ALU

SLS

Europa or Enceladus? If NASA switches from SLS to Falcon Heavy, it won’t have to choose

Jupiter’s icy moon Europa (above left in a reprocessed color view made by images taken by NASA’s Galileo
spacecraft in the late 1990) is thought to have a warm ocean shrouded beneath a layer of ice. Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus (shown in cross section above right)
is also believed to have a liquid ocean between its rocky core and icy crust. Credit: NASA

A version of this opinion piece originally appeared in the Oct. 8 issue of SpaceNews as “Europa or Enceladus? Why Choose?”

Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, are very similar worlds. Both distant moons are thought to have warm water oceans shrouded with a layer of ice.

The oceans of Europa and Enceladus are warmed by the tidal forces of their respective planets and may contain lifeforms that have never seen the sky. Therefore, both moons are prime targets for further exploration. Which one we should explore first?

Three main differences exist between Europa and Enceladus. The Cassini space probe, which orbited Enceladus for 13 years, flew through the geysers of water that erupt from underneath the ice layer through fissures. Cassini found evidence of complex organic molecules that could indicate life beneath the surface of Enceladus. Europa has similar geysers, but the evidence of organic molecules is far less certain. Europa is orbiting in the middle of a zone of intense radiation emanating from Jupiter.

Any space probe that spends too much time in that region would quickly find its electronics fried unless it were heavily shielded. Enceladus’ environment is relatively clear of hard radiation. Nevertheless, Europa is the current first target for NASA, with the Europa Clipper due to launch in the early 2020s and a Europa lander to follow a few years later.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), the chair of the House subcommittee that funds NASA, is a moving force for exploring Europa. Europa Clipper will orbit Jupiter, flying by Europa frequently, before moving out of the radiation zone. Europa Lander will follow once its predecessor maps the Jovian moon and locates some landing sites.

With the planning for the Europa Clipper and the Europa Lander in advanced stages and a powerful member of Congress supporting the twin missions, re-tasking the probes to Enceladus is likely not in the cards.

However, a way may be found to do both. The Europa Clipper and Europa Lander are envisioned to be launched to Jupiter space by NASA’s planned heavy-lift Space Launch System. The SLS will be able to lob huge payloads toward Jupiter on a direct flight path, avoiding the time-consuming gravity assist maneuvers that previous probes to the outer planets have had to use.

The problem with the Space Launch System is that it is a fully expendable rocket that could cost between $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion to launch. NASA is struggling to make the SLS more affordable to operate, but the sad fact is that using the heavy-lift rocket is a great expense for the missions to Europa. NASA does have the option of using a commercial rocket, say the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, to launch the twin missions to Europa.

The Falcon Heavy has a slightly lower lift capacity than the Space Launch System, 64 metric tons to low Earth orbit as opposed to 70 metric tons. And the SLS has a larger fairing that can accommodate a wider payload. Enhancements down the line will increase the Space Launch System’s capabilities even more.

However, the Falcon Heavy has two distinct advantages over the Space Launch System. Even in the totally expendable mode the SpaceX rocket costs just $150 million to launch. Just as important, Falcon Heavy has already flown.

Switching to the Falcon Heavy may cause some trade-offs in designing both the Europa Clipper and the Europa Lander to fit the smaller rocket. However, the cost savings could be plowed into an Enceladus orbiter. A probe could be sent to the icy moon of Saturn and orbit it for as long as necessary to ferret out its secrets.

Indeed, enough money might be left over to land on Enceladus, near one of the fissures, to attempt to ascertain what resides beneath its icy surface. Two icy moons for the price of one sounds like a pretty good deal for NASA and the planetary science community.

A recent NASA Inspector General Report that detailed the continuing cost overruns and schedule slippages experienced by the Space Launch System further makes the case for using commercial rockets to end proves to Europa and Enceladus.


Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why Is It So Hard to Go Back To The Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.

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NASA inspector general sharply criticizes SLS core stage development

SLS core interstage

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A report by NASA’s inspector general Oct. 10 criticized both NASA and Boeing for delays and cost overruns in the development of a key component of the Space Launch System, and warned of more delays and overruns to come.

The report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded that Boeing had done a poor job managing development of the core stage of the SLS while NASA did insufficient oversight of that contract, resulting in a doubling of the program’s costs and delays of several years.

“We found Boeing’s poor performance is the main reason for the significant cost increases and schedule delays to developing the SLS Core Stage,” the OIG report stated. “Specifically, the Project’s cost and schedule issues stem primarily from management, technical, and infrastructure issues directly related to Boeing’s performance.”

The SLS core stage is the central element of the SLS, consisting of a modified version of the space shuttle’s external tank with four RS-25 engines mounted in its base. Boeing received a contract from NASA in June 2014 valued at nearly $4.2 billion to build the first two SLS core stages.

That contract has grown to more than $6.2 billion as of the latest contract modification in January, the OIG reported. That is still insufficient to cover the completion of the two core stages, and the report concluded the total cost of the contract will grow to $8.9 billion by the time second core stage is completed in 2021.

Schedules have also slipped, noting that the first SLS flight, Exploration Mission (EM) 1, has been delayed from late 2017 to mid-2020. The OIG suggested further delays in EM-1 were likely. “In light of the Project’s development delays, we have concluded NASA will be unable to meet its EM-1 launch window currently scheduled between December 2019 and June 2020,” the report concluded.

Boeing attributed the delays to underfunding of its contract, particularly in 2015. However, the OIG found that the funding shortfall in that year was modest, and offset by increases in the following year. “According to NASA officials,” the report stated, “the schedule slippage cannot be explained by a lack of adequate funding.”

NASA, though, did not escape blame for the SLS core stage problems in the report. The OIG concluded NASA lacked sufficient visibility into the program because work on the SLS core stages is “co-mingled” into the same contract line item as its work on the Exploration Upper stage.

The agency also failed to identify problems with SLS development in its regular reviews of the contract. “NASA had rated Boeing’s performance as ‘excellent’ in three periods and ‘very good’ in three others and awarded it $323 million or 90 percent of the available award and incentive fees,” the report stated. “Given the SLS Program’s cost overages and schedule delays, we question nearly $64 million of these award fees already provided to Boeing.”

The OIG report made several recommendations to NASA to improve management and oversight of the core stage program. NASA, in its response included in the report, accepted all the recommendations except one regarding the use of “adjectival” ratings like “excellent” and “very good” by contracting officers.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in that response that issues associated with “first-time production technical challenges” led to the cost and schedule overruns. “NASA is designing and implementing manufacturing capability to efficiently produce, test, and qualify spaceflight hardware for long-term use, to human rating standards, on a scale never achieved before,” he wrote.

John Shannon, vice president and program manager for the SLS program at Boeing, offered similar comments during a teleconference with reporters last week. The company, he said, had underestimated the amount of work needed to modify shuttle-heritage hardware for SLS.

“We thought we would be able to reuse hardware without an extensive a [qualification] as we’ve done on some it,” he said in the Oct. 3 call. “But as we got into testing and understood the environments in an SLS, it required us to go back and do additional qualification work.”

In a statement to SpaceNews, Boeing said it had already implemented changes to improve the management of the SLS core stage. “The program described in the OIG’s report does not represent the Space Launch System (SLS) program today,” the company said.

“Accordingly, we have restructured our leadership team to better align with current program challenges and we are refining our approaches and tools to ensure a successful transition from development to production,” it added. “We believe that these actions will result in a successful delivery of Core Stage 1 and establish a firm foundation that will serve the program’s long-term objectives.”

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Boeing plans changes to SLS upper stages

SLS EM-1 target markings

BREMEN, Germany — With NASA’s decision to continue using an interim upper stage for additional flights of the Space Launch System, Boeing is working on changes to both that stage and a more powerful upper stage.

In an Oct. 3 call with reporters, John Shannon, vice president and program manager for the Space Launch System at Boeing, said NASA has asked Boeing to look at changes to the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to improve its performance.

Those changes were prompted by the decision NASA made earlier this year to delay the introduction of the EUS. That stage was originally planned to enter use with the second SLS mission, Exploration Mission (EM) 2. Instead, the first flight of what’s known as the Block 1B configuration of SLS has been delayed to the fourth SLS launch, likely no earlier than 2024.

“That has put a slow down on the Exploration Upper Stage work,” he said. “We were rapidly approaching the critical design review.”

NASA has asked Boeing to spend some time to try and “optimize” the EUS with the goal of increasing the amount of additional payload it can carry. Such co-manifested payloads, such as modules for NASA’s proposed lunar Gateway, would be carried on the SLS underneath the Orion spacecraft.

“We’re actively working through additional design opportunities to lighten the stage and increase its performance and take even more out to the lunar area, so that the Gateway can be built and we can get human boots back on the surface of the moon,” he said.

Shannon said later neither the company nor NASA had a specific goal for increasing the EUS’ performance. “It’s a very open-ended discussion with NASA,” he said, describing it as an opportunity created by the delay in the stage’s introduction. “We have some really sharp guys. They’re going off and coming up with some really great options for NASA to consider.” Those options include changes to the stage itself as well as orbital mechanics techniques.

While he said there was no specific goal for that performance increase, he mentioned later in the call “all the work we’re going to do to try and get one or two extra tons of co-manifest payload.” NASA has previously advertised a co-manifested payload capacity of about ten tons for the SLS Block 1B.

The decision to delay the EUS’ introduction means flying two additional SLS Block 1 missions with the original Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS). One of those missions will be for EM-2, the first crewed Orion flight, while the other is being reserved for the launch of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Shannon said NASA is handling procurement of the additional two ICPS units from United Launch Alliance, which based it on the Delta 4 upper stage. That should be completed in the “next couple months,” he said.

The ICPS was originally not planned to be human-rated, but will undergo some changes to be used on the EM-2 mission. The biggest change is the addition of an emergency detection system similar to one used on the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas 5 on commercial crew missions. Additional sensors and instrumentation will be added to the stage both for redundancy and to give astronauts on Orion more information about the status of the stage.

During the call Shannon also addressed the schedule for development of the SLS. The core stage, for which Boeing is the prime contractor, has been on the critical path for the EM-1 launch in mid-2020. It has been running “neck-and-neck” with the Orion service module, as Mark Kirasich, NASA Orion program manager, described it a briefing earlier that day.

“That’s a good characterization of it,” Shannon said. The focus is getting the core stage completed and delivered to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi “at the beginning of next summer.” It will spend about six months there undergoing testing, including a full-duration firing of its four RS-25 engines.

Once those tests are complete, the core stage will go to the Kennedy Space Center to be integrated with its solid rocket boosters, ICPS and Orion spacecraft for an additional six months of testing. “It looks like everything is lining up and we’re staying in sync with Orion from a schedule standpoint,” he said. “We’ll be able to support the needs of the program.”

He admitted that the program had underestimated the amount of effort that would go into developing the vehicle, which has suffered several years of delays. “We underestimated that somewhat. We thought we would be able to reuse hardware without as extensive a [qualification] as we’ve done on some it,” he said. “But as we got into testing and understood the environments in an SLS, it required us to go back and do additional qualification work.”

