Space Industry press forward with exploration hardware development

by Chris Bergin

The multi-center, multi-partner effort is continuing to piece together the key hardware elements that will return NASA to deep space exploration. Recent progress has been made on items such as Orion’s Launch Abort System (LAS) and the design phase for the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) spacecraft.

SLS and Orion:

The main focus continues to be the construction of the monster Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion crew capsule.

Both are making good progress towards their debut joint mission in 2018, known as Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1).

Although that mission is an uncrewed test flight, it will pave the way for NASA astronauts to board the Orion on the EM-2 flight that will return the agency to human exploration of deep space, on a path that is designed to eventually send crews to Mars.

The entire program is at the mercy of political funding, which continues to cast a large shadow over the viability of what remain notional goals.

However, tangible signs of progress can be found on a weekly basis.

Two such examples have recently been noted, such as the early development phase towards a mission that will enable the capture of an asteroid boulder for a hands-on examination by astronauts launching on SLS and Orion in the mid 2020s.


Known as the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM), a robotic spacecraft will visit a large near-Earth asteroid, collect a multi-ton boulder from its surface, and use it in an enhanced gravity tractor asteroid deflection demonstration.

2016-02-29-183122The spacecraft will then redirect the multi-ton boulder into a stable orbit around the moon, where astronauts will explore it and return with samples in the mid-2020s. 

Space Systems Loral (SSL) announced it has received a contract from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to conduct first phase design studies for the spacecraft.

Its design will be based on its commercial geostationary (GEO) satellite bus. There are currently 80 SSL GEO spacecraft on orbit today.

“SSL is pleased to have this opportunity to work with JPL on the Asteroid Redirect Mission,” noted John Celli, president of SSL.

2016-02-29-183202“We look forward to applying our proven technologies, including our very successful experience delivering high power satellites with electric propulsion systems for our commercial GEO customers, to help JPL reduce risks and meet the cost target for this exciting mission.”

The ARRM will also demonstrate the use of a solar electric propulsion based spacecraft to move and maneuver large payloads, including a boulder of up to 20 tons, as a proving ground for future human spaceflight to Mars.

SSL is one of four companies that received contracts from JPL for design studies for the spacecraft for this mission.


Long-time NASA partner, Orbital ATK, also noted a milestone for the development of the Launch Abort System (LAS) that will top the SLS/Orion stack, primarily during crewed launches.

2016-02-29-183247According to the Integrated Mission Milestone Summary and associated L2 flow schedule information for EM-1 from the Exploration Systems Development (ESD) office, fabrication of the Launch Abort System (LAS) and ogive began in October 2015.

This has since been followed by the company noting it has conducted a successful structural qualification test on its abort motor case.

The test of the Motor Structural Test (MST-1) case represents a milestone on the path to qualifying the abort motor production design. Motor qualification tests demonstrate the abort motor design is capable of performing under the extreme temperatures, G-forces and speed of a crew rescue.

2016-02-29-183334“We are proud to be a vital part of Orion’s Launch Abort System,” noted Fred Brasfield, Vice President of NASA Programs for Orbital ATK. “This unique abort system safety feature is similar to an ejection seat found in a fighter jet. If an emergency were to arise at the pad, or during launch and ascent, the abort system would lift the capsule and crew safely away from the rocket.”

Orbital ATK manufactured and tested the composite MST-1 case at its facility in Clearfield, Utah. After fabrication and acceptance testing, the company transfers its abort motor cases to its Magna, Utah, facility for propellant casting and assembly.

During the MST-1 qualification test, the case withstood axial tension and compression loads in excess of a half-million pounds, as well as simultaneous side loads. This test load application exceeds the loads that would be applied to the case during a launch abort scenario.

2015-11-11-152338MST-1 is one in a series of full-scale structural qualification tests. Next in the series is Case Test (CT-1), which will be performed by the second quarter of 2016.

The CT-1 tests include a pre-test hydrostatic acceptance test, life cycle tests with axial loads and internal pressure, a pressurized qualification test with axial and side loads, and a post-test acceptance test.

Other notable milestones for the LAS include the build-up of the Jettison Motor (JM), followed by the start of production on the Attitude Control Motor (ACM) mass simulator in March 2016.

Construction of the Abort Motor (AM) mass simulator will follow in September 2016 as well.

After more than a year and a half of production, the JM will be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in May 2017.

This will be followed by the deliveries of the ACM mass simulator to KSC in August 2017 and of the AM mass simulator to KSC in October 2017.

Finally, the LAS and ogive itself will be delivered to the Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) at KSC in February 2018.

Once at KSC,  it will be mated with the Orion stack, following a path conducted during the EFT-1 mission that used an inert LAS.

(Images: Via Orbital ATK, NASA and L2 – including SLS renders from L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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