SSME family prepare for SLS core stage role following Shuttle success

by Chris Bergin

NASA’s 15 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) are being transported to the Stennis Space Center (SSC), as they transition towards their future role with the Space Launch System (SLS). The highly reliable RS-25Ds – nine of which flew with the last three Space Shuttle missions – will eventually be succeeded by the expendable RS-25E, early into the SLS’ lifetime.

SSMEs Shipping Out:

The change of home from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to NASA’s Stennis Space Center (SSC) in south Mississippi is a natural transition for the 15 engines, not least because the SSMEs underwent testing at Stennis ahead of their flight roles with the orbiters.

However, it’s their future role of becoming part of the SLS test program which has breathed new life into the famous engines, some of which will actually gain the honor of going out in style, launching one last time with the SLS during the first few missions.

Their transition from KSC will take place one engine at a time, as they travel to Mississippi by truck. Once at SSC, the SSMEs will join SLS’ Upper Stage J-2X engine – which is being tested at the facility – allowing for all SLS engine assets to be in one location, leveraging the existing knowledge base, skills, infrastructure and personnel.

“The relocation of RS-25D engine assets represents a significant cost savings to the SLS Program by consolidating SLS engine assembly and test operations at a single facility,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

The relocation also frees up the Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility at KSC, which became part of a commercial deal with Boeing – in collaboration with NASA and Space Florida – to being exclusively occupied  by the company, along with Orbiter Processing Facility 3 (OPF-3) and the Processing Control Center, as they ramp up operations for their CST-100 spacecraft.

“This enables the sharing of personnel, resources and practices across all engine projects, allows flexibility and responsiveness to the SLS program, and it is more affordable,” said Johnny Heflin, RS-25D core stage engine lead in the SLS Liquid Engines Office at Marshall.

“It also frees up the space, allowing Kennedy to move forward relative to commercial customers.”

SSME: End Of A Shuttle Era:

The RS-25s have an amazing flight record with the Space Shuttle – with only one engine suffering a problem during the entire 30 years of the program.

*To read about all three orbiters – from birth, processing, every single mission, through to retirement – click here for the links:*

That single issue occurred during STS-51F with Challenger, when one of two high pressure fuel turbopump turbine discharge temperature sensors for SSME-1 failed, leaving only one sensor active on the engine. Two minutes 12 seconds later, at Mission Elapsed Time 5mins 43secs, the second sensor failed, triggering the immediate shutdown of SSME-1.

The shutdown of SSME-1 significantly lowered the thrust profile for Challenger and triggered the only in-flight abort in Shuttle Program history: an Abort To Orbit (ATO) which allowed Challenger and her seven-member crew to reach a lower-than-planned but safe and stable orbit.

Nonetheless, before Challenger could complete her prolonged ascent (nearly 9mins 45secs in duration due to the lost thrust from SSME-1), an identical high pressure turbopump temperature sensor failure occurred in SSME-2.

Booster Systems Engineer Jenny M. Howard in Mission Control Houston acted immediately, instructing the crew to inhibit any further automatic SSME shutdowns based on readings from the remaining sensors. This quick action prevented the loss of another engine and a possible abort scenario far more risky or far worse than the already in-progress ATO.

When Challenger finally reached orbit, several aspects of the mission were retooled to account for the lower-than-planned orbital altitude.

Click here to read recent articles on the SSMEs:

As per the In Flight Anomaly (IFA) reports for the final three missions, all nine of the SSMEs performed admirably, as they assisted the orbiters for the ride uphill into orbit.

For STS-133, all three of Discovery’s SSMEs last flew with Atlantis during STS-129, although in different positions – after they required removing and re-installing in different positions, in order to allow a changeout of ME-1′s Low Pressure Oxidizer Turbo Pump (LPOTP) early in the flow.

Discovery flew with Main Engine 1 (ME-1) – serial number 2044, ME-2 – 2048 and ME-3 – 2058. All their related hardware was the same as that which flew with Atlantis, bar a couple of elements, such as a new nozzle for ME-1.

The only notable issue with the SSMEs occurred pre-launch, relating to a power issue with the redundant Main Engine Controller (MEC) on SSME 3.

The SSME controllers provides complete and continuous monitoring and control of engine operation. In addition, it performs maintenance and start preparation checks, and collects data for historical and maintenance purposes.

STS-133 Specific – Including ET Stringer Issue – Articles:

The controller is an electronic package that contains five major sections; power supply section, input electronics section, output electronics sections, computer interface section, and digital computer unit.

Pressure, temperature, pump speed, flowrate, and position sensors supply the input signals. Output signals operate spark igniters, solenoid valves, and hydraulic actuators. The controller is dual redundant, which gives it normal, fail-operate, and fail-safe operational mode capability. The problem was specific to the redundant controller on ME-3.

Actions taken during troubleshooting included the installation of a breakout box and the testing of three single phase circuit breakers for SSMEC 3B on Panel L4. Although this inspection was limited by access, engineers pro-actively replaced all 18 SSMEC circuit breakers at the recommendation of management.

The problem soon became clear when CB 109 was inspected, with a clear observation of non-conductive debris on the hardware, a key candidate for the original problem seen with SSME 3’s redundant MEC.

After the troubleshooting was signed off at the Flight Readiness Review (FRR), all three engines – and controllers – performed without issue during ascent.

“Engine operation was nominal. ME-1 2044, ME-2 2048, ME-3 2058 – No SSME IFA Identified,” noted the STS-133 SSME IFA presentation (L2 Link to Presentation). “SSME observations are encompassed by previous flight and/or test experience and identified as no impact.