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NASA says RS-25 engine test a success despite ending early

RS-25 test August 2018

WASHINGTON — NASA says an Aug. 14 test of an engine for the Space Launch System was a success despite an unspecified “facility issue” that caused the test to end early.

The test of the RS-25 engine on the A-1 stand at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi was the first in a new series of static-fire tests of the shuttle-era engine that will be used in the core stage of the SLS. The engine, a developmental unit designated No. 0525, tested a flight controller unit that will be used on flight models of the engine as well as new manufacturing techniques intended to reduce the cost of future engines.

NASA Stennis announced prior to the test that the test would run for eight minutes and 20 seconds. However, in a tweet after the test, Stennis said the test ended after five minutes and 19 seconds.

An Aug. 15 statement from Stennis about the test made no mention of the planned or actual duration of the test. “All test objectives were met during the hot fire,” the center’s statement noted.

Stennis spokesperson Valerie Buckingham confirmed Aug. 15 that the test was cut short. “The test ended early due to a facility issue, but all test objectives were met,” she said in an emailed response to a SpaceNews inquiry. She later said she didn’t know the details about the problem, other than it did not damage the engine itself.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, which manufactures the RS-25, also said the test ended early because of a facility problem, but deferred questions on the issue to NASA Stennis. The company said in a statement that the engine performed as expected.

Among the objectives of the test was to test a new manufacturing approach called hot isostatic pressing for the engine’s main combustion chamber that the company says “saves considerable time and money” over conventional techniques. “Initial test data indicates the chamber performed flawlessly during the 319-second test,” Aerojet Rocketdyne said.

That technique is being evaluated for use on future versions of the RS-25. The first four SLS missions will use existing engines, originally manufactured for the space shuttle and updated for SLS. Later SLS launches will require new RS-25 engines.

“As we develop a new generation of RS-25 engines, ensuring they continue to remain reliable while reducing costs is a major focus at Aerojet Rocketdyne,” said Eileen Drake, chief executive and president of the company. “That’s why we’re working hard to drive down costs on the RS-25 by incorporating the most modern and efficient manufacturing techniques.”

NASA is planning eight more tests using the same developmental RS-25 engine that will go through early 2019. Later in 2019, another test stand at Stennis will host a “green run” static-fire test of the first SLS core stage, where its four RS-25 engines will fire simultaneously.

Among those attending the test was NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, making his first visit to Stennis since becoming administrator. The visit was part of a series of appearances at NASA facilities in the region that included the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans Aug. 13 and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Aug. 15.

In a webcast of the launch, Bridenstine didn’t appear to be aware that the test had been cut short. “I’ve seen a lot of launches as a member of Congress before and now as NASA administrator, but the rockets always leave,” he said. “In this particular case, the rocket stayed, and it stayed for 500 seconds of just a heart-pounding thrust.”

He reiterated the importance of the SLS in carrying out human missions to the moon and beyond despite the vehicle’s years of delays. “This is our opportunity to follow through on the president’s Space Policy Directive 1, which says that we’re going to the moon,” he said, saying the SLS fits into a “sustainable” architecture where “we want every piece of this architecture to ultimately be reusable.” The SLS is currently an expendable vehicle, including the original shuttle-era RS-25 engines that were designed for reuse.

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NASA adding more SLS Block 1 launches to manifest

Two more SLS Block 1 launches, including the first crewed Orion mission and possibly Europa Clipper, are now being planned for the early 2020s. Credit: NASA

CINCINNATI — With two more launches of the Block 1 version of the Space Launch System now planned, NASA is starting work to procure and human-rate additional upper stages.

NASA originally expected to fly the Block 1 version of the SLS only once before moving to the more powerful Block 1B version of the rocket. The Block 1 uses an upper stage known as the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), based on the Delta 4 upper stage. The Block 1B will replace the ICPS with the Exploration Upper Stage, a larger upper stage under development.

However, with funding from Congress provided in the fiscal year 2018 omnibus appropriations bill to build a second mobile launch platform, NASA now expects to use the Block 1 version more than once. Those additional launches can take place using the existing mobile launch platform while the new one, designed for Block 1B, is built. That move is designed to reduce concerns about a long gap between SLS missions had NASA gone through with original plans to modify the mobile launch platform after the first SLS mission so it could be used for the Block 1B.

“It allows us to decouple the launch of the Block 1, which requires a different platform from the Block 1B,” said Ben Donahue of Boeing during a July 10 talk at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Propulsion and Energy Forum here. “This is really a win for the SLS program.”

NASA schedules now call for three flights of the SLS Block 1, starting with Exploration Mission (EM) 1. That will be followed by EM-2, the first crewed mission, in 2021, and a “cargo” mission in 2022. That cargo mission could be used for the launch of the Europa Clipper spacecraft, which is required by past appropriations bills to fly on an SLS no later than 2022, although NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget request proposed launching it in 2025 on a commercially procured vehicle.

“The first three missions will be of the Block 1 configuration, which includes the ICPS,” said Chris Cianciola, deputy program manager of the SLS program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in a July 9 panel discussion. The order of EM-2 and the cargo mission could be reversed, he added.

Adding the two Block 1 missions means NASA will need to buy additional ICPS stages from Boeing. “We’ll go through acquisition strategies and those kinds of discussions,” Cianciola said in an interview after the panel. “The government teams are huddling up right now to see how we want to do that.”

One of the new stages will require modifications to meet NASA human-rating requirements in order to launch a crewed Orion spacecraft on EM-2. One addition to that ICPS, he said, will be an emergency detection system that can warn the Orion of a problem that would require an abort. That system would likely be based on one developed by United Launch Alliance for Atlas 5 commercial crew launches.

Another widely discussed issue with the SLS Block 1 is the launch date for its first mission, EM-1. “That’s currently scheduled for December of next year,” said Cianciola. However, in other presentations at the conference, both NASA and industry officials hinted that a more accurate launch date is the middle of 2020.

Cianciola said later that the first SLS, on current timelines, won’t be ready to support a December 2019 launch. “We know that we’ve got somewhere between four and six months of risk,” he said, meaning that, without changes, the vehicle would miss that target date by four to six months.

“But that doesn’t mean that’s where we’re going to end up,” he added. “We’re doing things to pull it back in.” Boeing, the prime contractor for the core stage, is taking a number of steps to recover some of that schedule by rearranging the flow of activities. However, he warned there’s also the possibility of “unknown unknowns” that could add new delays to the vehicle’s schedule.

The critical path for SLS, he said, is completing the engine section, mating it to the rest of the core stage and performing tests, including a “green run” static fire test of the core stage’s four RS-25 engine planned for next year at the Stennis Space Center.

One of the reasons for past SLS delays, he noted during the panel, was problems with welding elements of the core stage. Shuttle tanks were welded in the horizontal position, he explained, but NASA developed a vertical welding system for SLS, believing it would be more efficient. “It turned out to be a lot more challenging that we thought,” he said during the panel. “The team worked through it, but it just took a little longer than we anticipated.”

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NASA seeking proposals for second mobile launch platform

The second mobile launch platform for the SLS will be similar to the first, but sized to accommodate the taller Block 1B, and later Block 2, versions of the Space Launch System. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

WASHINGTON — NASA has issued a call for proposals to construct a second mobile launch platform that will be used by an upgraded version of the Space Launch System rocket starting in the early 2020s.

NASA issued a solicitation June 29 for Mobile Launcher 2 (ML2), its name for the second platform. The procurement will go in a two-step process, starting with a request for qualifications due at the end of July. NASA plans to invite up to five companies from that initial phase to submit full-fledged proposals, due in November.

In procurement documents, NASA said that Mobile Launcher 2 “is similar in nature to and concept of operations” to the existing mobile launch platform, originally built for the Constellation program and since modified to support the Block 1 version of the SLS. The new mobile launcher, though, will be built for the taller SLS Block 1B rocket, which uses the larger Exploration Upper Stage in place of the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) for the Block 1 version.

The new platform is also intended to support future versions of the SLS. “NASA’s intent is to incorporate flexibility and expandability (modularity) into the ML2 design, necessary to accommodate future modifications for the ‘Block 2’ (B2B) vehicle crewed and uncrewed payload configurations,” the documents state. The specific design of the Block 2 version of the SLS, intended to launch up to 130 metric tons into low Earth orbit, has not been set, nor a date for first launch.

Mobile Launcher 2 will be used, like the first mobile launcher, as the platform for assembling and testing the SLS in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, transporting the rocket to Launch Complex 39B, and supporting the vehicle’s launch. The platform includes various interfaces for fueling the rocket, providing power and data, and a crew access arm.

NASA expects to award a contract for Mobile Launcher 2 in February 2019, with a period of performance not to exceed 44 months. That schedule would have the platform completed by late 2022. A first launch of the Block 1B version of the SLS would thus not take place until after that, likely 2023.

NASA’s original plans called for modifying the existing mobile launcher after the first SLS Block 1 launch, currently scheduled for late 2019 but widely expected to slip into 2020, so that it could be used for Block 1B launches on the second and subsequent SLS missions. That raised concerns about a long gap between SLS missions, estimated at 33 months, primarily because of the work needed to modify the launch platform.

Despite a recommendation from NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel that the agency build a second platform, NASA did not include funding for it in its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal released in February. “We’ve got a funding level, and it’s got to be shared among the various priorities,” Bill Hill, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, said at a conference shortly after the budget’s release.

However, the final omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2018 passed by Congress in March included $350 million to start work on a second platform. “The funds also will allow flexibility for future NASA and other Federal agency missions that will require heavy-lift capabilities beyond those of current launch vehicles as well as enable a sustainable Space Launch System (SLS) launch cadence,” the report accompanying the bill stated.

Building Mobile Launcher 2, rather than modifying the first platform, will allow that first platform to be used for additional flights of the SLS Block 1. NASA now expects to carry out at least one more launch of the Block 1 version, either carrying a crewed Orion spacecraft or another payload, such as the Europa Clipper mission. A crewed mission would require human-rating the ICPS, which was not originally planned when the Block 1 was to fly a single uncrewed mission.

NASA has not provided a formal cost estimate for Mobile Launcher 2. The Senate’s version of a fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill would give NASA an additional $255 million the bill states is needed to complete the platform.

“By providing the funds to complete a second mobile launch platform, NASA will have greater mission flexibility to launch using SLS launch vehicle variants that utilize both the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and Exploration Upper Stage engines,” the report accompanying the Senate bill states. “This flexibility will allow for SLS to have a more regular launch cadence, enable earlier crewed launches for future lunar missions, and provide further opportunities for scientific missions, such as the Europa Clipper.”

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Contamination found in SLS engine tubing

NASA is maintaining a December 2019 date for the first SLS launch, but acknowledged two months ago there was a risk of several months of delays. Credit: NASA

Updated 4 p.m. Eastern May 18 with comment from NASA.

WASHINGTON — NASA is dealing with a contamination problem with tubing in part of the core stage of the first Space Launch System vehicle, an issue that could contribute to further delays for its launch.

