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Contractors Pitch SLS as Everybody’s Rocket

Initial versions of the Space Launch System will be capable of sending 70 metric tons to low Earth orbit. Upgraded SLS variants would be capable of lifting as many as 130 metric tons to low Earth orbit. Credit: NASA artist's concept

WASHINGTON — Contractors for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket NASA is building for astronaut missions beyond Earth orbit joined the agency’s top human-spaceflight official here to pitch the launcher as a jack-of-all trades system suitable for everything from science missions to national security launches.

Initial versions of SLS will be capable of sending 70 metric tons to low Earth orbit. Like the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets that loft most big national security and NASA science payloads today, the first SLS will feature a fairing 5 meters in diameter. The upgraded SLS would feature a 10-meter fairing and lift as much as 130 metric tons.

“I think that the science community and even communities like the [National Reconnaissance Office] will start to think about what kind of payloads they could develop to leverage those kind of capabilities,” John Elbon, vice president of Houston-based Boeing Space Exploration, said during a Nov. 12 press briefing sponsored by TechAmerica’s Space Enterprise Council at the Newseum here. Boeing is prime contractor for the SLS core stage. 

Elbon said a 70-metric-ton-capable SLS could send NASA’s proposed Europa Clipper probe to Jupiter in two years, substantially shortening the seven-year cruise that Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission planners envision with an Atlas 5 launch. 

Elbon was joined Nov. 12 by executives from ATK Aerospace and AerojetRocketdyne, which are providing SLS’s side-mounted solid-fueled boosters’ core engines, respectively. Also at the press conference was Jim Crocker, the top executive for civil space at Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems .

The pitch the SLS contractors made was echoed in a booklet showing a series of proposed NASA science missions for which SLS might be a good fit. It was similar to, although much smaller than, a 2008 report from the National Academies called “Launching Science: Science Opportunities Provided by NASA’s Constellation System.” Constellation was the Moon-exploration program proposed by former U.S. President George W. Bush in 2004 and canceled by President Barack Obama in 2010. Many of SLS’s subsystems were intended for Constellation’s cargo-only Ares 5 rocket and its Ares 1 crew-carrying counterpart. 

The booklet given to reporters Nov. 12 advertised SLS as the only launch vehicle capable of sending North Las Vegas, Nev.-based Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable BA 330 habitation module to the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2 — the same orbit to which the agency is considering redirecting an asteroid later this decade.

At a separate press event Nov. 12, Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow said his company had discussed two kinds of Bigelow habitats that might fly on SLS, including one that involved a new design that will require a launch vehicle with at least an 8-meter fairing.

Bigelow would not disclose details of the planned spacecraft. However, he said he would like to involve one of the BA 330s in NASA’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission. For that mission NASA would develop a new robotic spacecraft, to be launched later this decade, to nudge an asteroid roughly 10 meters in diameter into a distant lunar orbit. Astronauts aboard SLS and Orion would then visit the asteroid in the early 2020s.

SLS is slated to debut in 2017 carrying an uncrewed Orion into a lunar retrograde orbit; the first crewed mission for SLS and Orion is targeted for 2021. NASA is spending roughly $3 billion a year on the combined effort. William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the programs have had to learn to operate without the year-to-year budget increases common to space projects entering peak development. 

Speaking at the SLS press event, the NASA veteran said he could not even hazard a guess at the effect another round of sequestration cuts — which will take place in January unless Congress acts — would have on SLS and Orion. 

“It’s not clear to me exactly how [sequestration] gets calculated,” Gerstenmaier said. For 2014, “under some scenarios, our budget may be essentially flat ... in the 2013 enacted budget levels for the agencies. In other scenarios it may be a cut of a couple hundred million off that. So to ask me specifically what it’s going to mean in terms of impacts and to expect me to give you canned numbers and impacts, I can’t do that, because I don’t know what the budget side is.”

 

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

 

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