|Budget means systems go for SLS
Uncertainty for two NASA facilities ended in March when the president signed a bill
that ensures continuation of the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle
The test late last month of the “brain” of an engine that will used on the first flight of
the new Space Launch System (SLS) was routine enough. But it was significant as
the first test since the deep space program got a budget ensuring it will continue in
the Trump administration.
For NASA, it’s always uncertain what will happen when a new administration comes to
Washington. Programs from the Bush administration changed with Obama, and when
Trump was elected president change was again anticipated.
Uncertainty ended for the most part March 21 when Trump signed the bipartisan
NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, authorizing funding for NASA while setting
a new goal to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. It gives the space agency $19.5
billion in funding for fiscal year 2018. Sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), it had
seven co-sponsors, including Bill Nelson, (D-Fla.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
“We are grateful for the longstanding support and trust of the American people,
which enables our nation’s space, aeronautics, science, and technology
development programs to thrive,” said NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot.
“Our workforce has proven time and again that it can meet any challenge, and the
continuing support for NASA ensures our nation’s space program will remain the
world’s leader in pioneering new frontiers in exploration, innovation, and scientific
achievement,” he said.
Importantly for the Gulf Coast region, the bill not only affirms continued funding for
SLS and the Orion crew vehicle, but also continues to support the development of
commercial space flight. That in itself is significant since commercial space
companies use both Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans and SSC.
NASA is receiving slightly more than the $19.1 billion Trump requested in his 2018
budget blueprint, which would have been a modest cut for the agency, which is
currently operating on a budget of $19.3 billion for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1,
according to a March 21 story in The Hill.
The bill amends current law to add human exploration of Mars as a goal for the
agency. It also supports use of the International Space Station (ISS) through at least
2024, and supports private sector companies partnering with NASA to deliver cargo
and experiments. It also advocates deep cut in NASA’s Earth science programs, but
maintains support for a robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Trump also plans to re-launch the National Space Council to coordinate U.S. space
policy. The council was authorized by law in 1988, near the end of the Reagan
administration, but ceased to operate soon after Bill Clinton took office in January
1993, according to the Chicago Tribune.
One of the key issues that still has to be addressed is who will become the new NASA
administrator. The president still has not named anyone to the key post.
Gulf Coast work
The continuation of the deep space is important to both SSC and MAF, which are
involved in building some of the space hardware and testing the propulsion systems.
The core stage of the SLS, being built by Boeing, is slowly but surely materializing at
the huge MAF complex. The largest component, a 133-foot liquid hydrogen fuel tank,
has been completed. Also at MAF, Lockheed Martin builds the Orion crew module.
The first test flight of an unmanned Orion, Exploration Flight Test 1, was in December
2014 when it was launched by a Delta IV rocket for a four-hour, two-orbit test.
The first Orion that will be launched atop the SLS arrived at Kennedy Space Center
this past November for additional assembly and testing.
A tornado hit Michoud in early February and caused extensive damage, but NASA
said the storm did not damage any SLS or Orion hardware.
Meanwhile, some 35 miles away at SSC, testing is underway on the SLS first stage
engines, the RS-25. Four of the engines, along with a pair of solid rocket boosters,
will be used to launch SLS in 2018.
The first RS-25 engine controller that will be used on the first flight of the SLS was
tested March 23. The new controller has the electronics that operate the engine and
communicate with the SLS vehicle.
Engine Controller Unit-2 (ECU-2) was installed on RS-25 development engine No.
0528 and test fired for 500 seconds on the test stand. Once test data is certified, the
engine controller will be removed and installed on one of four flight engines that will
help power the first integrated flight of SLS and the Orion spacecraft.
This year, two more engine controllers for the first SLS mission will be tested on this
development engine and then installed on flight engines.
The fourth controller will be tested when NASA tests the entire core stage during a
“green run” on the B-2 Test Stand at SSC. It will involve installing the core stage on
the stand and firing its four RS-25 flight engines simultaneously, as during a mission
A little more than a month before the controller test, NASA engineers at SSC
conducted the first RS-25 test of 2017 on the A-1 Test Stand to collect data on the
performance of the rocket engine. That test of development engine No. 0528 ran 380
The engines for the first four SLS flights are former space shuttle main engines,
which were tested extensively at SSC and are some of the most proven engines in
Engineers are conducting an ongoing series of tests this year for SLS on both
development and flight engines for future flights to ensure the engine, outfitted with a
new controller, can perform at the higher level under a variety of conditions and
SSC is also preparing its B-2 Test Stand to test the core stage for the first SLS flight
with the Orion space capsule, known as Exploration Mission-1. That testing will
involve installing the flight stage on the stand and firing its four RS-25 engines
SSC, in addition to its work for NASA, also works with commercial companies, such as
SpaceX, to test the engines and components they will need in order to achieve their
own space missions.