At a May 17 meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, panel member Don McErlean said the committee had been briefed on a “late development” with the core stage, being constructed at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

A “routine quality assurance inspection” of the core stage, he said, discovered contamination in tubing in the engine section of the core stage, which hosts the vehicle’s four RS-25 main engines and associated systems. That contamination turned out to be paraffin wax, which is used to keep the tubes from crimping while being manufactured but is supposed to be cleaned out before shipment.

“The prime contractor determined the vendor was not fully cleaning the tubes and it was leaving residue in the tubes,” McErlean said. “This was retained as a requirement in the prime contractor’s spec, but it was not properly carried out.” Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage, but he did not disclose the vendor who provided the contaminated tubing.

The contamination was initially found in a single tube, he said, but later checks found similar residue in other tubes. All the tubing in the core stage is now being inspected and cleaned, a process he said is not straightforward because of the “mass of tubing” in the engine section and also because cleaning is a “non-trivial process.”

Janet Anderson, a spokesperson at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said May 18 that the contamination was discovered while working a tube installation in the engine section in February. “All core stage tubes have been reviewed by engineering for action or use as is,” she said. “The tubes that have been determined to need further action are all in the process of being re-cleaned and inspected.”

Besides cleaning the contaminated tubing, the program is instituting new inspections and other changes to its quality assurance plans. ASAP, McErlean said, had no specific recommendations for dealing with the problem, finding that the program had already instituted any corrective actions it would have recommended.

McErlean didn’t state if the tubing problem would affect the schedule for the completion of the core stage. NASA had previously said they expected the core stage to be completed and shipped to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi at the end of this year for so-called “green run” engine tests by mid-2019, after which it would go to the Kennedy Space Center to be prepared for launch on Exploration Mission (EM) 1.

In a March 26 presentation to the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee, Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, briefly mentioned “contamination in our tubes” in the SLS core stage engine section but didn’t go into details and downplayed the problem. “We believe we’ve turned the corner on that and understand it and have those tubes cleaned,” he said.

Hill said that, at the time, the engine section of the SLS core stage was set to be completed in May, but that it could slip to August. “That’s a couple month’s risk, and we’ll see how that works out,” he said.

Hill’s charts also showed three to four months of schedule risk for completion of the core stage, still scheduled for December 2018, and the same amount of schedule risk for the June 2019 delivery of the core stage to the Kennedy Space Center.

Anderson said NASA is working with Boeing to determine the schedule effect the problem will have on the overall SLS program. “NASA is reviewing the impact of this decontamination effort on the Core Stage schedule, including delivery to the Stennis Space Center for green run testing and delivery to the Kennedy Space Center for EM-1 launch preparations.”

That schedule from March continued to call for launch of EM-1 in the latter half of December 2019, but again with several months of schedule risk. “We feel that it’s the appropriate thing to do at this point,” Hill said of maintaining the December 2019 date. “We have a lot of mitigation activities in work across the board.”

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GAO warns of worsening cost and schedule performance on NASA programs

The Space Launch System and its associated ground systems contributed to growing cost and schedule issues with NASA’s major programs, according to a May 1 GAO report. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA’s cost and performance on major programs has “deteriorated” significantly in the last year according to a report May 1 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The report, its tenth annual assessment of the agency’s major human and robotic programs under development, found that those programs had an average launch delay of 12 months, the largest GAO had measured over the last decade, and cost growth of at least 18.8 percent.

That cost increase is much less than annual cost growth of more than 45 percent seen earlier in the decade. However, it marks the end of several years of declining cost growth. The report added it could not accurately gauge cost growth because of a lack of an updated cost estimate for the Orion spacecraft, which accounts for 22 percent of overall agency development costs.

“The cost and schedule performance of NASA’s portfolio of major projects has deteriorated since last year,” the report stated.

The GAO attributed most of the cost and schedule growth in the last year to four projects: the Space Launch System, Exploration Ground Systems, Mars 2020 and Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS), an upgrade to ground systems used to communicate with NASA spacecraft. Those projects accounted for $638 million of a net cost increase of $646.7 million among NASA projects in development in 2017, and 59 of 91 months overall schedule delay.

All four of those programs suffered “technical challenges compounded by risky programmatic decisions,” according to the report. Examples of the programmatic decisions that contributed to the cost and schedule problems, particularly in the case of human spaceflight programs, include providing low cost and schedule reserves and use of “aggressive” internal schedules that “could exacerbate delays and lead to cost overruns.”

In the case of Mars 2020, its cost overruns are more modest — $12.9 million in the last year — and the mission remains on schedule for a mid-2020 launch. The report blamed issues with a technology demonstration instrument on the mission, as well as higher costs for integrating another instrument.

SGSS has suffered repeated problems, the GAO said, including “incomplete understanding of its requirements” by the contractor and project management issues. Those problems have continued, the report noted, even as the scope of the project decreased.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA acting associate administrator, acknowledged that there were “serious challenges” with SGSS in a May 1 presentation to a joint meeting of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and Space Studies Board of the National Academies. “The good news is that they’ve turned it around,” he said, citing improved project management and contractor performance.

However, he added that the administration’s 2019 budget request to cancel SGSS and consider commercial alternatives. “That leaves us in a very challenging position,” he said, with only one of four antennas upgraded. He said the agency is performing an independent study of SGSS and alternatives.

Other delays and cost increases, the GAO report, are due to technical problems found during integration and testing of spacecraft. That includes the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch has now been delayed to around May 2020, with a potential overrun of its $8 billion cost cap. NASA’s ICESat-2 spacecraft, an Earth science mission, has also suffered several months of delays because of problems with its main instrument, a laser altimeter.

Some problems, the GAO said, are not directly to blame on the projects themselves. That includes delays in the launch of the GRACE-Follow On and ICON missions because of launch vehicle problems, and a change in scope in a synthetic aperture radar mission being jointly developed by NASA and the Indian space agency ISRO as a result of discussions by an interagency working group.

Some of the schedule issues, the report said, may be due to workforce issues. The GAO cited several cases where projects have run into delays because of “experienced workforce shortages” and difficulty retaining key workers. NASA’s workforce, the report noted, is aging, with 56 percent of its employees age 50 or older, an increase of seven percentage points in five years.

The GAO said NASA was at risk of growing cost and schedule overruns because of those projects and others, citing previously-reported schedule risks for NASA’s commercial crew program. New programs, like Europa Clipper and a proposed follow-on lander, and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), will also be ramping up.

“The composition of the portfolio in the coming years is expected to include similarly large and complex projects, putting NASA at risk of continued cost increases and schedule delays,” the GAO concluded. While NASA is taking steps to prevent similar problems, like a recent effort to reduce the scope and cost of WFIRST, the report argued those measures may not be sufficient.

“But even with these efforts, NASA’s cost and schedule performance may be further tested in upcoming years as some expensive, complex projects linger in the portfolio longer than expected,” the report stated.

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NASA may extend space station missions to address potential commercial crew delays

ISS

WASHINGTON — NASA is in discussions with its Russian counterparts about extending some upcoming space station missions as a way to buy more time for development of commercial crew vehicles.

During an April 12 hearing by the commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said longer “increments” of crews on the ISS could be one way to provide more schedule margin in the event of additional delays by Boeing and SpaceX in the development of their crewed spacecraft.

“Right now we don’t show a gap” in U.S. access to the International Space Station, Lightfoot said in response to a question posed by subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). “But we’re looking at options at what can we do to not have a gap.”

“We’re working with our partners, our Russian partners, on if we can have longer increments for crew members that go up,” he said.

He revisited that later in the hearing. “One thing we have is a great relationship with our Russians partners, and we’re looking at other alternatives about potentially extending mission duration for the current missions that are there so that we don’t gap the ability to get there,” he said.

NASA’s current agreement with flying astronauts on Soyuz vehicles expires next year, after the agency purchased three seats on Soyuz flights launching in the spring of 2019 and returning in the fall. It’s not clear what would be involved in extending ISS mission durations, such as any technical issues regarding how long a Soyuz spacecraft can remain docked to the ISS.

NASA announced April 5 it had updated its existing commercial crew contract with Boeing to study modifications to the crewed test flight for the company’s CST-100 Starliner. Those modifications would include adding a third astronaut and extending the spacecraft’s stay at the ISS from two weeks to as long as six months. Those changes, Lightfoot noted at the hearing, were another way to mitigate the effects of additional development delays.

At the hearing, Lightfoot said there was still schedule margin for the development of Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to be ready by the fall of 2019. Schedules last updated in January call for both companies to make uncrewed test flights of their vehicles in August. Boeing would then make a crewed test flight in November, followed by SpaceX in December.

Lightfoot, though, hinted that those schedules would be delayed again. “We still expect to see the first test flights at the end of this year,” he said, later elaborating that these were the uncrewed test flights for both companies.

Culberson asked when the crewed test flights would take place, and Lightfoot said he would take that for the record. “I’m focused on the uncrewed one right now,” he said.

Juggling the SLS launch schedule

Lightfoot also said at the hearing that NASA was revisiting the schedule for Space Launch System missions based on the unexpected windfall it received in the final 2018 omnibus appropriations bill.

That bill, signed into law March 23, provided $350 million for NASA to build a second mobile launch platform for the SLS. NASA officials said last year a second platform could help shorten the gap between the first and second SLS launches, but did not include funding for it in its 2019 budget proposal, citing competing priorities.

That second launch platform, which would be designed for the Block 1B version of the SLS with the larger Exploration Upper Stage, would reduce the 33-month “iron bar” in the schedule between the first two SLS missions created by the time needed to modify the current platform. That platform has been built to support the Block 1 version of SLS, which uses the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).

Lightfoot said that having a second launch platform opens the door to launching a second SLS mission with the ICPS. That could be used, he said, to launch the Europa Clipper mission, which could be ready for launch as soon as 2022. NASA’s 2019 budget proposal, though, plans a 2025 launch of Europa Clipper using a commercially-procured launch vehicle rather than SLS.

Another option would be to fly the first crewed Orion mission, known as Exploration Mission (EM) 2, on that second SLS Block 1. “If EM-2 flies that way, we would have to change the mission profile because we can’t do what we would do if we had the Exploration Upper Stage,” he said. “But that still gets humans in orbit and still allows us to check out all the systems that we wouldn’t check out on EM-1.”

He indicated that the funding for the second mobile launch platform took the agency by surprise. “You’re going to have to give us a little time, because that was just a couple weeks ago that we found out that we were getting that,” he said.

Defending budget cuts

The two-hour hearing by the subcommittee was largely cordial, with members thanking Lightfoot for his record-setting service as acting administrator. Lightfoot announced last month he will retire from the agency at the end of April.

He was called on by some members, though, to defend cuts in the 2019 proposal. That included NASA’s education office as well as four Earth science missions, all of which the administration sought to cut in 2018 but which Congress ultimately funded.

Lightfoot said it was continuing to work on those programs funded in 2018 despite the administration’s new effort to cancel them. “We are ready to execute as we were asked to do in 2018,” he said.

