Industry leaders claim SLS capability could create new missions

by Chris Bergin

Leaders of several major space industry companies have claimed that the unrivalled capability of the Space Launch System (SLS) may create a demand for additional missions, that will in turn increase the flight rate. Speaking at the 6th Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium, a heavyweight panel of experts spoke of their optimism that SLS may launch up to twice per year.

SLS Flight Rate:

SLS will debut in 2017 – a date created due to political language to support a potential switch to a contingency crew resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) – on what is known as Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1), a flight that originally tasked SLS with a validation mission to loft Orion on a trip around the Moon.

Z10This mission has since been placed under a “Change Request” – calling for the replacement of the original Uncrewed “Lunar Flyby Tactical DRM (Design Reference Mission)” with a “Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO) Tactical DRM”, citing the mission would directly aid the new EM-2 asteroid objectives.

EM-2 was changed from a crewed version of the original EM-1 flight – to become part of the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) – earlier this year, all part of President Obama’s vision of getting hands on with an asteroid prior to the middle of the next decade.

However, that is where the officially manifested missions end, leaving SLS – at least in the eyes of the public – as a huge monster rocket, costing billions of dollars and only flying twice in four years.

Z53Additional missions are being planned, with L2 sources noting EM-3 is set to become a long-duration mission to an asteroid located in deep space.

Such a mission would stretch NASA’s understanding on how to complete a long-duration crewed mission ahead of potential missions to Mars in the 2030s.

Also, EM-3 is being planned as the fourth, or fifth – pending the requirement of additional supporting hardware having to be launched first – SLS mission, along with the first use of the upgraded 105mT SLS Block 1A or B.

While the gap between EM-1 and EM-2 is – by nature of the law to support the ISS – a gap that is unlikely to change, the current drive is to fill out the manifest in the 2020s.

The question about how the manifest could be beefed up was raised at the Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium on Tuesday, aimed at a panel of space industry leaders, most of whom are directly involved in the SLS Program.

Z4“We do need a higher flight rate when the vehicle is ready to go,” noted Charlie Precourt, Vice President & General Manager, Space Launch Division, Aerospace Group, ATK.

“You see these evolving missions that people are asking about and I think we’re going to be able to fly one or two (SLS missions) per year.

“That would see the benefits of a lower fixed cost on one end and more interesting, deep reaching and inspiring missions on the other end, that would motivate us to fly more often.”

One of the main criticisms of the SLS plan relates to the vehicle being developed without its range of missions, or payloads, already in place. However, that was countered by Mark Kinnersley, Director, MPCV ESM Resident Liaison, Astrium North America Inc.

“I’ve been involved in introducing a new launch vehicle and there weren’t any missions for it. But because the vehicle became available we suddenly enabled a multitude of missions. I think these ideas (new missions) will come about as SLS matures.”

Z45Another concern is based on the cost of the launch vehicle placing a stranglehold on funding for the payloads it could launch. However, panel members believe that the capability of SLS may prove to be attractive to science organizations by vastly reducing the mission timescales for scientific exploration.

“One of the things that we forget about is that when you have a capability, people say the payloads are going to be so expensive, where are we going to get the money?” Jim Crocker, Vice President and General Manager, Civil Space, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company noted.

“When you have that capability, you can substitute that capability for expense, or you can get some other advantage. Think about outer planet exploration, (such as) with today’s launch vehicles it can take a decade to get out to the outer planets.

“Imagine the science return with SLS, where we can get there within a few years and how that can accelerate scientific discovery.”

Z84SLS managers have already made attempts to court potential science missions, with L2 notes showing they have been working alongside the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on a notional science mission to the Jupiter moon, Europa. However, this was an exercise, as opposed to the opening plans for an action mission.

SLS managers have also touted missions involving the return of samples from Mars. This too is classed as highly notional.

However, the panel members believe there are a number of possibilities, with claims the payloads could be less expensive if launched on the multi-billion dollar HLV.

“We don’t know what we’re going to find in science, but we do know that if you find it sooner, you get a much higher science return for your investment,” added Mr. Crocker. “We’ve looked at other low cost innovative ways for science payloads that could be much less expensive than if you had them on a smaller rocket.”

Z45Citing how the previous monster rocket in NASA’s stable, the Saturn V, was capable of lofting Skylab into orbit in one launch, Mr. Crocker believes the huge capability of SLS will open up new possibilities.

“Someone reminded me that up until the last two modules were put up on the ISS (via Shuttle), Skylab had more crew volume. Skylab was done with one Saturn V. Sometimes it requires re-thinking of what you’re doing.”

The panel also touched upon how they are streamlining their processing and manufacturing capabilities for SLS, in order to drive down the costs and increase the value of their responsibilities (or contracts) with the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV).

A3171“For SLS, we’re doing the entire booster. not just the motors,” noted former Shuttle commander, Mr. Precourt.

“If you recall from Shuttle, the United Space Alliance (USA) did the Aft Skirt, Trust Vector Control (TVC), Frustum and Avionics. We’re doing all of that now, for less than one third of the workforce that we used for the motors in the past.”

The streamlining also relates to SLS’ primary payload, the Orion spacecraft, with contractor Lockheed Martin adding they have already practised processing flows via simulation work inside the Collaborative Human Immersive Lab (CHIL) in Denver, ahead of implementing them at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

Z312“With the Orion vehicle, it’s designed to re-fly, to be refurbished,” added Mr. Crocker. “A lot of attention was paid to processing, so that we could do that quickly and efficiently in the O&C.”

The O&C (otherwise known as the Operations & Checkout Building) will be the equivalent of the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) for Orion, with the spacecraft set to be processed inside the refurbished building before and after its missions.

The first Orion, set to fly in one year’s time, is currently being prepared for its Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1) mission. SLS remains on track for its 2017 debut, with around five months of margin.

(Images: Via L2 content from L2’s SLS specific L2 section, which includes, presentations, videos, graphics and internal – interactive with actual SLS engineers – updates on the SLS and HLV, available on no other site. Other images via NASA, Boeing and ATK)

(L2 is – as it has been for the past several years – providing full exclusive SLS and Exploration Planning coverage.  To join L2, click here:

*Don’t forget to tweet and share this article by using the options below*

Related Articles