Apollo heroes support SLS, but demand inspiration and goals

by Chris Bergin

As the Space Launch System (SLS) continues to push on – with the latest stage being the release of the acquisition overview – NASA’s recent official announcement of the new launch vehicle has been warmly received by the first and last men to walk on the Moon. However, both Neil Armstrong and Captain Gene Cernan remain concerned by the lack of goals and destinations.

SLS Acquisition Overview:

No surprises were found in the overview, with the SLS listing the heritage of Shuttle and Constellation hardware, despite NASA public release noting this is “an entirely new advanced, heavy-lift launch vehicle”.

“The SLS will incorporate technological investments from the Space Shuttle Program and the Constellation Program in order to take advantage of proven hardware and cutting-edge tooling and manufacturing technology that will significantly reduce development and operations costs,” noted the acquisition overview.

“It will consist of Core and Upper Stages with common avionics. It will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, which will include the RS-25D engine from the Space Shuttle Program for the Core Stage and the J-2X engine for the Upper Stage.

“SLS also will use dual solid rocket boosters for the initial development flights, while follow-on boosters will be obtained through competition based on performance and interface requirements. The SLS will have an initial lift capacity of 70 metric tons, or more than 154,000 pounds. The lift capacity will be evolvable to 130 metric tons, or more than 286,000 pounds. The first developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017.”

The overview also noted the opening flights – as expected – will be via the five segment Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), as much as their role for the long term will be dependant on ATK winning through the upcoming competition for the role with what the overview calls “Advanced Boosters”.

(Image taken from the amazing 220mb DM-2 Five Seg Motor Ground Test Video – available in L2).

“Boosters: Utilization of the five segment Ares First Stage Boosters under the existing contract for the initial flights, the first of which is targeted for the end of 2017. Advanced Boosters – to be utilized for missions beyond the initial flights.

“The Agency will not specify solutions (i.e. liquid or solid propulsion may be proposed), but will instead solicit solutions to meet performance and interface requirements. A risk reduction solicitation will be issued later this calendar year to improve the competitiveness of competing propulsion technologies and business cases before work begins on the actual Design, Development, Test and Evaluation (DDT&E) of the final booster configuration.

“DDT&E will be solicited in the 2013-2014 timeframe after results are received from the risk reduction effort.”

The most notable part of the overview was the language – which shows the wind change within the Agency’s leadership since the announcement was all-but forced out of them by actions from key Senators, who simply ran out of patience with the continued delays to moving forward with SLS.

“The Space Launch System will give the nation a safe, affordable and sustainable means of reaching beyond our current limits and opening up new discoveries from the unique vantage point of space. The specific architecture was selected after careful analysis of the combination of technologies that would most effectively meet the SLS capability requirements.

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“The SLS vehicle procurements will be structured to meet the Agency’s requirement for an affordable and evolvable vehicle within a schedule that supports various mission requirements.”

Such wording may fall flat on deaf ears for those who are advocating against the need Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) – some of which is based on the history of NASA and long term vehicle projects – not least the cancelled-Constellation Program (CxP), but it does show a massive difference to the wording of the negative preliminary SLS report to lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the Program Requirements Control Board (PRCB) met again on Thursday to further refine the hardware retention effort, which involves the donation of orbiter Main Propulsion System (MPS) hardware to SLS – presentations available on L2.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, agency procurement officials, and SLS Program managers will also meet with contractors and small-business entrepreneurs on September 29 for the SLS Industry Day at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration in Huntsville.

NASA will brief industry representatives on the agency’s acquisition strategy for the Space Launch System program and provide an overview of the program, its organization and specific vehicle requirements.

Apollo Astronauts at Hearing:

Two famous supporters of the Constellation Program were in Washington DC on Thursday to discuss “NASA Human Spaceflight Past, Present, and Future: Where Do We Go From Here?” in front of a full committee hearing. They were also joined by former NASA administrator Dr. Michael Griffin and Dr. Maria Zuber from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and principal investigator for the GRAIL mission.

As expected, Captain Cernan did not hide his frustrations with the delays employed against pushing forward with the SLS, whilst citing his pleasure this “delaying tactic” has since been removed.

“Until this past week, NASA had continued to disregard, ignore, and flaunt the law and the mandate of the Congress while continuing to pursue its own agenda of disabling our nation’s space program. It had become obvious that NASA as directed by the Administration has had no interest in following the law and the mandate of Congress in the development of a heavy lift launch vehicle,” noted the Apollo 17 Commander.

“It is only now after mandates, requests, investigations, a subpoena, and a stinging rebuke of the Administration by two very prominent Senators, that NASA has retreated on its delaying tactics to move forward with the development of a Space Launch System (SLS). This is certainly good news forced upon the Administration by concerned and wiser members of Congress.”

Captain Cernan’s opinion – which also included heavy praise for the Space Shuttle – to the point he called for a reversal on the retirement decision (a later article will focus on this), something he had previously supported during an interview with this site in 2008.