He added that NASA has looked at ways to make its education office more effective. That office, he said, will soon be renamed the “Next-Gen STEM Office” to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education activities for the next generation. But, should the administration’s proposal to defund the office be approved, he said the agency would focus its education activities through its missions. “That’s going to be how were going to try to inspire the next generation as we go forward,” he said.

“Admittedly, that’s going to be a concern whether that can actually fill the void or not,” he said later in the hearing. “As long as we’re getting appropriated the money, we will have an education office that executes what you guys have asked us to do.”

Committee members also questioned plans to cancel the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) in the 2019 budget proposal, citing its inclusion as the top-priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal. Lightfoot said that, should WFIRST be cancelled, NASA would look at ways instrument technology developed for it could be applied to future missions.

Culberson said his subcommittee planned to hold a hearing on issues with both WFIRST and the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch NASA said last month would be delayed by about a year to May 2020. That hearing is tentatively scheduled for May 9, although Lightfoot said that ongoing reviews of JWST, including one by an independent review board established by NASA after the latest delay, will not be ready in time to support that hearing.

Culberson also offered advice to members concerned about cuts to education or science programs in the administration’s proposal. “The budget, again, is just a recommendation,” he said. “We don’t get too worked up over the budget.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

NASA may extend space station missions to address potential commercial crew delays

ISS

WASHINGTON — NASA is in discussions with its Russian counterparts about extending some upcoming space station missions as a way to buy more time for development of commercial crew vehicles.

During an April 12 hearing by the commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said longer “increments” of crews on the ISS could be one way to provide more schedule margin in the event of additional delays by Boeing and SpaceX in the development of their crewed spacecraft.

“Right now we don’t show a gap” in U.S. access to the International Space Station, Lightfoot said in response to a question posed by subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). “But we’re looking at options at what can we do to not have a gap.”

“We’re working with our partners, our Russian partners, on if we can have longer increments for crew members that go up,” he said.

He revisited that later in the hearing. “One thing we have is a great relationship with our Russians partners, and we’re looking at other alternatives about potentially extending mission duration for the current missions that are there so that we don’t gap the ability to get there,” he said.

NASA’s current agreement with flying astronauts on Soyuz vehicles expires next year, after the agency purchased three seats on Soyuz flights launching in the spring of 2019 and returning in the fall. It’s not clear what would be involved in extending ISS mission durations, such as any technical issues regarding how long a Soyuz spacecraft can remain docked to the ISS.

NASA announced April 5 it had updated its existing commercial crew contract with Boeing to study modifications to the crewed test flight for the company’s CST-100 Starliner. Those modifications would include adding a third astronaut and extending the spacecraft’s stay at the ISS from two weeks to as long as six months. Those changes, Lightfoot noted at the hearing, were another way to mitigate the effects of additional development delays.

At the hearing, Lightfoot said there was still schedule margin for the development of Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to be ready by the fall of 2019. Schedules last updated in January call for both companies to make uncrewed test flights of their vehicles in August. Boeing would then make a crewed test flight in November, followed by SpaceX in December.

Lightfoot, though, hinted that those schedules would be delayed again. “We still expect to see the first test flights at the end of this year,” he said, later elaborating that these were the uncrewed test flights for both companies.

Culberson asked when the crewed test flights would take place, and Lightfoot said he would take that for the record. “I’m focused on the uncrewed one right now,” he said.

Juggling the SLS launch schedule

Lightfoot also said at the hearing that NASA was revisiting the schedule for Space Launch System missions based on the unexpected windfall it received in the final 2018 omnibus appropriations bill.

That bill, signed into law March 23, provided $350 million for NASA to build a second mobile launch platform for the SLS. NASA officials said last year a second platform could help shorten the gap between the first and second SLS launches, but did not include funding for it in its 2019 budget proposal, citing competing priorities.

That second launch platform, which would be designed for the Block 1B version of the SLS with the larger Exploration Upper Stage, would reduce the 33-month “iron bar” in the schedule between the first two SLS missions created by the time needed to modify the current platform. That platform has been built to support the Block 1 version of SLS, which uses the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).

Lightfoot said that having a second launch platform opens the door to launching a second SLS mission with the ICPS. That could be used, he said, to launch the Europa Clipper mission, which could be ready for launch as soon as 2022. NASA’s 2019 budget proposal, though, plans a 2025 launch of Europa Clipper using a commercially-procured launch vehicle rather than SLS.

Another option would be to fly the first crewed Orion mission, known as Exploration Mission (EM) 2, on that second SLS Block 1. “If EM-2 flies that way, we would have to change the mission profile because we can’t do what we would do if we had the Exploration Upper Stage,” he said. “But that still gets humans in orbit and still allows us to check out all the systems that we wouldn’t check out on EM-1.”

He indicated that the funding for the second mobile launch platform took the agency by surprise. “You’re going to have to give us a little time, because that was just a couple weeks ago that we found out that we were getting that,” he said.

Defending budget cuts

The two-hour hearing by the subcommittee was largely cordial, with members thanking Lightfoot for his record-setting service as acting administrator. Lightfoot announced last month he will retire from the agency at the end of April.

He was called on by some members, though, to defend cuts in the 2019 proposal. That included NASA’s education office as well as four Earth science missions, all of which the administration sought to cut in 2018 but which Congress ultimately funded.

Lightfoot said it was continuing to work on those programs funded in 2018 despite the administration’s new effort to cancel them. “We are ready to execute as we were asked to do in 2018,” he said.

He added that NASA has looked at ways to make its education office more effective. That office, he said, will soon be renamed the “Next-Gen STEM Office” to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education activities for the next generation. But, should the administration’s proposal to defund the office be approved, he said the agency would focus its education activities through its missions. “That’s going to be how were going to try to inspire the next generation as we go forward,” he said.

“Admittedly, that’s going to be a concern whether that can actually fill the void or not,” he said later in the hearing. “As long as we’re getting appropriated the money, we will have an education office that executes what you guys have asked us to do.”

Committee members also questioned plans to cancel the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) in the 2019 budget proposal, citing its inclusion as the top-priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal. Lightfoot said that, should WFIRST be cancelled, NASA would look at ways instrument technology developed for it could be applied to future missions.

Culberson said his subcommittee planned to hold a hearing on issues with both WFIRST and the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch NASA said last month would be delayed by about a year to May 2020. That hearing is tentatively scheduled for May 9, although Lightfoot said that ongoing reviews of JWST, including one by an independent review board established by NASA after the latest delay, will not be ready in time to support that hearing.

Culberson also offered advice to members concerned about cuts to education or science programs in the administration’s proposal. “The budget, again, is just a recommendation,” he said. “We don’t get too worked up over the budget.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

House members question balance of NASA programs in 2019 budget proposal

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot testifies at a House Science Committee hearing on NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal March 7. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — Members of the House space subcommittee raised concerns about elements of NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal during a March 7 hearing, from the cancellation of a space telescope to restructuring of the agency’s technology programs.

At the hearing by the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot defended the budget proposal released last month, arguing that it supports human spaceflight efforts as well as science and aeronautics.

“I think we still have a very balanced budget when you look across the multi-mission opportunities in science and aeronautics and technology, along with the exploration activity,” Lightfoot said. “What we’re really trying to do here is focus on a long-term plan with our eye on Mars, ultimately.”

Lightfoot’s comment came in response to a question from ranking member Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), who thought the budget proposal focused too much on human exploration efforts. “There are some areas of concern of the overweight focus just on exploration,” he said. “None of us is going to argue that exploration is not important, but we also want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the space science, the space technology, the aeronautics and education.”

A particular area of concern for Bera was the plan in the budget proposal to cancel the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, the next flagship astrophysics missions at NASA after the James Webb Space Telescope. WFIRST, he noted, was the top priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey, where astronomers prioritized mission concepts for the next decade.

“The decadal survey has served us well, and not looking at this scientific-based prioritization and moving away from that can certainty set a dangerous precedent,” Bera said.

Lightfoot tried to downplay the effects of the proposed cancellation on astrophysics research. Asked later in the hearing by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) about the consequences of not flying WFIRST, Lightfoot suggested other missions, including the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) scheduled to launch in April, could fill in.

“We’re counting on TESS and James Webb to fill the astrophysics needs for quite a bit of time,” he said, but acknowledged there would be a “gap” in data. “To the astrophysics community, that’s a challenge from a scientific perspective.”

Others questioned plans to reorganize NASA’s management of space technology efforts, which would effectively fold the Space Technology Mission Directorate into the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, focusing more technology research on exploration needs.

Details of how that transition will take shape are still being developed in the agency, Lightfoot said. “What we’re really trying to do is make sure our technologies that we’re working on are truly aligned with the things we’re trying to do at the moon and ultimately at Mars,” he said.

Some members, though, worried this reorganization would take resources away from space technology activities not associated with exploration, or cut technology funding in general to support operations. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) entered into the record a letter from Bobby Braun, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado and a former NASA chief technologist, critical of the proposed reorganization.

Braun, in the letter, called the reorganization “among the most devastating long-term aspects proposed” in the budget request. “Past history has shown that large development programs and technology development activities cannot and should not exist together, as a small hiccup in the development programs eats the budget of the basic research and technology advancement needed to accomplish more in space.”

Lightfoot defended the change, even while acknowledging that the new exploration research and technology program will focus on “long poles” for human missions to Mars. “I think we still have a very balanced portfolio going forward.”

Human spaceflight issues

Members also asked about the initiative in the budget proposal to end NASA funding of the International Space Station in 2025 while developing commercial capabilities in low Earth orbit. The lack of details about those plans, though, bothered some.

“I remain open to new ideas relative to future operations, but obviously we need a detailed and realistic, sustainable plan for any ISS transition in the future,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee. “NASA will need to do a better job articulating this plan as we move forward.”

Babin also reminded Lightfoot that NASA had yet to deliver both the ISS transition plan and an exploration roadmap required by last year’s NASA authorization bill. Those documents were supposed to be delivered to Congress last December. Lightfoot later said that the exploration roadmap should be delivered by the end of the month.

Other members noted the absence of funding in the budget proposal for a second mobile launch platform for the Space Launch System. NASA officials said they were considering seeking funding for it last year as a means of closing the gap between the first and second SLS missions caused by required modifications to the existing platform to accommodate the larger version of SLS that will be used on the second and subsequent missions.

“We took a hard look at that,” Lightfoot said. A second platform, he said, could move up the date of the first crewed Orion mission from 2023 to 2022, but that it’s a “pretty expensive” project. “We had the discussion, we had the debate, and the answer came back we should stick with the plan that we’ve got.”

Babin returned to the issue later in the hearing, noting that Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana had talked about it with him while in Florida for last month’s meeting of the National Space Council. “It sure sounded like it would absolutely be a great thing if we could get a second one,” he said.

Lightfoot said that part of the expense of a second launch platform involved also purchasing and human rating a second Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and using it with the existing mobile launch platform for a second SLS mission while the new mobile launcher, for the Block 1B versions of SLS, is built. That would allow for a crewed launch sooner than modifying the platform to accommodate the larger SLS.

