Preliminary NASA plan shows Evolved SLS vehicle is 21 years away

by Chris Bergin

A new schedule, created by NASA, has provided a “preliminary, budget restricted” manifest which places the first flight of the fully evolved Space Launch System (SLS) in the year 2032. The information includes details on the chosen configuration and hardware, but provides a depressing schedule, with a flight rate of just one mission per year, after a staggered opening which results in SLS-2 waiting until 2021 to launch.

The Ongoing SLS Delay:

As admitted by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, the decision on the configuration of the Space Launch System (SLS) was made on June 15, a decision based on the winning Design Reference Vehicle (DRM) out of the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) hosted RAC (Requirements Analysis Cycle) study effort.

Memos on the decision, based around the utilization of a Shuttle Derived (SD) Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) – as requested in the Authorization Act – soon circulated at the main NASA centers, with references to an official announcement to be made on July 8, the launch date for STS-135.

In a sign of how widespread the information was, Atlantis’ commander Chris Ferguson told the media to expect the announcement on the next vehicle to be made on launch day, following his arrival at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) from Houston. His statement wasn’t retracted, nor was it corrected, by NASA Public Affairs.

July 8 came and went, as Atlantis launched on the final NASA shuttle mission – and most likely the last domestic manned mission for several years.

General Bolden was then called in front of a “Full Committee Hearing – A Review of NASA’s Space Launch System“, where lawmakers were given the chance to ask questions about the delay in pressing on with the SLS.

After a tough opening question, the General gave arguably his most impressive public performance to date, holding firm on why he was not able to reveal specifics on the vehicle’s configuration. His defence was related to industry restrictions and an ongoing independent cost analysis effort by Booz Allen.

That costing effort – which began on July 5 – is likely to be completed by mid-August, while an announcement on the configuration of the vehicle, is expected “soon”.

 An attempt to request NASA push on with making a public statement on the SLS configuration to the media – to coincide with Atlantis’ landing at the Kennedy Space Center – was turned down by NASA’s leadership.

The continued delays to the announcement are now causing numerous managers and workers – at least those remaining after the massive jobs losses shortly after Atlantis’ return – to question if the delay is based on politically-aligned tactics to kill the SLS.

As many are aware, a second round of job cuts are expected to be carried out soon at key SLS bases – such as the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, where managers have attempted to delay and extend WARN notices in the hope of bridging the gap between Shuttle and SLS – again based on the raised hopes of the June configuration decision by General Bolden.

The continued delays have now resulted in MAF’s management losing patience, as August 26 was set as the date for all of the remaining workforce – a key SLS skill set – to be released.

In effect, those opposed to SLS – such as the architects of the FY2011 plan – only need to delay another month before they can cite the “difficulties and costs” of having to rehire workers to build a vehicle which could have been announced when the workforce was still in place.

SLS Configuration and Schedule:

The SLS configuration is – as expected –  based around a SD HLV, using “Shuttle” boosters, engines and external tank heritage. However, information – acquired in the new L2 SLS section – has provided the most recent and comprehensive overview on the specifics of what is a core vehicle from the onset.

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Initially, the call was to debut the SLS in 2016. As recently noted, the schedule for the opening flight has moved to December 2017 – although it now has an actual mission.

The mission will be lunar, with SLS-1 lofting Orion (MPCV) on an unmanned mission around the Moon.

Ironically, SpaceX recently noted – during their Falcon Heavy announcement – they are close to such a mission capability, far sooner than 2017.

SLS-1 will debut the vehicle in a 2.5 configuration, utilizing three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) – otherwise known as RS-25Ds, donated by the Shuttle fleet – on an 8.4m diameter “External Tank” core, stretching 212 feet in length, with five segment Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs).

It will also sport a 5m “kick stage” – which sources claim is a man rated version of the Boeing Delta IV upper stage. This stage was also listed as one of the candidates for the Sidemount SD HLV.

Nearly four years will pass before the next SLS launch in August 2021, known as SLS-2, a vehicle which is identical to SLS-1, with the only difference being an element of the mission, which would be a manned trip around the moon in the MPCV, prior to a west coast landing in the Pacific.

Although the manifest is very much “to be decided” – August, 2022 would be the next launch date, with SLS-3 again using the same configuration, as would SLS-4 one year later.

SLS-5, in August 2024, would be the debut of the Cargo SLS, with a new fairing and a vehicle hardware change possible – as the winner of the booster competition would debut with this HLV.

While ATK’s Reusable Solid Rocket Motor (RSRM) boosters may continue, should they win the competition, sources claim a likely switch to an RP-1/LOX booster – although an actual engine for such a booster has not been cited at this time.

Sources note the potential options for the liquid booster engine range from a TR-107, to a cluster of AJ-26-500s, to maybe even SpaceX’s Merlin 2. Based on such a manifest becoming a reality, such options would have well over a decade to provide such an option for the SLS.

SLS-6 – August 2025 – would return to the manned configuration, although no mission other than “exploration” – possibly as part of a Near Earth Object (NEO) mission – has been cited by the information.

SLS-7 – August 2026 – a Cargo SLS launch, would see one change to the vehicle, as the expendable SSME – known as the RS-25E – would be employed on the vehicle, taken over from the exhausted Shuttle SSME stock. Again, three engines would be required, as much as all of the SLS vehicles will be designed to have “space” for five engines.

With the manned and cargo SLS’ taking it in turns for the single mission per year role, SLS-11 – August, 2030 – would be the next change, as the five engine core is filled with the two extra RS-25Es, utilizing the full core power plant.

This configuration’s debut would be a cargo based mission, followed by a crewed mission one year later.

And then, in August of 2032, the evolved SLS is expected to debut (see image left), again based on the same 5xRS-25E driven core, but this time with a full Upper Stage, becoming the 130mt+ HLV. This debut (SLS-13) would be – as expected – based around a cargo mission.

Sources note the Upper Stage for the evolved SLS would utilize three J-2Xs, an engine which was originally set be involved with the since-cancelled Ares vehicles.

Other notes of interest claim the Ares Mobile Launcher (ML) has earned a reprieve, after it was initially claimed it would be cheaper to build a new launch platform, as opposed to carrying out expensive changes to the Fixed Service Structure (FSS) and Launch Mount – both of which were very specifically designed with the Ares I in mind.

The Ares ML – currently parked near the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) – was also going to be hooked up to the Roller Coaster Emergency Egress System (ESS), a massive structure which was to be built in-situ at Pad 39B. However, it is understood that despite a large amount of money being spent on the design phase, this concept has been scrapped and won’t return for the SLS.

Other efforts, such as the modifications and long-term life extension of at least one of the Crawler Transporters (CTs) to provide the ride for the SLS to the pad, are continuing.

As noted at the start of the article, sources have noted this schedule is preliminary, based on a poor funding forecast – a “worst case scenario” manifest, although no one was able to provide even a draft version of an improved schedule.

(Images: Via L2 content, driven by L2′s new SLS specific L2 section, which includes, presentations, videos, graphics and internal updates on the SLS and HLV.

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