NASA preparing letter to Congress to explain EM-1 slip

by Philip Sloss

As NASA’s Exploration Systems Development (ESD) prepares for the upcoming review of its plans for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), program management is preparing to formally notify Congress of the delay from late 2018 while continuing work to refine a new target launch date sometime in 2019.

Mission Integration Review:

The three-day long Mission Integration Review (MIR) planned for the coming days will look at the progress of preparations to launch and fly EM-1.

The EM-1 review is scheduled for June 27-29.

“We’re basically going through all the integrated products and plans and training certifications and so forth to make sure we’re on the road correctly to get to a launch,” noted ESD Deputy Associate Administrator Bill Hill said in an interview with at the recent Orion Launch Abort System (LAS) abort motor test in Utah.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do before we get there and so in one three-day setting we’ll go through everything and basically see if we’re ready to keep going.”

The MIR will be an “Enterprise-level checkpoint providing the Programs and ESD with an overall view of the progress of preparations for EM-1, ensuring common expectations and understanding of each Program’s plans, priorities, dependencies, and risk areas,” according to L2 notes.

While the three ESD programs, Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO), Orion, and Space Launch System (SLS), are working on flight and ground hardware development for the EM-1 launch, this review is more focused on parallel preparations to successfully support and execute the planned three-week uncrewed mission to lunar orbit and back and recover the Orion crew module after the planned end-of-mission splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

“[The review is] more from an integrated [point of view] — the trajectories, the launch windows — it’s more mission oriented,” Hill explained.

Plans for the EM-1 mission are for the SLS to place Orion on a trans-lunar trajectory; the spacecraft will then fire its engines to put itself into a distant retrograde orbit (DRO) around the Moon and then later leave lunar orbit and return to Earth.

The ESD programs will have a period of a week to a week and a half each month when they can launch.  “It goes anywhere from about seven days to about twelve, depending on where you are [on the calendar].”

On a given day in the launch period, the launch window will be up to about two hours long.  The time of day of the launch window will also vary, and Hill said that daylight is more important for landing and recovery operations.  “Daylight launch is highly desirable, but it’s not mandatory,” he explained.

“Having a lit landing and being able to recover [the crew module] in daylight for two hours after landing, we consider mandatory.  So we’ll adjust our trajectory, we’ll adjust our burns so we can land in daylight.

“We will try our best to launch [in daylight] but there’s only a few months out of the year where you get enough daylight, both in the early morning and late at night — and of course we’re looking at two different coasts here.  There’s only about three or four months where we could possibly get both.  We’re going to trade one against the other.”

As the launch date nears, the launch team at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the flight control team at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, along with support from centers around the country, will participate in simulations of the countdown, launch, and different phases of the EM-1 mission, both independently and together.

Training exercises such as simulations will prepare the different operations teams to certify that they are ready to oversee all aspects of the launch and mission and are prepared to handle off-nominal situations and adjust plans accordingly.

EM-1 will be the first time the mostly independent programs launch and fly together and the software being developed to support launch and mission operations on the ground and on the vehicles must also be ready.

Hill explained that the MIR will review work to prepare to run those rehearsals.

“We’ll go through all the launch certifications and everything like that — all the [launch and mission] training, all the launch preparations,” he said.

“The flight director [and] the launch director participate, taking a look at whether all of our software products are ready to go.  ‘Do we have enough simulation activities in work?’ [Referring to] simulations to support the training activities.  So that’s kind of what it does.  We had it scheduled to do 18 months before the launch, we think that’s a good time to do it to give us time to correct things if we don’t have it all in place.”

The L2 notes also stated that in preparation for the review, a ‘dry-run’ rehearsal was conducted on May 31 and June 1.

Launch date re-planning:

Management for the three ESD programs and at the ESD level are also continuing evaluations of work schedules to refine the EM-1 launch date.

The most recent date for “integrated readiness” of all three programs was between September and November of 2018, but issues with all three programs separately and with integrating hardware and software between them have pushed estimates for launch out into 2019.

L2 notes say that currently the areas most critical to the schedule are the SLS Core Stage, Orion’s European Service Module (ESM), construction and activation of GSDO’s Mobile Launcher, and software development across the board.

The Core Stage has had propellant tank welding issues and work impacts from damage by a February tornado.  Shipment of the first flight model ESM from Bremen, Germany, to the Kennedy Space Center has been delayed from early this year until likely the end of this year or early next.  L2 information has indicated additional structural work for the Mobile Launcher may be necessary to work into the schedule.

SLS and Orion flight software and ground systems software are all in development, but must be integrated to work together, which requires different levels of coordination of areas like vehicle development, definition of operational maintenance requirements and specifications, and definition of launch commit criteria.

The most recent periodic agency program management meeting was last week, where re-planning the launch date was among the topics discussed.  “We did have an agency program management council on Monday (June 12), Robert Lightfoot chaired it,” Hill noted.  Mr. Lightfoot is the acting NASA administrator.

“We basically came to them and told them that we’re going to be in ’19 somewhere,” Hill continued.  “We have a notification requirement to Congress that is based on the 2005 [NASA] Authorization Act, it’s [in] section 103.

“We will be sending a notification to Congress.  We will come back in late summer and define further with the agency what our launch date might be and continue to work toward that.”

Section 103 of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act (Public Law 109-155) requires written notification from within the agency to the NASA administrator and then separately after that from the administrator to Congress for significant cost or schedule overruns of major programs.  In the case of a delay, the law specifies notification is required if “a milestone of the program is likely to be delayed by 6 months or more from the date provided for it in the Baseline Report of the program.”

By this measure, the readiness period would seemingly be pushed out to at earliest the second quarter of 2019, but L2 notes have indicated EM-1 launch date estimates in the third or fourth quarter.

The notification requirement in the Authorization Act appears to be to indicate the six-months-or-more milestone delay, so as Mr. Hill noted, a specific date may not be a part of that formal notification.

Government Accounting Office (GAO) report 17-414 released in late April found that a delay of the 2018 launch date was likely and recommended proposing a new launch date.

Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, concurred with the recommendation and estimated that work to re-assess the date would be complete by the end of September, which is consistent with continuing to monitor progress in the three programs for the summer.

(Images: NASA and L2. Additional renders by 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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