Captain Cernan also found support from Mr Armstrong, as the Apollo heroes thanked lawmakers for modifying the unpopular FY2011 budget proposal.

“The past year has been frustrating to NASA observers, as they tried to understand NASA’s plans and progress. The NASA leadership enthusiastically assured the American people that the agency was embarking on an exciting new age of discovery in the cosmos,” added the Apollo 11 Commander.

“But the realities of the termination of the Shuttle program, the cancellation of existing rocket launcher and spacecraft programs, the layoffs of thousands of aerospace workers, and the outlook for American space activity throughout the next decade were difficult to reconcile with the agency assertions.

“You were instrumental in modifying the administration’s proposed five year study of a heavy lift rocket to the immediate initiation of its design and construction (2010 Authorization Act). And you observed the metamorphosis of the cancelled Orion first into a Crew Rescue vehicle and thereafter into the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion).”

However, the problem remains of avoiding what has been described as a “rocket to nowhere” – given the lack of a clear mission architecture, other than notional missions to asteroids and Mars.

“So, much has been accomplished. But NASA, hobbled by cumbrous limitations, has been unable to articulate a master plan that excites the imagination and provides a semblance of predictability to the aerospace industry,” added Mr Armstrong.

“The key to the success of American investment in space exploration is a clearly articulated plan and strategy supported by the Administration and the Congress and implemented with all the consistency that the vagaries of the budget will allow. Such a program will motivate the young toward excellence, support a vital industry, and earn the respect of the world.”

Mission design work is already under way, lead by former Space Shuttle Program manager John Shannon, with latest L2 meeting notes citing a “New Think-Tank Exercise going well:  a short-term task, leading to longer term Exploration strategy.”

Meanwhile, inspiring the young – in a climate where Captain Cernan is of the opinion the United States has given up its leadership in space – was heavily noted throughout his testimony to lawmakers.

“Today we are on a path of decay. We are seeing the book closed on five decades of accomplishments as the world’s leading space-faring nation. As unimaginable as it seems, we have now come full circle and ceded our leadership role in space back to the same country, albeit with a different name, that spurred our challenge five decades ago.

“My immediate concerns are the deterioration of our technological base, the lack of stability of the NASA budget when considering the present state of the economy, the absence of the Administration’s commitment to cooperate with Congress and forge an ambitious program, the question of continued bi-partisan Congressional support, and perhaps the most important risk with lasting effect, is the loss and dismemberment of our skilled workforce.

“As a result of these factors, uncertainty and instability abound. Among the thousands of highly educated workers with unique skills developed over generations, once we lose the older, wiser, mature and experienced folks to retirement, who spent in some cases over five decades learning “what they didn’t know they didn’t know,” along with those inspired and enthusiastic young minds of today’s generation to other endeavours, inertia takes hold of the downward trend and it is difficult, costly and near impossible to reverse.

“And those young high school and college students whose dreams were to take their generation back to the moon and beyond are now questioning their plans to seek studies in science, engineering and math in the future. And for those fortunate few still at work within NASA or its contracting team, without a goal or mission, their future is bleak.”

The solution – according to the Captain – is to provide a long term goal, something to reach for, to the point he is not concerned about specific dates.

Interestingly, both Captain Cernan and Mr Armstrong stressed the importance of SLS becoming a back up to a commercial program they appear to be sceptical of, to the point an interim SLS could be made available sooner for ISS and LEO access. However, the long term goals of exploration unsurprisingly focused on a roadmap which included the Moon.

“Although it is the intent that the “full up” SLS give us the capability of designing a variable set of missions, I firmly believe that the time for a well thought out long term initiative for our nation’s roll in space, with or without the SLS System, is long overdue,” added Captain Cernan.

“The “Mission to Somewhere” logically points to the moon, thereby building the foundation for a voyage to Mars. Unfortunately, it might well be a generation or more before the U.S. once again exerts its influence in Space Exploration beyond Earth orbit.

“Nevertheless, since we have apparently  decided to relegate the final Shuttle to a place in history, it becomes even more imperative that we move forward quickly and confidently on a LEO derivative of the SLS that can satisfy our urgent near-term requirements to access low Earth orbit.

“We are at a cross road. If we abdicate our leadership in space today, not only is human spaceflight and space exploration at risk, but I believe the future of this country and thus the future of our children and grandchildren as well. Now is the time for wiser heads in the Congress of the United States to prevail.

“Now is the time to overrule this Administration’s pledge to mediocrity. Now is the time to be bold, innovative and wise in how we invest in the future of America. Now is the time to re-establish our nation’s commitment to excellence.”

“It’s not about space – it’s about the country.”

Further articles based on comments made at the hearing will be published in the coming days.

(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. Other images via NASA and the Hearing Webcast.)

(L2 is – as it has been for the past several years – providing full exclusive SLS coverage, available no where else on the internet. To join L2, click here: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)

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