For STS-134, Endeavour’s ride into orbit was aided by a noisy trio that were no stranger to the aft of the youngest orbiter in the fleet, after pushing her uphill during STS-130.

The engines were installed for one final trip with Endeavour in the following positions on the orbiter: ME-1 – 2059, ME-2 – 2061, while 2057 was ME-3.

Only one item of interest made it into the FRR documentation for the SSMEs ahead of STS-134’s mission, referencing the incident when an ELSA (Life Support) bottle fell from the entrance level near the 50-2 door and hit Main Engine 2 (ME-2) during Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) processing operations.

“STS-134 Endeavour ME 2 ELSA Bottle Damage Inspections: Issue: Possible handling damage to ME-2. Background: ELSA Bottle dropped from above ME-2 to heat shield adjacent to controller during VAB processing. Damage observed above and adjacent to engine,” noted the STS-134 SSME SSP FRR presentation (L2 Link to Presentation).

“Dent in Orbiter GN2 Line. Dent on edge of Heat Shield near ME-2 controller. Witness statements and damage indicate no engine impact. Assessment conducted around 4.5 Ft assuming possible engine contact.”

With this issue cleared, Endeavour launched on her final mission without incident and successfully completed her mission on June 1, 2011.

As what became a regular observation, the 14-15 IFA presentations per mission (all acquired by L2 –  link to presentation collection) reviewing the mission post flight included a very short SSME presentation, noting no anomalies (L2 Link to Presentation).

STS-134 Specific Articles:

For STS-135, Atlantis’ engines were ME-1 – 2047, ME-2 – 2060 and ME-3 – 2045.

Again, the only incident of note came before the engines were fired up at launch, when IPR-49 (Interim Problem Report) noted a problem with the Main Fuel Valve (MFV) on SSME-3, spotted during a tanking test to check the integrity of the modified stringers on the stack’s External Tank (ET-138).

The MFV is a ball valve with a 2.5-inch tubular flow passage and is flange-mounted between the high pressure fuel duct and nozzle diffuser. The valve controls the flow of fuel from the HPFTP (High Pressure Fuel Turbopump) to the coolant circuits and preburners.

The issue – the observation of a leak – was also covered in depth via the STS-135 SSP Flight Readiness Review (FRR) presentation for the SSMEs (L2 Link to Presentation), which covered how the issue was spotted during the Tanking Test, as it breached the Launch Commit Criteria (LCC) limitations.

As a result, the issue would have scrubbed the launch day countdown, showing a bonus side-effect of finding the problem during the Tanking Test.

“Issue: STS-135, ME-3 (2045) Main Fuel Valve (MFV) skin temperatures indicated a MFV leak during the early stages of STS-135 tanking test. Temps violated minimum limit (LCC SSME-02). Tanking test continued with engines isolated from the fuel supply,” noted the FRR presentation.

The reference to the skin temperatures related to sensors mounted to the outside wall of the downstream duct of the MFV to detect leakage during chill. Low temperatures are indicative of a MFV leak. The LCC limits are based on the vast flight experience of the Shuttle Program.

The MFV was replaced out at the pad and put through a series of leak checks. While those passed, the real test came during launch day, when the system was put through the cryogenic environment of tanking. Again, the skilled KSC and SSME engineers were shown to have successfully fixed the problem, as Atlantis launched for the final time without issue.

STS-135 Specific Articles:

Now these stalwart engines – which includes the spare flight set: ME-1 – 2052 ME-2 – 2051 and ME-3 – 2054 – plus three others, are departing KSC once again – this time by road.


Their potential role with the SLS was noted during the final flights of the Shuttle, as the 2010 Authorization Act reversed the FY2011 budget proposal which would not have seen any involvement of the RS-25s.

With a Shuttle Derived (SD) version of the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) consistently winning during trade studies, which once again pointed at a configuration which used RS-25s as the preference, the Program Requirements Control Board (PRCB) took action to protect the engines.

While NASA’s “White House-aligned” leadership continued to avoid pressing forward with the confirmation of the SD HLV SLS configuration, the PRCB stepped in to “preserve the SSME flight engines for future Agency use” (L2 Link to Presentation)- adding to a previous action to slow down the Transition and Retirement (T&R) of the contractor ability to manufacture flight spares for the RS-25s.

The PRCB also provided the approval for the orbiters to gain Replica Shuttle Main Engines (RSMEs) – previously scrapped nozzles installed via an adaptor – for when the vehicles retire to exhibitions, freeing up the flight flown SSMEs.

For SLS/HLV Articles, click here:

With the orbiters also donating large elements of their Main Propulsion System (MPS) – a heavily related collection of plumbing and lines – to the SLS program, a large amount of the HLV’s core guts will be from the orbiters for at least the testing/pathfinder stage, through to the opening launches.

The ongoing trades taking place at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) are also working through the core’s configuration for the three versions of the SLS, namely the Block I – 70mt, the Block IA – 100mt, and the Block II – 130mt vehicles.

Technically, SLS could launch with three, four or five RS-25s from the outset. However, with three engines on the core, and the automatic need for the core to be “stretched” – based on the five segment boosters on the configuration – using four engines would allow the vehicle to fly fully fueled in all configurations, saving the extra calculations/testing for an under-filled three engine core.

Per the meetings – as much as no decision has been made at this time ahead of the key Systems Requirements Review (SRR) and Systems Design Review (SDR) – it appears four engines on the first stage would be best prescribed for the SLS from the start, per sources.

SLS will naturally evolve after the opening flights of the Block I SLS, with SSME contractor Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR) producing RS-25E engines for the rest of the SLS’ lifetime. The RS-25E – based on the reusable SSME (RS-25D) – is expendable and thus requires less long-life hardware items, in turn making it cheaper to produce.
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