Lightfoot also confirmed that NASA is studying flying astronauts on commercial crew test flights as a contingency measure should Boeing and SpaceX experience further delays in the development of their vehicles. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said last month that option was being considered since additional Soyuz spacecraft will not be available after the fall of 2019.

“We are looking at several options” for maintaining access to the ISS, Lightfoot said, but didn’t disclose the other options beyond flying crews on test flights. “We’re still confident that our commercial providers are going to provide us the capability we need, and we’re just looking at contingencies in case.”

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Safety panel warns of “bottleneck” of reviews for exploration and commercial crew vehicles

NASA’s SLS/Orion and commercial crew programs could face slowdowns from a “bottleneck” of simultaneous reviews, a safety panel warned last week. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Members of a NASA safety panel said they see good progress on the development of both exploration systems and commercial crew vehicles, but warn future progress could be hindered by a “bottleneck” of reviews they face.

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), meeting March 1 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, didn’t note any new major safety-related problems involving the two commercial crew vehicles under development, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, or NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion programs.

However, members raised concerns about the fact that the simultaneous development of the vehicles could strain NASA’s ability to perform qualification and other safety reviews. That had the potential to create additional schedule pressure on those programs.

“There’s going to be a wall of verification and qualification processes which a finite number of people at NASA are going to have to wade through,” said former astronaut Sandra Magnus. She said companies, and NASA, had to be aware of how to deal with that impending wave of reviews. “This is a potential bottleneck that’s coming up.”

Neither Magnus nor other panel members offered specific solutions to the problem, beyond trying to spread out the work where possible. “Anything that the community can do now to sort of meter that work” would help, she said. “But I think that’s really the next thing we’ll have to keep an eye on as a safety panel.”

Other panel members said that they saw no evidence of schedule pressures in general creating safety issues for the vehicles under development. “The commercial crew program has shown us on the panel that, in spite of a very challenging set of circumstances they’re facing right now, they’re doing an excellent job of making decisions,” said George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration.

He acknowledged, though, that the schedules published by the program, which call for both uncrewed and crewed test flights of both companies’ vehicles by the end of this year, may not be realistic. “It’s very challenging to be able to make the dates that are now being worked to,” he said. “But, encouraging to us is that we don’t see any sign of schedule pressure negatively impacting the decisions that are being made.”

Several factors are affecting the schedule for SLS and Orion, including development of the core stage of the SLS, the service module for Orion and software. Donald McErlean, a former engineering fellow at L-3 Communications, noted that NASA’s plans call for the delivery of the core stage of the first SLS to the Stennis Space Center “very late this year” for engine tests. “While that is certainly a schedule challenge,” he said, “it is within the realm of possibility.”

ASAP endorsed a proposal last year to build a second mobile launch platform for SLS, which would shorten the gap between the first and second SLS missions. That gap, of at least 33 months, is driven by the time needed to modify the existing platform to accommodate the larger version of SLS that will be used on the second and subsequent missions. However, NASA did not request funding for a second mobile launcher in the budget proposal.

“We continue to urge that NASA look for prudent and safe ways to shorten the timeframe between flight operations to mitigate the erosion of launch operations experience,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of the panel.

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NASA no longer seeking to develop second mobile launcher for SLS

Workers install a crew access arm on the mobile launch platform tower Feb. 26 at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA is no longer considering building a second mobile launch platform that could have shortened the gap between the first and second SLS launches. Credit: NASA/Bill White

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA is not planning to develop a second mobile launch platform that could shorten the gap between the first two Space Launch System missions as it makes few changes in general to its exploration programs despite a renewed focus on the moon.

The mobile launch platform, originally built for the Constellation Program and currently being modified to support the SLS, will be used for one launch of the initial Block 1 version of the SLS, designated Exploration Mission (EM) 1. That platform will then have to be modified to accommodate the taller Block 1B version that will be used on second and subsequent SLS missions.

Agency officials said late last year they were considering starting work on a second mobile launch platform designed from the beginning to accommodate the Block 1B version of the SLS. They argued that doing so could shorten the gap of at least 33 months between the first and second SLS missions caused in part by the modification work to the existing platform. The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel endorsed the development of a second mobile launcher at an October 2017 meeting as a way to minimize “safety difficulties” a long break between SLS missions could create.

However, NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal released Feb. 12 made no mention of developing a second platform. “We did not include it in the president’s budget request,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, during a panel discussion Feb. 28 at the 45th Space Congress here. “Right now we’re on our baseline path to modify the mobile launcher after EM-1.”

Hill confirmed after the panel discussion that a second mobile launcher was no longer under consideration, citing a need to fund other exploration programs within the overall budget. “We’ve got a funding level, and it’s got to be shared among the various priorities,” he said.

He said that while there’s not much they can do to shorten that gap between EM-1 and EM-2, they’re confident they understand what it will take to modify the platform after EM-1. “We’ve got a good handle on it, a good understanding of what it’s going to take,” he said of the modifications, which involve extending the tower by more than 13 meters and redoing elevators, wiring, plumbing and other systems.

Hill and Mike Bolger, manager of NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems program, also addressed reports that the tower on the platform was leaning. Those reports cited a “deflection” in the tower from the vertical, but one that NASA said did not require corrective action.

“It is very, very close to perfectly plumb,” Bolger said. Any variations from the vertical, he said, are well within tolerances for the structure. If not, he said, NASA would not have gone ahead with the installation of a crew access arm on the tower just earlier this week. “It’s just not an issue.”

“It’s a lot about nothing,” Hill said.

Other aspects of NASA’s overall exploration program have also seen few changes despite a shift in policy, such as the directive signed by President Trump in December calling for a human return to the moon as an interim step towards Mars.

“We took a little turn from the Mars campaign. It’s not a big turn,” Hill said, adding that human Mars exploration remained the “horizon goal” for the overall program. “We’ve worked really well with the new administration and the National Space Council in getting to where we are today.”

That turn, he said, will include missions to the surface of the moon, although how NASA will do so, and with what partners, is still being analyzed. “For us, we’re going to do some lunar surface activities, working with international and commercial partners, see if we can develop a lunar base economy,” he said. “We’ll see where we go from there.”

That effort includes retaining, but renaming, a human-tended facility in cislunar space that the agency introduced last year as the Deep Space Gateway, prior to the formal shift in policy to return humans to the moon. “That really hasn’t changed,” Hill said. “Our approach to that remains the same even under the new administration.”

The facility is now called the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway. “The administration wanted to change it slightly, thinking that maybe the Gateway was part of the last administration,” he said, adding the concept was introduced in the early months of the current administration. “Our compromise with them was to call it the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway.”

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NASA budget proposal continues debate on when and how to launch Europa Clipper

NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal seeks to launch Europa Clipper on a commercial vehicle in 2025, while Congress has sought a 2022 launch on SLS. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA’s fiscal year 2019 proposal will likely set up another showdown between NASA and Congress regarding the Europa Clipper mission, debating not only when to launch the spacecraft but also how.

The 2019 budget proposal, released Feb. 12, offers $264.7 million for the mission, which would send the spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter and make dozens of flybys of Europa, the potentially habitable icy moon of the giant planet. That’s down from the $425 million the administration requested for the mission in 2018.

Congress has yet to pass a final appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018, more than four and a half months into the current year. The mission received $237.4 million in 2017, and a House version of a 2018 appropriations bill provided $495 million to be shared by Europa Clipper and a follow-on lander that is still in an early phase of studies. That bill came out of the commerce, justice and science appropriations subcommittee, whose chairman, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), is a vigorous advocate for missions to Europa.

The projections for future spending for the mission, included in the 2019 budget proposal, do not foresee significant increases. They call for another decrease, to $200 million, in 2020, then rising to about $360 million per year from 2021 through 2023.

Despite that funding profile, the budget proposal moves up the launch of the mission by a year from previous agency plans. “The budget allows us to pull the Europa Clipper in,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, in a presentation at a meeting of the Planetary Science Advisory Committee here Feb. 21. “Last year’s budget said we would be able to launch it in 2026. Now we have the funding necessary for us to be to launch it in 2025.”

Green didn’t explain how the funding profile accelerates the launch, but a launch in either 2025 or 2026 would conflict with language in previous appropriations bills calling for a launch of the mission by 2022. The House version of the 2018 spending bill retains that 2022 launch requirement.

NASA, in its 2019 budget request, included an alternative spending profile that would support a launch of Europa Clipper in 2022. That calls for significantly higher funding, peaking at $594 million in fiscal year 2020. “NASA does not recommend acceleration of the launch to 2022, given potential impacts to the rest of the Science portfolio,” the budget proposal states. “The Administration supports a balanced science program, as recommended in the Decadal Survey.”

Those appropriations bills have also specified that Europa Clipper launch on the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket under development. NASA “shall use the Space Launch System as the launch vehicles for the Jupiter Europa mission, plan for an orbiter launch no later than 2022 and a lander launch no later than 2024, and include in the fiscal year 2019 budget the 5-year funding profile necessary to achieve these goals,” the House version of a 2018 House appropriations bill stated.

NASA, though, is seeking to use instead a commercial launch vehicle that the agency believes will be less expensive than SLS. “The administration would also like us to fly Clipper on a commercial launch vehicle, because there is enormous cost savings, in our current analysis, between commercial and the use of an SLS,” Green said.

NASA has studied launching Europa Clipper on both SLS and on the most powerful variant of the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5. SLS offers the ability to fly a fast, direct route to Jupiter, with the spacecraft arriving at the planet less than three years after launch. The Atlas 5 would take more than six years to get Europa Clipper to Jupiter, and require flybys of both Venus and Earth to do so.

NASA’s 2019 budget request notes those advantages for SLS, but concludes, “the additional costs of adding an SLS flight for the Clipper outweigh the benefits.” It also states that SLS “will be focused on supporting the Administration’s new space exploration strategy and prioritizing the return of astronauts to the surface of the Moon.” An SLS launch of Europa Clipper, it notes, could not take place sooner than 2024 “without disrupting current NASA human exploration plans.”

The budget does not specify how much an SLS launch would cost, but the spending profile supporting a 2022 launch includes $432 million for a commercial launch. That amount, the document adds, “may be reduced as commercial offerings and pricing continue to evolve.”

Besides the Atlas 5, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could also launch Europa Clipper. However, that vehicle, which performed its inaugural launch Feb. 6, may still be years away from the NASA certification required for launching Europa Clipper.

Curt Niebur, a program scientist in the planetary science division at NASA Headquarters, said at the Feb. 21 meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) in Hampton, Virginia, that the agency was not ruling out using SLS or a commercial vehicle for launching Europa Clipper. “We’re maintaining compatibility with a variety of options, but right now SLS is the baseline,” he said.

Niebur said that NASA doesn’t need to make a formal decision on the launch vehicle for the mission until its critical design review. That review is scheduled for late 2019, according to a schedule chart presented at the OPAG meeting.

That schedule also shows a June 2022 launch for the mission. “We continue to work to a launch as early as June of ’22,” said Bob Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist, at the OPAG meeting. “That’s what the project schedule is currently, and what we’ll continue to work towards.”

