The Designers and Builders of Space Exploration

NASA is building the most powerful rocket in the world to fulfill its “Journey to Mars” mission. And the space agency is relying on the people of Alabama to get it done.

Building the SLS has created many new tech partnerships, according to NASA’s Jerry Cook. Photo by Tyler Brown

The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is being designed, tested and built at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, and a number of companies from throughout the state are playing important roles.

“Exploring space is imperative to addressing the fundamental questions about our place in the universe and the history of our solar system, ” says Jerry Cook, deputy director of the NASA Space Launch System. “As demonstrated by the numerous inventions created because of America’s space exploration efforts, we expand technology and create new industries that make Earth a better place, and SLS is the vehicle that is going to allow us to explore like never before.”

Building a Better Rocket

Like the Saturn V rocket that first took humans to the moon and the space shuttle that helped build the International Space Station and inspired generations, the SLS will have strong ties to Huntsville and Alabama. Its technology builds on the engineering and history of those earlier programs and promises a more powerful result that can travel farther than any other space vehicle before it. “From the start, NASA designed SLS to take advantage of five decades of investments in technology, facilities and a skilled workforce, ” Cook says.

- Sponsor -

A powerful rocket is needed to send both humans and cargo to deep space destinations such as Mars. For instance, the first human travelers to Mars will need to take many things such as support equipment, habitats, food, water, tools and experiments. “The SLS design makes it easier to transport astronauts and the necessary equipment and payloads with fewer launches, reducing planetary trip time because of its unprecedented capability, ” Cook says. “SLS is the only rocket capable of taking humans and the huge payloads required for deep space exploration, and it will carry more than any launch vehicle ever made.”

Building such a powerful rocket hasn’t been easy. A vehicle traveling through space will encounter harsh environments, and meeting the challenges of designing and building a powerful launch vehicle that can survive the trip is a feat of engineering.

Various components that make up the rocket must be integrated with each other and all function together properly for launch, and harmonizing all those moving parts has been the greatest challenge in building a vehicle for deep space travel, Cook says. To overcome the challenge, NASA has worked to combine new technology and engineering with successful pieces of the past. “While NASA is taking advantage of proven launch vehicle components, such as the RS-25 engines that flew on 135 Space Shuttle missions, we have adapted those engines to the new loads and environments that this bigger, more powerful vehicle will experience, plus added a new controller (computer) to power the engine, ” Cook says.

During 2017, NASA will integrate those engines into a brand new Core Stage that will hold all the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen needed to fuel the engines, as well as the flight computers and most of the avionics that control the rocket’s flight. Similarly, there are numerous other components that must be integrated across the entire rocket — and all must ultimately come together to create a new vehicle, ready for its first flight in 2018.

A qualification test article for the liquid hydrogen tank on NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, is lifted off the Vertical Assembly Center after final welding at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

Funding the Project

The SLS and the people and companies working to make it happen have benefited greatly from the support of the U.S. Congress. In 2010, President Barack Obama and Congress established a space exploration plan that “continues to have broad consensus and aligns all of NASA’s work in support of the goal to send American astronauts farther into space than ever before, ” Cook says.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate appropriations subcommittee overseeing space flight announced that it would fund NASA’s 2017 budget at more than $19 billion, a $21 million increase from the previous year. In addition to allocating funding for the first SLS launch in 2018, Congress has also committed funding for NASA to begin working toward the more powerful Block 1B version of the rocket, which will fly on the second mission in 2021. That second mission is planned to send the first astronauts farther away from Earth than any humans have ever ventured before.

Congressional funding for SLS allows opportunities for numerous private companies to contribute their skills and expertise to the project. For instance, Huntsville-based businesses Radiance Technologies and Dynetics are partnering to fabricate, assemble and transport the Space Launch System Core Stage Pathfinder Vehicle. When complete, SLS will represent work that is taking place at more than 800 companies in 43 states around the country. “This is truly America’s rocket, ” Cook says.

These companies are providing an array of products and services to support the program, including precision fasteners, engineering and procurement services, developing alloy products for Aerojet’s RS-25 rocket engines, designing and qualifying critical components for the Boeing SLS core stage, and manufacturing the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter pedestals.

“The funding allocated to the SLS rocket is dedicated to building and testing the most powerful, capable launch vehicle ever constructed, and it isn’t being used for any other purpose, ” Cook says. “NASA is partnering with private industry in new and innovative ways, freeing up our resources to focus on our exploration of the Red Planet, all while creating good-paying, high-tech jobs here at home. Thanks to the hard work of thousands of scientists, astronauts and engineers, we are closer to sending humans to Mars than ever before.”

The interim cryogenic propulsion stage test article made a five-hour journey on the Tennessee River from United Launch Alliance in Decatur to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

Staying on Schedule

In October 2015, the SLS program completed its Critical Design Review (CDR), marking the first time in almost 40 years that a NASA human-rated rocket has completed all steps needed to clear a critical design review. “This milestone proved the program has a technically and structurally robust vehicle design and is ready for testing and manufacturing, ” Cook says.

NASA is meeting its schedule commitments and is on track to launch the first integrated mission of SLS and Orion in late 2018. For instance, the program has completed the second booster test at Orbital ATK in Utah and is continuing testing on the RS-25 engine at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Currently, there are 16 RS-25 engines in inventory at Stennis Space Center, enough for the first four flights.

At Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, full-scale welding of flight hardware for the SLS Core Stage is under way, with all major welded components scheduled for completion this year. By late 2016, Birmingham-based Brasfield & Gorrie will complete the new test stands for SLS core stage testing, and the testing will begin by early 2017.

When the SLS is ready, its maiden SLS flight will not include a crew but will test the launch vehicle, the Orion spacecraft, and technologies, such as navigation and communication systems, necessary for carrying astronauts farther away from Earth than people have ever traveled before. But from the first launch, SLS will help provide information for further research: “Even on its first flight, SLS will carry 13 small satellites that will study everything from the moon to asteroids to radiation in deep space, ” Cook says. “We are making progress every day on the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft and modernizing NASA’s ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to support deep space exploration, including NASA’s journey to Mars.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She is based in Huntsville.

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox