MAF continues tornado/hurricane recovery while building SLS stages under pandemic restrictions

by Philip Sloss

“[Building] 220 had about 60% of the roof pulled off, and we have gone back with a large, temporary repair. [We’ve] sealed the roof for now ,and we’ve stopped the leaking. But there again, it’s good for one storm, probably. The next high wind is going to pull it back up.”

Although the hurricane last autumn interrupted the long-term recovery from the 2017 tornado, Champion said a lot of those repairs have been completed. Access badge turnstiles and fencing have been replaced, repairs and updates of the Gate 7 entrance damage are complete, hangar doors to Buildings 103 and 303 were repaired and repainted, and the roofs on the smaller office-space Buildings 101 and 102 were replaced.

“A lot of work has been done, a lot of repairs to our external facilities, some of our water treatment facilities, some of our cross-country piping that was damaged by the tornado has been repaired, so we’re nearing the closure on most of our tornado repairs.”

Another permanent facility repair starting is to the roof of Building 103. “One of the things that has happened since the hurricane is we have gotten authority to start replacing the roof, which is really the long-term need that we’ve had,” Champion said.

Building 103 is so expansive that the repairs are being authorized, funded, and executed in overlapping quadrants. The northern half of the building, where most of the SLS hardware and production activity is located, will be first — with Phase 1 on the northwest quadrant beginning soon.

“It’s a [1.8 million square foot] roof, so we’re going to do about 500,000 square feet at one time, which is still a large roof,” Champion said. Each quadrant should take about two years to complete, with each job starting at one-year intervals. So far MAF has the funding for the first three jobs.

When Champion became the director of the facility in 2019, the position was relocated on-site. MAF is a facility managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and in the past the facility director position was also based at Marshall. “Prior to me, all the director positions had been at Marshall, and even when I was a deputy director back in 2010 through 2014, my position was at Marshall and we traveled here a lot,” Champion noted.

“This time around, and with the construction of the SLS and the push to get the vehicle built, they wanted to make sure that the director position was here. And so I moved from Huntsville down to here. It will be a permanent position down here from now on, I’m almost positive.”

“This has worked out well for my management and for the SLS Program,” he added.

Boeing begins to rearrange tooling to optimize factory for future SLS production

The pace of activities is maybe even higher inside the facility, with Boeing’s workforce at Michoud expanding production to cover two Core Stage builds and the start of EUS manufacturing mid-year. Boeing is also starting to implement elements of a multi-year factory optimization plan. The planning for the long-term factory changes is a collaboration between Boeing and the SLS Program.

Structural assembly of the third Core Stage started at the beginning of 2021 with welding of the engine section barrel. The engine section structure is part welded, part bolted; the eight barrel panels were friction-stir welded together in the Vertical Weld Center (VWC) in January.

The barrel was then moved to the Vertical Assembly Center in Building 110 where a structural ring was welded to the top of the structure. That part of the engine section structure is now in Cell G in Building 114 which adjoins Building 110 and 103. The remainder of the structure is being painted with a primer coat; the panels were primed prior to welding, but the ring on top and weld lands needed a coat of the corrosion-protection material.

Credit: NASA/Eric Bordelon.

(Photo Caption: One of the eight barrel panels for the Core Stage-3 engine section waits its turn to be loaded into the Vertical Weld Center at MAF in December 2020. Welding of the barrel panels in the VWC was completed in January 2021, and a structural ring was welded to the top of the barrel in the Vertical Assembly Center in February.)

The next major milestones for the Core Stage-3 engine section will be arrival of the thrust structure at MAF and eventual bolting of the barrel to the thrust structure. Going forward the engine section will typically be the first element to start assembly and production on-site.

“The engine section is the most complex part of the Core Stage, [there are] the miles and miles of tubing runs and wire harness runs,” Ashleigh Caison, Boeing SLS Propulsion Engineer, said. “It just takes longer to build, so to get started on that early really sets us up for success later.”

“We can bring in the rest of those volumes, get those integrated and tested, and be ready with that engine section when everything else is ready.”

Boeing is also getting ready to begin EUS manufacturing in the middle of 2021, and after the Core Stage-3 engine section barrel was removed from the VWC, the weld tool was reconfigured for EUS and related Block 1B structures. The VWC will be busy for a while welding confidence articles for EUS and the Block 1B interstage structure, followed by the structural qualification article for EUS; the next Core Stage barrel weld is not expected until after that EUS work is completed.

For Core Stage-3, NASA is hoping to use an LH2 tank leftover from hardware manufacturing for the first SLS flight. The tank was originally meant to be the Core Stage-1 LH2 flight article; however, it was set aside when issues with the quality of initial VAC welds performed in 2016 were discovered.

Boeing and NASA preserved the tank while researching and developing techniques to repair the weld anomalies; those repairs are being performed on the article in Building 303. If the repaired tank passes subsequent weld verification testing, such as a proof test suite, and meets all requirements, it is expected to be the Core Stage-3 LH2 tank.

NASA purchased a full set of Core Stage material when the third Core Stage was authorized, so plate stock is already at MAF for the next LH2 tank article. If the repaired tank is used for Core Stage-3, that long-lead plate stock would be processed for Core Stage-4.

As EUS and Core Stage-3 manufacturing and assembly work get started at Michoud, preparations for final assembly of Core Stage-2 are also continuing. The top half of the rocket stage will be assembled vertically in Cell D of Building 110, and the first of the upper three major elements was lifted into the stacking cell on March 19.

Credit: NASA/Michael DeMocker.

(Photo Caption: The Core Stage-2 forward skirt is lifted off its integration tooling on February 19. The move was done early to allow the blue tooling to be relocated to another part of Building 103 as an early action of a factory optimization plan. The space vacated by the tooling will be used in the future to build multiple Core Stage engine sections simultaneously; currently only one can be processed and the Core Stage-2 element can be seen in the lower left background within the current engine section integration tooling.)

Now that the CS-2 intertank is set up in the stacking cell, it is essentially ready for the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank to be brought in and mated on top.

Boeing is also beginning early implementation of a long-term factory optimization plan for SLS production. After the Core Stage-2 elements started moving to final assembly, Boeing took the opportunity to relocate more tooling used for integration of the dry elements of the stage.

The tooling to support outfitting of intertank flight articles with wire harnesses, instrumentation, and avionics was moved ahead of the integration phase for Core Stage-2. “We moved the intertank integration from the other end of the facility down here, so this was our first run-through of doing our functional and the sensor/wire-harness runs down here,” Ben Birkenstock, NASA’s Manufacturing and Production Lead for the SLS Stages Office, said. “It’s going to be its future spot.”

The move brought the intertank work areas together, with the integration tooling moving adjacent to the intertank’s structural assembly jig where the thrust beam and the barrel panels are bolted together. Boeing is now doing the same with the forward skirt tooling before that Core Stage-3 element begins its assembly.

“We’re actually going to bring our forward skirt [tooling next to the intertank work area] so that we’ve got our dry structure down here and then what that opens up is we can do more engine section cells at the same time,” Birkenstock noted in late-February. The tooling was relocated in March to the east side of Building 103 near Building 115 from a work area next to where engine section integration work is done.

Reorganizing the work areas is part of a plan to establish a delivery rate of one Core Stage per year. In addition to starting engine sections at the beginning of a particular build and opening up more work space for outfitting multiple engine sections, Boeing and NASA are procuring additional engine section tooling to allow simultaneous production of multiple units.

(Lead image credit: NASA/Jared Lyons.)

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