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Safety panel raises concerns about Falcon 9 pressure vessel for commercial crew missions

The annual report of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel raised safety issues about commercial crew systems under development by Boeing and SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX artist’s concept and Boeing

WASHINGTON — An independent safety panel recommended NASA not certify SpaceX’s commercial crew system until the agency better understands the behavior of pressure vessels linked to a Falcon 9 failure in 2016.

That recommendation was one of the stronger items in the annual report of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released by NASA Jan. 11, which found that NASA was generally managing risk well on its various programs.

The report devoted a section to the composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) used to store helium in the second stage propellant tanks of the Falcon 9. The investigation into the September 2016 pad explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 while being prepared for a static-fire test concluded that liquid oxygen in the tank got trapped between the COPV overwrap and liner and then ignited through friction or other mechanisms.

SpaceX has since changed its loading processes to avoid exposing the COPVs to similar conditions, but also agreed with NASA to redesign the COPV to reduce the risk for crewed launches. NASA has since started a “rigorous test program” to understand how the redesigned COPV behaves when exposed to liquid oxygen, the report stated.

ASAP argued that completing those tests is essential before NASA can allow its astronauts to launch on the Falcon 9. “In our opinion, adequate understanding of the COPV behavior in cryogenic oxygen is an absolutely essential precursor to potential certification for human space flight,” the report stated, a sentence italicized for emphasis in the report.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes during fueling operation in preparation for a static-fire test. Credit: USLaunchReport.com videoA SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes during fueling operation in preparation for a static-fire test in September 2016. The accident was later blamed on flaws in COPVs used to store helium in the second stage liquid oxygen tank.
Credit: USLaunchReport.com video

The report added that NASA and SpaceX are working on an alternative design for the pressure vessels that does not involve the use of composite overwrap materials should the ongoing test effort fail. It warned, though, that the alternative design is heavier, which may require redesign of supporting structures within the liquid oxygen tank.

The report raised issues in general about the commercial crew program, including concerns that neither Boeing nor SpaceX, the two companies developing vehicles to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, will meet a requirement of no greater than a 1-in-270 “loss of crew” (LOC) risk of an accident that causes death or serious injury to a crewmember. That includes, the report stated, a risk of no more than 1 in 500 for launch and reentry.

“The Panel has been monitoring the providers’ progress in working toward the LOC requirements, and it appears that neither provider will achieve 1 in 500 for ascent/entry and will be challenged to meet the overall mission requirement of 1 in 200 (without operational mitigations),” the report stated. The “operational mitigations,” such as on-orbit inspection, are intended to ease the overall 1-in-270 requirement.

At a Nov. 29 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee, Lisa Colloredo, deputy program manager for NASA’s commercial crew program, said she expected the two companies to meet that requirement or come close to it. “We have a very difficult LOC requirement to meet, and we knew that when we going in,” she said then, noting it was more stringent than the 1-in-90 requirement for the space shuttle at the end of the program.

ASAP, in its report, was skeptical that either company would meet those requirements. “NASA will need to determine if the risk portrayed by the analysis, with its large uncertainties, is acceptable,” it concluded.

The panel expressed fewer concerns about other elements of NASA’s human spaceflight program, including the development of the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle and continued operations of the ISS.

The report concurred with NASA’s conclusion reached last year that putting crew on the first SLS mission, Exploration Mission 1, was technically feasible but would add “significant crew safety risk” and additional resources. NASA ultimately decided to keep the EM-1 mission uncrewed.

ASAP also recommended that NASA pursue development of a second mobile launch platform rather than modify the one being completed now. Those modifications are needed to accommodate the larger Block 1B version of the SLS, which will be flown on the second and subsequent SLS missions, but will create a gap of 33 months between the first and second SLS missions regardless of the status of SLS or Orion. NASA officials have said they are considering seeking funding for a second launch platform.

The panel said in its report it was encouraged by NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway (DSG), a crew-tended habitat in cislunar space the agency is considering developing in conjunction with international partners in the 2020s. The Gateway is intended to develop experience in spaceflight beyond Earth orbit in preparation for later human missions to Mars, and can also support human spaceflight activities by the U.S. or other countries in the vicinity of the moon.

“In general, the Panel feels the DSG framework has excellent potential for appropriate risk mitigation related to a journey to Mars and looks forward to the ongoing detailed concept development,” the report stated.

It did, though, warn that any plans for a human return the moon, including a change to national space policy announced by the Trump administration last month, will require additional funding. “If the direction for NASA in cislunar space now includes a mandated return to the Moon’s surface and no additional funds are supplied, it will create inevitable pressures on existing programs to execute safely,” it stated.

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Op-ed | A new direction in space policy

Commercial capabilities, like Blue Origin’s proposed Blue Moon cargo lander, are key to implementing the White House’s new plans to return humans to the moon and then to Mars. Credit: Blue Origin

President Trump just articulated a dramatic new direction for America’s space presence. On Dec. 11, he announced a plan to send American astronauts back to the moon — and eventually, Mars and beyond. The announcement included a call for “innovative and sustainable” collaboration with commercial companies.

The direction is an exciting one. And the call for increased collaboration is smart. America can no longer depend on government alone to get into orbit. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are creating new generations of launch vehicles capable of doing what only government assets could do in the past.

Of course, government is still the largest customer for space launch activity. But even that is changing. Governments across the globe must awaken to a new reality: they can now use launch and satellite capabilities built by the private sector.

This new reality underpins President Trump’s space policy. It is a policy that will put humans back on the moon to stay. Later, we will explore the far reaches of our solar system, first with robots and then with humans.

To begin this journey to the stars, the government would shift non-military or intelligence-related low Earth orbit activities to the private sector. The government will not abandon LEO. It would still be able to buy LEO services from on-orbit commercial assets and access LEO using commercial vehicles.

But the government would recognize that vehicles and satellites are now mature enough that it doesn’t need to control their development. The private sector can take the reins instead.

In the very near term, with the right policies, it will be possible to have humans live and work in space in commercially developed stations. The government simply will rent space aboard those stations rather than operate them.

Unfortunately, there are still those inside the space community who reject the idea that government money can be better spent buying space-related services than building and operating its own space assets through cost-plus contracts.

Both the Air Force and NASA have used cost-effective commercial launch services contracts for missions. Our intelligence agencies buy much of their remote sensing data from commercial companies. Most of the Defense Department’s communications network, for instance, depends on commercial satellites.

The Trump space policy would regularize all this current activity and aim to employ commercial capabilities as a first choice rather than as just another option. While it is true that certain government missions, particularly in national security, cannot be readily purchased in the private sector, many others can. And the cost effectiveness of doing so is considerable.

When we look at the potential expansion of NASA’s space exploration missions, the use of commercial assets also should be considered. Heavy-lift rockets are being developed in the private sector with the ability to go beyond LEO and into deep space.

Congress looks likely to continue to invest in the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, two efforts it has been pursuing for more than a decade. But even SLS/Orion will have to be supplemented with other capabilities if we are going to have a robust lunar exploration program.

SLS/Orion, even after it goes into service, will fly only a few missions each decade. In those missions it will lift to orbit significant tonnage, and that special capability has elicited congressional support.

But a robust moon program will require more, such as landing capabilities and the ability to fly dozens of times per year. Luckily, the commercial sector is developing lander technology and the ability to get those landers into lunar orbit.

Assembly in orbit, a capability that the United States developed while building the International Space Station, also will prove useful. This proficiency can be used to build spacecraft that are sent in orbit in pieces aboard commercial rockets and assembled there. And, of course, SpaceX has announced its intent to build an ultra-heavy-lift rocket called BFR in the 2020s, a significant new private sector resource.

Accessing all the upcoming space potential will necessitate clear policy direction and goals. Technology is advancing rapidly, and the commercial sector is in the forefront of technology leadership with developments like reusable launch vehicles. Government, with its bureaucratic lethargy and annual appropriation delays, cannot keep up with these advances. So America cannot rely on it for our space technology advances.

Leadership in space requires vision, innovation and an ability to work at the speed of technology. A blend of national resolve, government investment and commercial inventiveness will propel the United States to the front of an expanding space race.

Those are the elements of the Trump administration’s new direction in space and that direction is straight up.

Robert Smith Walker represented Pennsylvania’s 16th congressional district from 1977 to 1997. The executive chairman of Wexler & Walker, a lobbying firm, he is on the board of directors of Space Adventures and has served as board chairman of the Space Foundation.

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NASA weighs new mobile launcher for SLS

The mobile launcher, originally built for the Constellation program, undergoing upgrades for the first SLS launch. NASA is considering whether to modify it again for later SLS missions or build a new one. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

WASHINGTON — Building a new mobile launch platform for later Space Launch System missions could cost NASA $300 million but allow for more frequent launches, agency officials said.

Bill Hill, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, discussed the tradeoffs regarding building a new mobile launcher during a Nov. 29 meeting of the human exploration and operations committee of the NASA Advisory Council at the Kennedy Space Center.

The current mobile launcher, originally built during the Constellation program for the since-cancelled Ares 1, is finishing modifications to support the first SLS launch, which will use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS). Future SLS missions, though, will involve the Block 1B version of the rocket with the larger Exploration Upper Stage, which will require further modifications to the launcher.

“The Exploration Upper Stage is 44 feet [13.4 meters] taller,” Hill said, which will require changes to the launcher structure and all its elements. “All the plumbing, elevators, cryos, everything you have to go back and redo. All the cabling that goes from the base to the top you basically have to pull out and reinstall it for the extra 44 feet. There’s just a lot to do.”

Those modifications mean there is what Hill called an “iron bar” in the schedule between Exploration Missions (EM) 1 and 2. Those modifications to the launcher can’t begin until after the EM-1 launch, which means EM-2 can’t take place until at least 33 months after EM-1, he said.

Building a new mobile launcher, with construction starting in the near future, could shorten that gap to some degree. It would also allow for additional SLS launches between EM-1 and EM-2, provided they use the ICPS, since the first mobile launcher would remain available. “That’s in my mind, the biggest benefit,” Hill said. “We’re not stuck on the ground until we get finished with the modifications. That’s one of the things we’re taking a look at.”

NASA has considered using the SLS for the Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter, with some notional schedules for future SLS launches placing that launch between EM-1 and EM-2, depending on the schedule for that mission and the availability of the SLS.

A faster cadence of SLS launches was a key reason why NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel endorsed the development of a new mobile launcher at an October meeting. The current gap between EM-1 and EM-2 “represents a pause in the Program that the Panel thinks could involve safety difficulties,” the minutes of that meeting state. “It would be much more efficient for the continuation of the Program if it were possible to construct a second ML [mobile launcher] — starting that construction now — so the appropriate ML would be ready for the transition from EM-1 to EM-2.”

Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center, also supports building a new mobile launcher rather than modifying the existing one. He said earlier at the NASA Advisory Council committee meeting that he took Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, on a tour of the current launcher “so he could appreciate the complexity of this thing and why I believe we need a second mobile launcher rather than modifying this one.”

