With the Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1) launch date now officially set for the end of 2019, Space Launch System (SLS) managers have been sending out memos to the workforce rallying them to protect that latest target. With a “risk informed” date of June 2020 also cited, managers are insisting that will only come to pass if they “do nothing” to mitigate the schedule risk.
SLS Maiden Launch:
NASA’s new flagship rocket has been making good progress during its recent years of development. However, the huge project still has a number of challenges to overcome ahead of its maiden launch.
That first launch, Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1), will be a one-off test flight, sending an uncrewed Orion on a mission around the Moon. The launch will be conducted by a Block 1 SLS.
A large standdown period will then occur prior to the next mission, currently Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2) with the larger Block 1B SLS. As such, NASA is technically working on two rockets via near-parallel paths.
The focus is understandably on EM-1, with hardware currently deep in production and major milestones fast approaching. However, the launch date targets have been under continual pressure via costs and technical challenges, albeit far less than during the Constellation Program (CxP) woes.
Earlier this year it was known that the EM-1 launch date was going to be moved to a NET (No Earlier Than) target of December 2019. However, evaluations also took into account the potential of a future slip deep into 2020. This was known as the “risk-informed” date.
NASA managers were tasked with a full review to provide a firm public – and political – target for the maiden launch, which was always likely to be the more palatable 2019 target. However, in making that date official to the public on Wednesday, managers were transparent by acknowledging the alternative date of June 2020.
“While the review of the possible manufacturing and production schedule risks indicate a launch date of June 2020, the agency is managing to December 2019,” said acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot.
“Since several of the key risks identified have not been actually realized, we are able to put in place mitigation strategies for those risks to protect the December 2019 date.”
Most people working on SLS and Orion were aware of the target dates before the announcement on Wednesday, but the public outing of the changes allowed managers to send out rallying calls to the workforce via a series of memos.
“As you know we have been working closely with the Agency, our sister programs, and our industry partners to determine a new EM-1 schedule. Today, after a thorough review of progress to date and the work that still lies in front of us, Robert Lightfoot established December 2019 as our new target launch date,” wrote one SLS manager at the Kennedy Space Center.
“With just over two years until launch, we have our work cut out for us to finish the development and test of the launch infrastructure that we will use for ground processing and launch of the SLS and Orion. It will take our collective focus to manage our work and meet our commitments to the American people.
“I am so proud of our accomplishments and can tell you that your hard work is recognized and appreciated throughout the agency. The mission, the mandate, and the vision have not changed. I sincerely appreciate each and every one of you and I know that I can count on you!”
The high-ranking Bill Hill, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, was more expansive in his review of the date change, including the potential of EM-1 moving deep into 2020, which he characterized as “worst case”.
“I know we have approximately 4 to 6 months of risk to this schedule and are working daily to mitigate the challenges that comprise that risk. The 4 to 6 months of identified risk is represented in the announcement in terms of the “possible risks” that would result in a June 2020 launch date,” he wrote in his address to the workforce on Wednesday.
“That date should be viewed internally as a ‘worst case’ rather than as a stretched schedule; a date that if we do nothing, might come to pass. However, we are not a do-nothing organization. Working as a team, we will overcome these challenges.
“I believe the December 2019 date is achievable given sufficient attention at all levels of the Team, and I plan to manage to that date with the Agency’s agreement and support.
“I know that everyone on the team has put forth an outstanding effort and will do what is needed to mitigate the known risks and tackle the unknown challenges as they are presented. As always we need to be schedule aware and not totally schedule driven, if circumstances change we will move the date to build a better program.”
Mr. Hill’s memo also pointed out just how many elements are involved and need to come together at the Kennedy Space Center on the schedule path for the maiden launch.
“The Exploration Systems Development NASA, Industry, and International Team, comprising Orion, Space Launch System, Exploration Ground Systems, the European Space Agency providing the Orion Service Module, and Program and Systems Integration and Engineering have collectively made great progress leading to a flight test of the integrated launch vehicle on EM-1,” he added.
“The majority of the elements needed for EM-1 have several months of margin to the needed delivery date to KSC, and some are ready for integration now. These elements should stay on their own delivery dates even if launch moves as this ‘margin’ can be used to mitigate unknown unknowns if they materialize. Actively taking about risk and gain in delivery schedules results in a healthy program.”
Mr. Hill also noted that the review into the new date was based on information gained over the past year, which explains why the late 2019 date has been known internally for some time.
“The decision to manage to a December 2019 target launch date is based on critical, in-depth analyses performed over the last year and is also informed by the risks that we have identified, which we are attacking daily.
“The ‘first-time’ manufacturing challenges we have been presented with throughout the assembly of vehicle elements is the greatest contributing factor to the new launch window. This is no surprise.
“We anticipated that we would have these challenges, we will continue to be presented with more challenges as we complete element assembly. We expect to address these with focus, energy, and innovation as we drive toward the December 2019 date.”
Also referencing the parallel work with the EM-2 mission, Mr. Hill added the importance of remaining vigilant on the attention required for the second mission, due to the launch involving NASA astronauts.
“Some of us have already moved ahead to our next challenge; the manufacturing of EM-2 elements. Vigilance and attention to detail is even more important since EM-2 will be our first flight test mission with crew. I know each of you understand the importance of setting a high bar for job performance in order to take our astronauts further into space than ever before.
“I am proud to lead the ESD Team and even more proud of the accomplishments and contributions that each of you have made. Thank you for your dedication to the mission of extending human presence into deep space.”
While the reviews were focused on the slip to the right, one item has moved up the schedule, namely the Ascent-Abort 2 test.
This test will validate the Launch Abort System (LAS) ability to get the crew to safety if needed during an abort during the ride uphill. The LAS will be active during the EM-2 mission which will involve a crew of four astronauts.
A further status review on the schedule path is expected in the Spring of 2018.
(Images: Via NASA and L2 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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