in speeches. Source: Rocket scientist says that Boeing squelched work on propellant depots (Ars Technica)
  8. Boeing finally completes SLS core stage, packs it for Mississippi tests Preliminary construction on this stage began in late 2015. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all images. On Wednesday, Boeing moved the completed core stage of NASA's Space Launch System rocket from the Michoud Assembly Facility onto the space agency's Pegasus Barge. When weather conditions are favorable, the barge will carry the 64-meter rocket from the rocket factory near New Orleans to the Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi. "It was a beautiful day here," said John Shannon, Boeing's program manager for the SLS rocket, in a teleconference with reporters. "We had a spectacular view of this new national asset." Finishing assembly of the core stage represents an important milestone for Boeing, which has spent most of the 2010s working with NASA on designing the SLS rocket and building the first core stage. Boeing began cutting metal on the very first barrels for this core stage, which will fly NASA's Artemis 1 mission, back in 2015 at the Louisiana-based facility. NASA has spent nearly $10 billion on the SLS rocket's core-stage development so far. Green run test At Stennis, the rocket will be mounted to the B-2 test stand later this month, where Boeing and NASA officials will perform a series of tests and checks to ensure the integrity of the core stage, which includes four space shuttle main engines and two large tanks that house liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuels. This test and checkout work will conclude with two big events. The first is a "wet dress rehearsal," in which the rocket is loaded with fuel and brought through a countdown but not ignited. Then, about a week later, the clamped-down rocket's four engines will be ignited and burn through a flight profile consistent with the core stage's ascent through the Earth's atmosphere. Depending on weather and how well the vehicle performs, Shannon said this "green run" test could be completed by July or August. More likely, however, engineers will have to tackle issues that crop up, and the testing regime will not be finished before October. Although Boeing has already performed a series of pressure tests, seal checks, and electrical tests, Shannon said that cooling the rocket's tanks down to cryogenic temperatures for the fueling and test firing may reveal some things that need to be addressed. Following the tests at Stennis, barring major issues, the core stage will be shipped to Kennedy Space Center on the Florida coast, about a 12-day voyage. There, large solid-rocket boosters will be attached to the side of the vehicle before the upper stage and Orion spacecraft are strapped on in anticipation of the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission. NASA has not yet set a date for this mission, but it seems unlikely to happen before the second quarter of 2021. The mission may well slip further should serious technical challenges arise. (It was originally supposed to fly in 2017). Long haul Shannon acknowledged these delays and said Boeing has learned a number of lessons from manufacturing the SLS rocket's first core stage. He added that production of the second one is progressing about 40 percent faster. NASA's program manager for the SLS rocket, John Honeycutt, added that the space agency has built up production infrastructure at Michoud for the long haul. The agency, he said, is prepared to "build core stages for decades to come." Whether the agency will need the SLS rocket for decades to come is not clear. NASA has spent the last nine years and billions of dollars on an expendable rocket that will cost as much as $2 billion per flight, according to government estimates. It seems unlikely that, if much cheaper, reusable launch solutions such as SpaceX's large Starship or Blue Origin's New Glenn vehicle prove reliable, NASA would continue flying its single-use booster. Listing image by NASA Source: Boeing finally completes SLS core stage, packs it for Mississippi tests (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  9. NASA will pay a staggering $146 million for each SLS rocket engine The rocket needs four engines and it is expendable. Enlarge / SLS Liquid Hydrogen Tank test article is moved onto the Pegasus barge. NASA 225 with 135 posters participating, including story author Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered. So how come no one has taken the Space Launch System rocket behind the woodshed yet? We'll answer that question in a moment. First, some news: On Friday, the space agency announced that it had awarded a contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne to build 18 additional space shuttle main engines for the Space Launch System rocket. The contract is valued at $1.79 billion—so $100 million per engine. However, this is not the true price of these engines. NASA has previously given more than $1 billion to Aerojet to "restart" production of the space shuttle era engines and a contract for six new ones. So, according to the space agency, NASA has spent $3.5 billion for a total of 24 rocket engines. That comes to $146 million per engine. (Or 780,000 bars of Gold-Pressed Latinum, as this is a deal only the Ferengi could love.) The NASA news release says that Aerojet has "implemented a plan to reduce the cost of the engines by as much as 30 percent," noting the use of more advanced manufacturing techniques. These "savings," however, are difficult to square with reality. It is true that the shuttle main engine, or RS-25, is the Ferrari of rocket engines. NASA designed these brilliant engines in the 1970s for the space shuttle program, during which they each flew multiple launches. A total of 46 engines were built for the shuttle at an estimated cost of $40 million per engine. But now these formerly reusable engines will be flown a single time on the SLS rocket and then dropped into the ocean. There are four engines on a Space Launch System rocket. At this price, the engines for an SLS rocket, alone, will cost more than $580 million. This does not include the costs of fabricating the rocket's large core stage, towering solid-rocket boosters, an upper stage, or the costs of test, transportation, storage, and integration. With engine prices like these, it seems reasonable to assume that the cost of a single SLS launch will remain $2 billion into perpetuity. Just to summarize that for you: NASA is spending at least three times more for an engine that was previously built for reuse, but now is expendable. And in the news release, Aerojet brags about reducing the price of these engines. There are a lot of things one could buy in the aerospace industry for $146 million. One might, for example, buy at least six RD-180 engines from Russia. These engines have more than twice the thrust of a space shuttle main engine. Or, one might go to United Launch Alliance's Rocket Builder website and purchase two basic Atlas V rocket launches. You could buy three "flight-proven" Falcon 9 launches. One might even buy a Falcon Heavy launch, which has two-thirds the lift capacity of the Space Launch System at one-twentieth the price, and you'd still have enough money left over to buy several hundred actual Ferrari sports cars. Or, again, you could buy a single, expendable rocket engine. Speaking of engines, SpaceX is building the Raptor rocket engine to power its Super Heavy rocket and Starship upper stage. The Raptor has slightly more power at sea level than the RS-25, and is designed for dozens of uses. According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, it costs less than $1 million to build a Raptor engine. The company has already built a couple dozen of them on its own dime. So there's that. Anyway, the original question concerned why the SLS rocket has not been canceled. You didn't need to read this article to find the answer—it's right there on NASA's website: "Men and women in all 50 states are hard at work building NASA's Deep Space Exploration Systems to support missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond." Source: NASA will pay a staggering $146 million for each SLS rocket engine (Ars Technica)
  10. New report finds NASA awarded Boeing large fees despite SLS launch slips "It would be misleading for us to continue to report the June 2020 launch date." Enlarge / When will NASA's Space Launch System rocket take flight? NASA As NASA talks up its Artemis Program to return humans to the Moon by the year 2024, a new report from the US Government Accountability Office raises questions about the space agency's ability to build the spacecraft and rockets intended to carry out that mission. Instead of launching in 2020, the Artemis-1 mission that will see a Space Launch System rocket boost an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon will instead launch as late as June 2021, the GAO report finds. NASA also appears to have been obscuring the true cost of its development programs, particularly with the large SLS rocket, which has Boeing as its prime contractor. "While NASA acknowledges about $1 billion in cost growth for the SLS program, it is understated," the report found. "This is because NASA shifted some planned SLS scope to future missions but did not reduce the program’s cost baseline accordingly. When GAO reduced the baseline to account for the reduced scope, the cost growth is about $1.8 billion." NASA now estimates that it will spend about $10 billion to develop the rocket and associated ground systems at Kennedy Space Center, where the vehicle will launch from. This figure assumes the vehicle does not encounter additional technical problems during the test and qualification phase of the hardware—which is where such problems typically arise. NASA originally had planned to launch the SLS rocket in 2017 but has since pushed that date back multiple times. The agency's current administrator, Jim Bridenstine, has said NASA is looking at all options to keep the rocket's inaugural launch within calendar year 2020. Award fees Despite these delays, however, the report found that NASA has continued to pay Boeing substantial award fees. From July 2014 through September 2018, the GAO found that NASA assessed Boeing's performance on development of the SLS rocket's core stage as "good," "very good," and "excellent" at various times. The agency gave Boeing $271 million in award fees during this period, even after the rocket's scheduled launch continued to slip. The report found several areas in which Boeing could have done more to keep the rocket on schedule. Perhaps most damning, the report states that, "As core stage production began, Boeing was focused on minimizing the number of technicians, in part to keep costs low, and hired about 100 technicians." The company actually needed two-and-a-half times that amount to keep the project on schedule. In its response to the report, NASA said government investigators had failed to take into account the complexity of its undertaking to build a very large rocket and a deep-space capsule. The response letter from William Gerstenmaier also complained about the tone of the report. "The GAO report repeatedly projects the worst-case schedule outcome," Gerstenmaier wrote in a letter to the GAO. "The agency does take exception to the unnecessarily negative language used in the report title and section headings and the lack of acknowledgement of progress the agency has made." Cristina Chaplain, the chief author of the report, appeared to reject this criticism. "It would be misleading for us to continue to report the June 2020 launch date when we were told there was substantive risk to that date," she replied. Source: New report finds NASA awarded Boeing large fees despite SLS launch slips (Ars Technica)
  11. "Urgency is our mantra and we must do it right." Enlarge / NASA conducts a full-power, full-duration 650-second RS-25 engine test on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis Space Center. NASA For much of March and April, in response to a desire from the Trump administration to accelerate development of the Space Launch System rocket, NASA has been looking at ways to launch the large booster in 2020 instead of further delaying it. Among the options has been skipping a "green run" test of the rocket's core stage—an all-up firing of the rocket's four main engines for the full duration of an ascent to orbit. NASA has been preparing for this test for the better part of a decade, and according to the agency it has spent about $230 million to renovate and modify the B-2 test stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for this purpose. These modifications included special equipment required for the SLS rocket's green run test and future testing of the Exploration Upper Stage. During this test the rocket is clamped down, and its firing marks an important step to validating that the rocket will perform as anticipated during an actual launch. However, transporting the core stage to the test stand, installing it, testing it, firing it, and then moving it again would take an estimated six to nine months. By skipping the test, NASA could have shaved that much time from the development of a rocket that is already more than two years late, possibly allowing the agency to keep the rocket to its latest launch date of mid-2020. "Urgency is our mantra" In a memo shared with senior agency managers earlier this week, NASA's chief of human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier, said the green run test would proceed. He also acknowledged that the first test flight of the rocket, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), would likely be delayed beyond 2020. "Ultimately, it was my recommendation to the agency that we stay the course with the plan that we have had for many years," Gerstenmaier wrote in the memo, dated April 22, which Ars obtained. "Although there is no certainty in when we launch, I believe this is the best approach to achieving a successful EM-1 flight test and put NASA on the path to achieving an EM-2 crewed mission in 2022 and a Lunar Surface mission in 2024." Among those who received a copy of the memo was Jody Singer, the director of Marshall Space Flight Center, which manages the SLS rocket's development. In announcing his decision, Gerstenmaier also expressed the need for urgency. "We must, however, have a higher degree of urgency in accomplishing EM-1 and beyond," Gerstenmaier wrote. "I ask the entire NASA/Industry community to diligently work toward the earliest EM-1 launch possible, to identify ways that we can be more efficient, and to continue to pay attention to detail to enable NASA [to have] a successful EM-1." He closed his letter by saying, "Urgency is our mantra and we must do it right." The agency has not commented publicly on the memo. On Thursday, a spokeswoman told Ars of the green run decision, "We’re still assessing and no final decisions have been made." In recent weeks, the future of the SLS rocket has been a hot topic at the agency as the Trump administration seeks to accelerate a return of humans to the Moon by 2024, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said the SLS must play a key role. Further launch delays would put the 2024 date in jeopardy, at least if the lunar mission relies on SLS performance. A matter of safety The issue of the green run test also arose Thursday at a meeting of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, during which members recommended that NASA carry out the test to ensure the rocket's safety. NASA's present plan is to launch just a single test flight of the SLS rocket before putting crew on the EM-2 mission, which is scheduled to fly a crew into lunar orbit. “There is no other test approach that will gather the critical full-scale integrated propulsion system operational data required to ensure safe operations,” the panel's chairwoman, Patricia Sanders, said about the green run test. “Shorter-duration engine firings at the launch pad will not achieve an understanding of the operational margins, and could result in severe consequences.” Source: NASA to perform key test of the SLS rocket, necessitating a delay in its launch (Ars Technica)
  12. Core issues — NASA’s large SLS rocket unlikely to fly before at least late 2021 "NASA has not been good at setting realistic budget and schedules." Enlarge / NASA Administrator James Bridenstine testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on July 17, 2019. Win McNamee/Getty Images As recently as last month, both NASA planning documents and officials with Boeing said the space agency was still working toward a 2020 launch of the Artemis-1 mission. This is the first launch of the large, costly, and delayed Space Launch System rocket that NASA hopes will serve as the backbone for its efforts to explore the Moon and eventually Mars with humans. This uncrewed test flight, which will boost an Orion capsule to the Moon, is the first of three main missions in NASA's Artemis campaign to land humans on the Moon by 2024. However, for the first time, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Wednesday foreclosed the possibility of a 2020 launch date. Twice during testimony before the US Senate Committee Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Bridenstine referenced 2021 as the expected launch date for Artemis-1. "I think 2021 is definitely achievable for the Artemis-1 launch vehicle," Bridenstine said in response to a question from Sen. Roger Wicker, the Mississippi Republican who chairs the committee. However, Bridenstine said he would not set a new date for the mission yet. Last week, he reassigned two top officials in NASA's human spaceflight department, Bill Gerstenmaier and Bill Hill, in part because of cost overruns and delays with the SLS rocket's core stage. Bridenstine is now searching for replacements, both within and outside of NASA, to fill these key roles and assess the readiness of the SLS rocket. "NASA has not been good at setting realistic budget and schedules, and we need to get better at that," Bridenstine said. "So before we announce a new date I want to be sure that we have a leadership team in place." In his written testimony for the hearing, Bridenstine added one relevant detail about this schedule. "The NASA Office of the Chief Financial Officer performed a schedule risk assessment of the Artemis 1 launch date, including the integrated schedule and associated risk factors ahead of Artemis 1," he wrote. "NASA leadership is currently evaluating these results." According to a NASA source familiar with this assessment, the agency found that under current plans, including a "green run" test firing of the core stage at Stennis Space Center in 2020, the Artemis-1 mission would not be ready for launch until at least "late 2021." Moreover, NASA was likely to need more money—above the more than $2 billion it already receives annually for SLS development—to realistically make a late 2021 launch date. Previously, Bridenstine has said that, with modifications, the privately built Falcon Heavy rocket could carry astronauts on Orion to the Moon if the SLS rocket was not ready. However, due to pressure from key figures in Congress, most notably Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, Bridenstine has since said that will not happen. "We can take some decisions off the table," he said this week in a teleconference with reporters. "We will be going with the SLS rocket and Orion crew capsule. It is imperative." Source: NASA’s large SLS rocket unlikely to fly before at least late 2021 (Ars Technica)
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