Cabana offered an analogy for the work needed to modify the mobile launcher for the SLS Block 1B. “I’m going to cut off my head and add six inches to my body,” he said. “That’s essentially what you’re doing. You’re taking a very complex system — all the wire systems and everything else that is on that thing — and raising it up to extend it for the larger vehicle.”

Building a second mobile launcher, Hill said, would involve a net cost to NASA of about $300 million. That includes the cost of the launcher, less the savings from not modifying the current launcher to accommodate the SLS Block 1B.

Hill didn’t say if NASA has formally requested a new mobile launcher in its next budget request. “I think that was a rumor,” he said when asked by the committee about it. However, he suggested that a decision on whether or not to build a new launcher would come in the near future.

Hill said a more detailed discussion about the tradeoffs of modifying the existing launcher versus building a new one could take place at the committee’s next meeting, which would be around March 2018 based on the schedules of previous meetings. “By then,” he said, “we should know whether we’re going with modifying this mobile launcher or having the authority to go get a new one.”

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Smith disappointed with lack of progress on SLS and Orion

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, warned of “ebbing” confidence in NASA and its contractors given the latest delays in the first flight of the Space Launch System. Credit: C-SPAN

WASHINGTON — A day after NASA announced a new launch date for the first flight of the Space Launch System, the chairman of the House Science Committee said he found the development delays “disappointing” and warned further problems could undermine congressional support.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), in an opening statement at a Nov. 9 hearing by the space subcommittee on NASA’s exploration systems, said that additional delays for the SLS and the Orion crew vehicle could build support for unspecified alternatives, jeopardizing the overall program.

“Congress needs to have confidence in NASA and the exploration systems contractors, which I don’t believe we have now. That confidence is ebbing,” he said. “If it slips much further, NASA and its contractors will have a hard time regaining their credibility.”

Smith’s remarks showed a clear frustration with delays, largely due to technical issues with SLS and Orion, that have pushed back the Exploration Mission (EM) 1 launch from 2017 to no earlier than December 2019. NASA announced the 2019 date a day before the hearing, while acknowledging that technical reviews concluded that June 2020 was a more likely launch date.

“After all these years, after billions of dollars spent, we are facing more delays and cost overruns,” Smith said. While he noted that some delays were caused by factors out of NASA’s control, like a tornado that damaged the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in February, “many of the problems are self-inflicted.”

“It is very disappointing to hear about delays caused by poor execution, when the U.S. taxpayer has invested so much in these programs,” he added.

Smith, who announced Nov. 2 he would not run for reelection next year after more than three decades in the House, including serving as chairman of the science committee since 2013, warned about eroding support for the programs should there be additional delays.

“NASA and the contractors should not assume future delays and cost overruns will have no consequences,” he said. “If delays continue, if costs rise, and if foreseeable technical challenges arise, no one should assume the U.S. taxpayers or their representatives will tolerate this forever.”

“The more setbacks SLS and Orion face, the more support builds for other options,” he said, not elaborating on what those options would be.

Smith’s comments represent one of the strongest rebukes to date by a leading member of Congress regarding progress on SLS and Orion. Other members of the committee expressed few, if any, reservations about the programs at the hearing despite the latest delay.

“We must launch the Space Launch System in order to push beyond low Earth orbit,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee, in his opening remarks. “We must finish developing the Orion capsule in order to operate in deep space.”

Babin noted the delays but also highlighted the “significant progress” the overall exploration program has made. He offered his own warning, though, to the agency and companies working on the program. “NASA and the contractors have to execute. Failure to do so could have dire consequences for the program, and there will be no one else to blame,” he said.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that NASA had overcome the issues with welding on the SLS core stage that delayed its progress. The agency is helping the European Space Agency on the Orion service module, another source of delays, such as providing NASA support for an American-built helium valve for the module that has been experiencing manufacturing problems.

One lesson from these problems, he said, was that program schedules didn’t provide adequate time to deal with issues that arose as NASA and companies went through the construction of SLS and Orion for the first time.

“I think we just need to be prepared, as we build schedules going forward, to know that these first-time things that we have never done before, or at a magnitude that has never been done before, may need a little bit of extra time that first time through, and not be overly optimistic in our schedules,” he said.

In an interview after the hearing, Gerstenmaier said there was no specific confidence level associated with the December 2019 launch date that NASA said Nov. 8 it was managing to for the EM-1 launch. Instead, he said the date provided focus for those working on SLS, Orion and their ground systems.

“It’s the right date for us to work to,” he said. “It’s the right pressure on the teams. If we move all the way to June [2020], that relaxes us to where I don’t think it’s healthy.”

He said NASA had the flexibility to adjust development and testing schedules as needed, depending on the progress of components like the Orion service module. “It’s a good target,” he said. “We’ll move as we need to.”

Gerstenmaier, in his testimony, emphasized the progress the agency had achieved, including hardware built for the various components. “The amount of work completed to date for the deep space exploration systems is large,” he said. “We need to be careful not to focus on a single launch date projection, but rather take time to examine the quality, quantity and future benefit of the work completed.”

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NASA sets December 2019 date for first SLS launch

Illustration of NASA’s Space Launch System on the pad at the Kennedy Space Center. The rocket’s first launch, on a mission designated EM-1, is now scheduled for no earlier than December 2019. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA announced Nov. 8 that it is now planning a first launch of its Space Launch System rocket no earlier than December 2019, even as a review concluded the rocket isn’t likely to fly until mid-2020.

The agency, in a statement, said it was “protecting” a December 2019 date for Exploration Mission (EM) 1 after concluding that it could mitigate some of the risks facing the development of the rocket and Orion spacecraft that appeared to push the launch into 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,” Robert Lightfoot, acting NASA administrator, said in a statement. “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.”

NASA said earlier this year that the EM-1, previously scheduled for November 2018, would slip into 2019 because of development issues, as well as tornado damage in February to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans where elements of SLS and Orion are assembled. The agency did not give a new launch date before today, but notified Congress in June that it was aiming for a launch no earlier than October 2019.

In addition to the tornado damage, NASA said difficulties welding the core stage of the SLS and production delays with Orion’s service module, which is being provided by the European Space Agency, factored into the review. NASA officials have previously said the core stage and the service module were the two key factors driving the schedule for EM-1.

“Those are our two critical paths right now, and they’re kind of neck-and-neck for getting to a launch date,” Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA, said of the SLS core stage and Orion service module in an Oct. 25 panel discussion at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.

NASA, in the statement, said the revised launch date will not increase beyond a 15 percent threshold that requires a congressional notification. “The costs for EM-1 up to a possible June 2020 launch date remain within the 15 percent limit for SLS and are slightly above for ground systems,” it said, noting that the cost commitment for Orion is through EM-2, the first crewed mission, scheduled of 2023.

To keep EM-2 on that schedule, NASA said that it will perform a test of Orion’s launch abort system before EM-1, instead of after it. That in-flight test of the abort system will involve launching an Orion capsule on the first stage of a former Peacekeeper missile, then firing the launch abort system. The test, known as Ascent Abort 2, is now planned for April 2019.

The NASA announcement comes a day before the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee holds a hearing on NASA’s exploration systems development. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, will be one of the witnesses, along with Sandy Magnus, a former astronaut who is currently executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

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Bridenstine pledges support for SLS and Orion to senators

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) at his Nov. 1 confirmation hearing to become NASA administration. In later written responses to questions from senators, he expressed his support for SLS and Orion as the “backbone” of NASA’s exploration program. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

WASHINGTON — As the Senate Commerce Committee prepares to advance his nomination as NASA administrator to the full Senate, Jim Bridenstine offered pledges of continuity for many key agency programs.

In responses to questions submitted for the record by several members of committee and posted to the committee’s website, Bridenstine said he believed the Space Launch System and Orion programs were critical to the agency’s exploration plans, as well as contributions from commercial space ventures.

“SLS and Orion will serve as the backbone to our country’s Deep Space exploration architecture,” Bridenstine said in response to a question from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) about how those programs would fit into NASA’s long-term exploration plans. He used the same language in similar questions from other senators about the future of those programs.

“In order to go back into Deep Space, we need the ability to throw tens of metric tons of mass to trans-lunar injection as well as carry wide pieces of hardware, which the SLS will be uniquely suited to do,” Bridenstine continued. Orion, he added, offers a life support system to “support astronauts for longer missions, is more hardened against radiation, and is designed to withstand the heat of re-entry from trajectories that accompany missions to Deep Space.”

In responses to questions from seven senators, all Republicans, Bridenstine showed no signs of making major changes to existing NASA plans, like continued development of the SLS and Orion, nor commitments to major new efforts.

Asked by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) about the Deep Space Gateway, the concept for a cislunar facility NASA is studying, Bridenstine said such an outpost could be useful, but didn’t take a hard position on whether it should be developed.

“The idea of a platform beyond LEO and in cislunar space provides a lot of opportunities for the United States,” he said, including roles for international and commercial partners. “Should I be confirmed, I look forward to working with Congress to determine if the Deep Space Gateway or other Deep Space architectures enable sustainable deep space exploration.”

Bridenstine also did not commit to an extension of the International Space Station beyond 2024, in response to another question from Lee. “The decision of whether to extend United States support of the ISS beyond 2024 is a complicated challenge,” he said, describing factors ranging from the research utility of the facility to budget issues.

“If I am confirmed as NASA Administrator,” he concluded, “I intend to work with Congress to weigh the options and to determine the best path forward for the ISS.”

Bridenstine expressed his support for commercial space ventures, seeing them as partners in NASA exploration activities. That includes providing in-situ resources, such as water ice extracted from the moon or asteroids.

“Should I be confirmed, NASA will look to study and characterize the amount and nature of the water ice on the Moon, as well as other celestial bodies,” he said in response to a question on the issue from Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) “The capabilities needed to extract and utilize this resource would be a focus of the space technology program I plan to lead, if confirmed.”

He added that companies with plans to harvest resources from asteroids and other celestial bodies could play a role. “If confirmed, NASA will examine and consider opportunities for partnership with these commercial entities,” he said.

Some questions were more parochial in nature. Wicker asked about the use of Stennis Space Center, located in his home state, including concerns that maintenance of the center’s facilities had been given a lower priority compared to other NASA facilities. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) asked about Earth science missions, noting that some instruments being developed for them are produced in his state. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) asked Bridenstine for his views on NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation facility, based in her state.

The questions offered an opportunity for Bridenstine to discuss current and proposed agency activities, something that got little attention during his Nov. 1 nomination hearing. During that hearing, he faced critical questions from Democratic members about his views on climate change, social issues and his ability to lead the agency. Few senators from either party asked specific questions about NASA programs.

The committee is scheduled to vote to advance his nomination, as well as several others for non-NASA positions, to the full Senate in a brief executive session on Nov. 8.

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NASA inspector general warns limited budget reserves could delay key programs

A report by NASA’s inspector general warned budget reserves for key NASA exploration programs like the SLS were far below recommended levels. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — As NASA prepares to update the schedule for the first flight of its Space Launch System, a report by the agency’s inspector general warns a lack of budget reserves could lead to more delays in the future.

