News from Space: Space Launch Systems Good to Go!

SLS_goNASA’s Space Launch System, the US’s first exploration-class spacecraft since the Space Shuttle, is a central component in the agency’s plan to restore its ability to independently launch missions into space. An after a thorough review of cost and engineering issues, NASA managers formally approved the mammoth rocket past the whiteboard formulation stage and moved it into full-scale development.

As the world’s most powerful rocket ever built and is intended to take astronauts farther beyond Earth into deep space than ever before possible. This includes the first-ever manned mission to Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and perhaps other planets and moons throughout the Solar System as well. The first SLS mission should lift off no later than 2018, sending the Orion capsule around the Moon, with asteroid and Mars-bound missions following after 2030 or 2032.

Space_Shuttle_Atlantis_launchNASA began the SLS’s design process back in 2011. Back then, the stated goal was to try and re-use as many Space Shuttle components and get back into deep space as quickly and as cost effectively as possible. But now that the formulation stage has been completed, and focus has shifted to actually developing and fabricating the launch system’s millions of constituent components, what kind of missions the SLS will be capable of has become much clearer.

At a press briefing that took place at their Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, Aug. 27th, NASA officials shared  details about the maiden test launch. Known as EM-1, the launch is targeted for November 2018 and will involve the SLS  carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a journey lasting roughly three weeks that will take it beyond the Moon to a distant retrograde orbit.

Orion_with_ATV_SMPreviously NASA had been targeting Dec. 2017 for the inaugural launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But the new Nov. 2018 target date has resulted from the rigorous assessment of the technical, cost and scheduling issues. The decision to move forward with the SLS comes after a wide ranging review of the technical risks, costs, schedules and timing known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C).

As Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process, said at the briefing:

After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment. Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program. We are making excellent progress on SLS designed for missions beyond low Earth orbit. We owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right.

spaceX-falcon9The SLS involved in the test flight will be configured to its 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version. By comparison, the Saturn V — which took NASA astronauts to the Moon — had a max Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) payload capacity of 118 metric tons, but it has long since been retired. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which is a much smaller and cheaper rocket than the SLS, will be able to put 55 metric tons into LEO.

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, there aren’t really any heavy lift launchers in operation. Ariane 5, produced by commercial spacecraft manufacturer Arianespace, can only do 21 metric tons to LEO, while the Delta IV (United Launch Alliance) can do 29 metric tons to LEO. In short, NASA’s Space Launch System should be by far the most powerful operational rocket when it arrives in 2017-2018.

CST_Main_Header2-process-sc938x350-t1386173951SpaceX could decide to scale-up the Falcon Heavy, but the rocket’s main purpose is to compete with United Launch Alliance and Arianespace, which currently own the incredibly lucrative heavy lift market. A payload capacity of 55 tons is more than enough for that purpose. A capacity of 150 tons is only for rockets that are intended to aim at targets that are much farther than geostationary orbit — such as the Moon, Mars or Europa.

The SLS’s primary payload will be the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), though it will undoubtedly be used to send other large spacecraft into deep space. The Orion capsule is what NASA will use to land astronauts on the Moon, captured asteroids, Mars, and any other manned missions throughout the Solar System. The first manned Orion launch, to a captured asteroid in lunar orbit, is scheduled to occur in 2021.

mars_roverCombined with SpaceX’s crewed Dragon spacecraft, Boeing’s CST-100, and a slew of crowd-funded projects to place boots on Mars and Europa in the next few decades, things are looking up for human space exploration!


Forty-Fifth Anniversary of Apollo 11

Apollo11_launch1Today, July 20th, marks the 45th anniversary of the first step being taken on the Moon. And even though the coming decades may involve astronauts setting foot on Mars or a nearby asteroid, the Moon landing will forever remain one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. And the many speeches, footage and images associated with the mission remain firmly rooted in public consciousness.

Born during the closing months of the Eisenhower administration as a follow-up to Project Mercury – which successfully put astronauts into orbit – Project Apollo was conceived when spaceflight was still very much in its infancy. However, it was under President Kennedy that the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the decade truly began.

kennedy_moonspeechAnd though some within NASA were already doing some preliminary planning for a manned mission to the Moon in the late 1950s, there was no hardware that could see the mission fly, no rockets large enough to launch a manned spacecraft all the way to the Moon, and no provisions for managing a program of that magnitude. The men and women who brought the lunar landing to fruition were forced to invent almost everything as they went along.

And in the nine years between President Kennedy promising America the Moon and Neil Armstrong’s small step, NASA developed an unprecedented amount of technology and know-how that continues to shape the way NASA and other space agencies plan and implement missions today. These include the Saturn V multistage rockets, which are currently being refurbished for a manned mission to Mars by 2030.

Apollo_11Launching on from Cape Kennedy on the morning of July 16th, 1969, the mission sent Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin into an initial Earth-orbit. Then, just two hours and 44 minutes after launch, another engines burn put Apollo 11 into a translunar orbit. Four days later, the Lunar Module touched down and the three men – with Armstrong in the lead – stepped onto the Lunar surface.

And for those looking to participate in the anniversary, there are several ways you can participate. On Twitter, @ReliveApollo11 from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is reliving the highlights from Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in “real time”. Also, @NASAHistory is tweeting images and events from the mission, and journalist Amy Shira Teitel (@astVintageSpace) is tweeting pictures, facts and quotes from the mission, again in “real time”.

apollo11_flag2At 7:39 p.m. PDT (10:39 p.m. EDT), when Armstrong opened began the first spacewalk on the Moon, NASA TV will replay the restored footage of Armstrong and Aldrin’s historic steps on the lunar surface. On Monday, July 21 at 7 a.m. PDT (10 a.m. EDT) NASA TV will be broadcasting live from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where they will be renaming the center’s Operations and Checkout Building in honor of Armstrong, who passed away in 2012.

The renaming ceremony will include NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Kennedy Center Director Robert Cabana, Apollo 11′s Collins, Aldrin and astronaut Jim Lovell, who was the mission’s back-up commander. International Space Station NASA astronauts Wiseman and Steve Swanson, who is the current station commander, also will take part in the ceremony from their orbiting laboratory 260 miles above Earth.

Apollo_11_bootprintOn Thursday, July 24 at 3 p.m. PDT (6 p.m. EDT), which is the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11′s return to Earth, the agency will host a panel discussion – called NASA’s Next Giant Leap – from Comic-Con International in San Diego. Moderated by actor Seth Green, the panel includes Aldrin, NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green, JPL systems engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke.

In addition to Aldrin recounting his experiences, Fincke and the other NASA staff are slated to talk about the new Orion space capsule and the Space Launch System rocket – both of which will carry humans on America’s next great adventure in space – and what the future holds for space exploration. These will no doubt include talk of the planned missions to an asteroid, Mars, and quite possibly the construction of a settlement on the Moon.

apollo11_flag1The website will host features, videos, and historic images and audio clips that highlight the Apollo 11 anniversary, as well as the future of human spaceflight. You can find it all by clicking here. And if you don’t have NASA TV on your cable or satellite feeds, you can catch it all online here. Plenty has been happening already, marking the anniversary of the launch and recapturing the mission in “real-time”.

Forty five years later, and Apollo 11 still holds a special place in our collective hears, minds, and culture. One can only hope that the next generation of astronauts prove as equal to the task as those who made the Moon Landing were. And I’m sure that when they do make history, Neil Armstrong (may he rest in peace) will be watching approvingly.

And be sure to check out this video from Spacecraft Films, showing the entire Apollo 11 mission in 100 seconds: