Bolden Directs MSFC Special Team to evaluate HLV alternatives

by Chris Bergin

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has asked for a “Special Team” at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) to evaluate the Heavy Lift alternatives – including DIRECT’s Jupiter launch vehicle – as a “top priority”. The team has been asked to create a report on their findings in time for Thanksgiving, in an apparent reaction to the final Augustine Commission report – which will be published on Thursday.

SD HLLV (HLV) Latest:

The Space Shuttle Program (SSP) is coming to the end of an evaluation phase on the “currently favored” Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV) – otherwise known as the Shuttle Derived Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (SD HLLV), as they move into a consultation period with the Constellation Program (CxP).

The vehicle, side mounted to the current design of the External Tank, is a true Shuttle Derived concept, with heritage from a previous concept known as Shuttle-C. The concept is capable of launching 80mt (metric tons) into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and around 54mt to the moon.

Over the past couple of months, numerous status reports have been posted on the Shuttle Standup/Integration reports – which SSP use to bring the teams up to date on vehicle and program status. The vast majority of updates have been positive, as the well-oiled Shuttle teams took a deeper look into the concept at the request of the Augustine Commission.

The concept appeared to suffer from only one drawback – via the large mass its payload carrier – before that was cleared as part of the “no showstoppers” conclusion last month.

Following a presentation of their findings to Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD), the HLV concept has since been presented to the directors of both the Johnson Space Center (JSC) and MSFC (this week).

A2The latest update also noted that the concept is now in a dialog stage with the Constellation Program, with the aim of receiving feedback.

“Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) (NASA/JSC): HLV presented to the Center Director and had a good discussion. Got a bunch of questions and some actions,” noted this week’s opening Shuttle Standup/Integration report (L2).

“One action was to brief the Cx Program and other Centers about what they are doing. So, on Friday they presented to the Cx Program and had many questions from them. Starting to have a dialog.

“This week, HLV will go to MSFC to brief the Center Director. Have put out a preliminary draft of a HLV FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document. Looking for feedback.”

HLV Special Team/Jupiter:

It was via an update on last week’s Standup report that the first mention was made relating to a “Special Team” that has been ordered to evaluate the other HLV alternative vehicles. With the SSP HLV team asked to support this MSFC-based effort, the standup noted this had become the top priority.

“HLV has been asked to support a special team looking at evaluating HLV alternatives,” noted the report. “The HLV Team is now treating this as a top priority. A report will be ready by Thanksgiving.”

Further inquires into the specific evaluations being carried out by the Special Team revealed that all viable – per the Augustine Commission’s initial options – HLV alternatives are being looked at “fairly”, with General Bolden himself responsible for ordering the report.

A3Sources note that the DIRECT team’s Jupiter launch system – an updated version of MSFC’s very own NLS (National Launch System) concept from the 1990s – has dominated early discussions at the Special Team meetings.

This runs parallels with the Augustine Commission, which presented the SD HLLV and Jupiter launch vehicle as the top two “Shuttle Derived” options during presentations over the last couple of months. Both of the SD options are also deemed as the best route to cater for the extension of the Shuttle Program.

Ironically, it was an earlier MSFC study which found “serious issues” with Jupiter’s performance and capabilities, whilst claiming the vehicles lacked the “operational safety and simplicity” of Ares. Those findings led to a 100 page rebuttal document being published by the DIRECT team.

The Special Team have also been asked to look into the CONOPs (Concept of Operations) for the HLV alternatives, although such an effort will be somewhat open-ended, as a final forward path for NASA’s exploration strategy is yet to be confirmed.

Waiting for the forward path:

With job losses already being suffered by the shuttle workforce, managers continue to send out updates to their employees on when NASA can expect to have a clear forward path, which – according to SSP manager John Shannon – is not expected until December at the earliest.

“The entire conversation – at the JSC Senior Staff Retreat – revolved around workforce requirements over the next few years. There are a great deal of rumors floating around, but little hard information,” noted Mr Shannon via the Standup report. “The week after Thanksgiving, the November Passback will be put out and this should clarify the near-term NASA budget.

“The Agency has demonstrated a strong commitment to exploration. SSP expertise will be tapped to support this goal. No decisions are being made at this time, as we await the budget information. Beginning in December and through the early part of next year, all of the stakeholders will convene to lay out the way forward.”

While Shuttle Extension remains on the cards – at least until the end of this year – as one of the options available to President Obama via the Augustine Commission’s findings, Mr Shannon has been consistent in not intimating the likelihood of any addition to the six remaining flights on the manifest.

“Everyone must remain calm and focused on the task at hand. We have six flights ahead of us, with this coming year likely to be very challenging and filled with complicated missions,” Mr Shannon added. “We must make sure that we continue to do everything to the best of our ability.

“After this is accomplished, we can turn our eyes back towards exploration. All future plans are keyed on operating the SSP correctly and safely performing its tasks over the coming year. (I have) absolute confidence in the Team being able to accomplish this work.”

Altair Defunded:

On the subject of exploration, the state of NASA’s plans continue to deteriorate, with sources noting they were informed on Monday that the Altair Lunar Lander project has been defunded. No official statement has been made at this time.

A4Very little has been heard from the Altair Program since heading into the opening development cycles (DACs) last year, which had been building from the Minimum Functionality Approach – as the relatively small team went about defining the lander concept.

The last cycle of the lander baseline, which was known simply as the ‘p711-b Lunar Lander’, had visible heritage in the ESAS (Exploration Systems Architecture Study) ’spider lander’. This concept was expected to change during downstream DACs – related to numerous elements, including the capabilities of the Ares V that was tasked to lift it into space.

With large scale funding shortages across the Constellation Program, and no realistic – from a monetary and schedule standpoint – lunar plans being built, the decision to end or mothball the Altair Program may be strategic, although it is likely they simply ran out of money.

With all of Constellation’s efforts being focused on the Ares I program – a vehicle that won’t be ready in time to launch to the ISS before it is currently scheduled to be deorbited and many years from playing a role in a Lunar mission – the need for increased funding is being made ever more apparent by decision makers at NASA, as the Agency continues to move towards a gap of up to seven years in human space flight capability.

L2 members: Documentation – from which the above article has quoted snippets – is available in full in the related L2 sections, now over 4000 gbs in size.

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