SLS mission schedule improving – Crewed Moon mission moving to 2019

by Chris Bergin

With all cylinders now firing on NASA’s exploration planning effort, the development and early mission schedule for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion are starting to fall into place, with dramatic improvements being worked for NASA’s opening crewed Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) mission with the Orion (MPCV), which is moving to the left by two years.

SLS Missions:

Only one long term manifest for the SLS had been listed in recent months, showing the debut of the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) in 2017 – an unmanned mission around the moon – prior to a four year gap until the crewed version was to be launched.

That manifest showed that it would take until SLS-13 for the debut of the fully evolved 130mt version of the SLS, scheduled for 2032.

The schedule was rightly criticized. However, it was always represented as a worst case scenario manifest – not least because the full mission outline for the SLS launches was yet to be created. This work is currently ongoing under the leadership of former Space Shuttle Program (SSP) manager John Shannon.

The expected realization of an improved manifest is now starting to be fulfilled, just weeks after the SLS was officially announced, in turn allowing for a full test plan effort to be worked.

SLS-1, a 70mt version of the SLS, is still expected to debut in 2017, with a “crew capable” Orion (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle) being sent on a test trip around the Moon. The 2021 debut of SLS/Orion for the crewed version of this mission is now being pushed to the left by two years, with a launch date of 2019.

The news came via notes associated with a meeting between SLS and Orion managers, which discussed the upcoming Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) process, in turn providing “high level guidance” to schedule planning.

“MOD (Mission Operations Directorate) is to prepare a bottoms up budget for an 2017 un-crewed circum lunar mission. MPCV (Orion) wants that vehicle to be crew capable. Additionally MPCV wants to pull the proposed 2021 manned mission to the left to 2019,” added the notes on L2, dated September 26. “MOD is also to prepare a budget for a 2019 crewed High Lunar Orbit mission.”

This realigned schedule effort slips the Orion Flight Test (OFT-1) – involving the MPCV being sent on a multi-orbit mission around the Earth via a Delta IV-H – to December, 2013. This slip of around six months had been expected for some time, and the test may yet slip into 2014.

The AA2 test – which involves an unmanned ascent abort test of Orion at MaxQ velocities – will follow the OFT-1 mission, although no date has yet been listed.

“The (new) schedule is OFT-1, Dec 2013. AA2 following that mission, then the 2017 and 2019 flight. Guidance from (managers) will be forth coming, as there is open work on procedure, displays, training, etc to support the purposed schedule.”

Unlike the Constellation Program (CxP) – which appeared to start with an unsustainable schedule, prior to almost yearly slips being noted during Program Milestone Reviews (PMRs) – sources note that all SLS mission schedules are being worked with large amounts of margin.

It has been noted that the crewed mission around the moon may even be advanced to 2018, one year after the debut SLS-1 launch, should funding projections remain stable over the coming years. Even with the two year advance to SLS-2, the downstream manifest is expected to improve to the point the evolved SLS may be ready “many years” ahead of the previous schedule.

However, no official notes – which would counter the long-term worst case scenario from SLS-3 onwards – have been published at this time.

SLS Development:

Although teams at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) had already moved from the study phase into the development phase, prior to the official SLS announcement – known as the RAC (Requirements Analysis Cycle) and DAC (Design Analysis Cycle) efforts, with a System Requirements Review (SRR)/Checkpoint Review later this month – there continues to be a notable increase of activity within the SLS related community.

At a public level, NASA leaders met with space flight companies on Thursday in what was known as the SLS industry day – used to discuss acquisition plans for NASA’s new flagship launch vehicle.

The meeting involved hundreds of representatives of aerospace industry companies, small businesses and independent entrepreneurs, hosted at MSFC, providing industry with an overview of the SLS Program and defined its near-term business requirements, including details of NASA’s acquisition strategy for procurement of critical hardware, systems and vehicle elements.

“We’re proud to be where we are today,” noted Marshall Center Director Robert Lightfoot, who used the opportunity to remind people just how much effort went into what turned out to be many, many months of seemingly endless trade studies into the SLS configuration.

“We’ve done the due diligence necessary to get to this point – thousands of configuration trades and studies – and now it’s time for us to start working on the hardware.”

Mr Lightfoot’s “time to start working on hardware” comment appeared to point to earlier comments he made about his frustration with the fallout during the FY2011 budget proposal and post Authorization Act timeframe.

At that time the MSFC leader intimated they had no need to go through yet another study, that they had the vehicle design, and that it was time to start building it – only to be put through several more months of studies, which resulted in the pre-FY2011 winning design of a Shuttle Derived (SD) HLV.

Delayed yet again by a decision to put the vehicle through a cost study, and then only announced days after the estimates had been reviewed, following pressure from several Senators, NASA’s administrator, Charlie Bolden, and deputy administrator, Lori Garver, often took the brunt of the accusations relating to “stalling tactics” – as much as it’s their job to follow orders from their political paymasters.

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Ironically, with SLS now officially announced, Ms Garver is now full of praise for the monster rocket.

“This is a milestone moment for NASA, for our industry partners and for our economy,” noted the Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. “We at NASA have worked hard the past year to analyse and select our Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and space launch systems designs.

“The SLS heavy-lift rocket will take American astronauts farther into space than any human has ever gone before. It will expand our knowledge of the universe, reap benefits to improve life on Earth, inspire millions around the world and create good jobs right here at home.”

Importantly, signs of progress at a program and engineering level are being seen, with an updated SLS presentation acquired by L2 this week, showing both MOD working their involvement into the program, whilst a proposed refinement of the SLS configuration was also shown for the first time (article upcoming).

This “trade study” effort is a natural element of the development drive, although it is encouraging that such changes are being made very early in the post-announcement timeframe, as opposed to Constellation’s continual design changes years into the program, which played a major role in causing delays to the overall 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. Other images via NASA.)

(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:

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