The Nov. 6 report by the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG), addressing what it considers to be the agency’s top management and performance challenges, also identified potential cost and schedule issues with a pair of science missions scheduled for launch in 2018.

In the report, OIG noted that SLS had budget margins far below what is usually mandated for programs under development. Citing procedures established at the Marshall Space Flight Center, the lead center for SLS, “the standard monetary reserve for a program such as the SLS should be between 10 and 30 percent during development,” the report stated.

“The SLS Program did not carry any program reserves in fiscal year (FY) 2015 and only $25 million in FY 2016 — approximately 1 percent of its development budget,” the report stated. “Moving forward, the SLS Program plans to carry only minimal reserves through 2030, which in our view is unlikely to be sufficient to enable NASA to address issues that may arise during development and testing.”

The Orion crew vehicle program also has budget reserves of less than one percent, the report noted. NASA, though, plans to increase the reserves “to a more appropriate level” starting in 2019 or 2020 in advance of the first crewed Orion flight in the early 2020s.

How those limited budget reserves will affect the schedule for future missions remains to be seen. NASA has yet to announce a new launch date for the first SLS mission, named Exploration Mission (EM) 1, but notified Congress this summer that the launch would take place no earlier than October 2019, 11 months later than previously scheduled.

Agency officials said last month at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, that they expected a revised EM-1 launch date to be finalized within the next month. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, is scheduled to testify about the status of NASA’s exploration programs at a House space subcommittee hearing Nov. 9.

The OIG report identified issues with the October 2019 launch date, such as welding problems with the core stage of the SLS. “Notwithstanding the 1-year launch delay, testing and delivery of the core stage remains on the critical path with little schedule margin available to manage problems that may arise during the integration and test phase before an integrated SLS/Orion launch,” the report stated.

Schedule concerns extend to EM-2, the first crewed mission, which will also be the first flight of the SLS with a more powerful upper stage called the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS). That will require changes to both the SLS itself as well as ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center. The OIG warned in its report that the Ground Systems Development and Operations program, responsible for the SLS/Orion ground systems, “has identified a budget shortfall associated with EUS upgrades that will need to be addressed.”

The report separately raised questions about the status of some NASA science missions. Among them is Parker Solar Probe, a mission to travel closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft. The spacecraft is in the final stages of assembly and testing for a launch in mid-2018 during a 20-day window.

According to the OIG report, issues with both instruments and spacecraft subsystems had consumed some schedule reserve, as well as budget reserves held by NASA Headquarters. “As the Project begins spacecraft-level environmental testing, solving any remaining technical issues in time to meet the launch window is imperative if NASA is to avoid a minimum 10-month launch delay,” the report concluded.

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, in a response included in the report, remained optimistic that Parker Solar Probe would launch on schedule. “The Project currently holds adequate schedule and cost reserves to achieve an August 2018 launch,” he said.

OIG also warned of potential cost increases in Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2), which has already suffered problems during its development. Difficulties with its single instrument, a laser altimeter, delayed its launch by more than a year from May 2017 to September 2018, and increased its cost by nearly 25 percent to $1.06 billion.

In the report, OIG said that a failure of one of the two lasers built for that instrument during tests last year caused a three-month schedule slip from June to September 2018, “and costs may increase to support the additional work.”

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Decision on EM-1 launch date still pending

NASA managers said it could take up to a month before finalizing a new target launch date for EM-1. Credit: NASA

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — NASA is still up to a month away from setting a new target launch date for the first flight of the Space Launch System, but agency officials said they still expected it to take place in 2019.

NASA has not set a new date for Exploration Mission (EM) 1, which will launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a test flight into lunar orbit and back, since announcing in May that it would delay the flight to 2019 after deciding not to put a crew on the mission.

In September, the agency said in a statement that it would announce a new target date for EM-1 in October, citing the need to account for a range of issues, including progress on the European-built Orion service module and shutdowns at NASA centers from hurricanes in August and September.

However, an update in October is increasingly unlikely. “Within a few weeks, I think [NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot] intends to codify whatever that date is going to be,” Todd May, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in remarks at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium here Oct. 25.

Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA, offered a similar assessment. “Probably in the next month, maybe sooner,” he said in an interview.

During a panel discussion at the conference, Hill said two key elements of the EM-1, delivery of the Orion service module and completion of the core stage of the SLS, were driving the schedule for the mission. “Those are our two critical paths right now, and they’re kind of neck-and-neck for getting to a launch date,” he said.

The service module, being built by Airbus Defence and Space in Bremen, Germany, is in advanced phases of assembly, according to Mark Kirasich, NASA’s Orion program manager. The last components of the module should be in plance by March or April next year. He expected the service module to be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center “some time in the summer of next year” to be integrated with the crew module already there.

The SLS core stage has suffered welding problems that have slowed its construction. “It’s our big new development,” said John Honeycutt, NASA SLS program manager. The flight core stage will be completed next year while pathfinder units undergo testing.

“The big milestone for the public is when that core stage gets integrated and rolled out of the factory” at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and is shipped to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for testing, he said. “We’re working to a scheduled today that shows that we get the core stage out of the factory in December 2018.”

Those schedules would allow for an EM-1 launch in 2019, agency officials said. “2019 is where we think we can that done,” May said when asked when he thought the EM-1 launch would take place.

He was not more specific, but if NASA is able to maintain a 2019 launch for EM-1, it likely would be late in the year. NASA notified Congress in June that its estimated launch date for EM-1 was no earlier than October 2019, according to an Oct. 19 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Program managers, though, warned of the potential of additional problems that may crop up as the agency goes through the development and testing process of SLS and Orion, and associated ground systems at KSC, for the first time.

“We have learned that first-time events in manufacturing create challenges for us,” Honeycutt said. “When we get to do them a second time, we usually do pretty good.”

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NASA to leverage current planning for 45-day exploration report

The four RS-25 engines, which combined flew on 21 shuttle missions, that will be used for the first Space Launch System mission, EM-1. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

COLUMBIA, Md. — A shift in focus in NASA’s exploration plans to the moon won’t have an immediate effect on planning for the first flight of the agency’s Space Launch System rocket, now expected no sooner than late 2019.

At the Oct. 5 inaugural meeting of the reconstituted National Space Council, Vice President Mike Pence announced that NASA would be charged with developing plans for a human return to the moon as a stepping stone for later missions to Mars.

“We will return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” Pence said at the meeting at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. He directed NASA to develop a plan within 45 days to carry out that revised policy.

That plan will be based on ongoing studies already in progress at NASA, said Jason Crusan, head of NASA’s advanced exploration systems division, in an Oct. 10 presentation at the annual meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) here.

“We were already working on an exploration report that was required by Congress,” he said, referring to provisions in a NASA authorization bill signed into law in March calling for development of a “human exploration roadmap” identifying long-term goals for human space exploration and missions needed to accomplish them.

The initial version of that report is due to Congress in December. “We’re using a lot of that work being done for that exploration report now to answer this 45-day response time that we have,” Crusan said. “How would we enable human return [to the moon] given the constraints that we all have?”

He said that analysis will include how the proposed Deep Space Gateway, a human-tended outpost in cislunar space, could support missions to the lunar surface. “It can enable robotic missions that way initially, and then human return,” he said. “Or, do you pivot and just do human return directly?”

He cautioned that a direct return to the moon might not be sustainable in the long run. “It could be achievable, but you would gut a lot of things in the process to go do that very rapidly,” he said.

That plan, as it takes shape, appears unlikely to make major changes in the first launch of the SLS, known as Exploration Mission (EM) 1. That will be an uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft, spending more than three weeks in cislunar space.

On EM-1, Orion will fly in a distant retrograde orbit around the moon, an orbit NASA originally studied for use on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) because of its stability. NASA formally cancelled plans for ARM earlier this year, but will still use that orbit for EM-1.

“We’re continuing to use that orbit to push the systems,” Crusan said. “We wanted to find a challenging orbit to send Orion into that pushes the overall performance of the vehicle to understand what the limits of it are.”

The launch date of EM-1 remains uncertain. An agency spokesperson said last month that NASA would announce a new target launch date for the mission in October after performing reviews that took into account both technical issues with the development of SLS and Orion as well as weather events, such as hurricanes that shut down the Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers this summer. That statement came amid reports that the launch date was slipping to late 2019.

On Oct. 11, NASA announced it had identified the four RS-25 engines that will be used on the SLS for EM-1. Those engines are former Space Shuttle Main Engines that flew on 21 shuttle missions, including two engines that flew on the final shuttle mission in July 2011. The engines have been updated and tested for use on the core stage of the SLS.

“The Space Launch System team has made great progress and has an exciting year ahead as NASA conducts crucial structural tests at Marshall, assembles the core stage and the four RS-25 engines at Michoud and delivers more hardware to the launch pad at Kennedy,” said John Honeycutt, SLS program manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center, in an agency statement. That statement did not disclose a projected launch date for EM-1.

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NASA to update EM-1 schedule in October

NASA will provide an update for the schedule of Exploration Mission 1, the first launch of the Space Launch System, in October. Credit: NASA

SYDNEY — NASA plans to publish a revised launch date for the first mission of its Space Launch System in October amid reports that the flight has been pushed back to nearly the end of 2019.

In a statement to SpaceNews Sept. 22, NASA spokesperson Kathryn Hambleton said that NASA will issue an update for the scheduled launch of Exploration Mission (EM) 1 in October.

That schedule, she said, is being influenced by several issues, ranging from work on the European-provided service module for the Orion spacecraft and the impact of several weather events, including both the tornado that struck the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which shut down the Johnson Space Center in Houston and Kennedy Space Center in Florida respectively by more than a week.

“All of these factors are influencing launch planning and will result in an EM-1 mission in 2019,” she said. “An update to the agency’s target for EM-1 launch is expected in October.”

That statement came after NASASpaceFlight.com, citing internal documents, reported Sept. 22 that the launch date for EM-1 had been delayed until no earlier than Dec. 15, 2019, with EM-2, the first SLS mission to carry a crew, delayed until no earlier than June 2022.

NASA had already indicated that EM-1, originally scheduled for launch as soon as 2017, would be delayed until some time in 2019. In an April response to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that the agency was in the process of establishing a new launch date for EM-1 in 2019 after the report cited issues that threatened to delay the then-scheduled date of November 2018.

NASA confirmed those plans in May when the agency announced that it would not put a crew on EM-1 after performing a study at the request of the White House regarding that. The agency concluded that while it would be feasible to do so, there were cost, schedule and risk issues in doing so.

At that time Gerstenmaier acknowledged schedule issues, including a recent welding mishap at Michoud that damaged a liquid hydrogen tank being built for SLS qualification tests, would push EM-1 to 2019. “We’re probably a month or two away from coming up with a final schedule,” he said at the time, although the agency has not provided a schedule update since the May announcement.

At that time, Gerstenmaier also said that the EM-1 delay would also likely push back EM-2, which was then scheduled for August 2021. Part of any delay is the need to reconfigure ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center after the EM-1 launch to support the use of an upgraded version of the SLS with the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage.

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