The SLS Saga: 2019 Start of Year Mini Project Update
***A mini start of 2019 update on the SLS Program. For additional posts, please visit the SLS Saga Overview microsite here.***
While 2019 has been off to a fast start for most, for anything related to the U.S. government, it has been grinding to a slow halt due to the partial government shutdown. NASA is one of the agencies affected by this shutdown and is “currently CLOSED due to a lapse in Government funding.” While some critical NASA services remain unaffected (e.g., International Space Station remains fully operational), these “excepted” employees are working without pay. My heart goes out to everyone who is affected by the shutdown; it’s my sincere hope that our leaders can work together and get the government reopened as soon as possible.
This shutdown is also having a major impact on NASA’s current signature project: the SLS Program. While already mired in delays, the SLS Program and its 2019 testing schedule is likely to be further adversely impacted.
Testing and more Testing…
2019 should be a year full of testing for this massive space program. For instance, many critical tests are planned for its core stage. First, the SLS core stage will be stress tested at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Here, the core stage will undergo more than 30 different test scenarios, subjecting this main SLS fuel cylinder to 340,000 pounds of shearing force. Eventually, once the core stage completes and passes this battery of tests, it will be moved to NASA”s Stennis Space Center for its milestone “Green Run” test on the B-2 test stand.
In the “Green Run” test, a fully-fueled SLS core stage will be put through an 8-minute long in-place launch and ascent sequence. This “static fire” test is one of the final certification tests for the core stage as the cylinder’s engines are fired at full thrust. Using the B-2 test stand, the core stage will be securely restrained during this highly-volatile test sequence.
As an aside, this B-2 test stand has been an integral part of the U.S. space program, helping to test the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo Program, as well as the Shuttle and the Delta 4 rocket. While some of its structure from the Saturn V and Shuttle days can be reused, new materials/support structures have been built on top of these older foundational parts. This retrofitting process has been a work in progress since 2012.
Shutdown Woes and Further Delays
The Government shutdown has already started to detrimentally impact the rigorous SLS testing schedule. While testing on the engines had been completed, testing on the intertank, which started to undergo testing when the shutdown began, has been paused at the Marshall Space Flight Center. With such testing at the Marshall facility, the Green Test at Stennis Space Center will likely be pushed back as well. While no date has been set, it’s likely that the static fire test will not occur until early 2020. This means that Exploration-Mission One, the first unmanned mission of the SLS Program, which had been delayed to June 2020, will likely see further delay.
Other Components delivering a bit of Good News
But, to end this update with a bit of positive news, the SLS Program was able to achieve some positive momentum at the end of 2018. First, the Orion capsule, which will be a part of Exploration-Mission Two of the SLS Program, passed its critical design review. Exploration-Mission Two is expected to be the first manned mission of the SLS Program and the Orion capsule, the crew component, will be used to fly a group of four on a lunar flyby. Furthermore, the Universal Stage Adapter, which links the SLS rocket cylinder to the Orion capsule, has also passed its sound-related vibration testing at the Plum Brook Station.
So while the SLS Program has had its share of delays, it has made significant strides in the last few years. Although my hope is that the SLS Program continues its series of successful tests, unfortunately, the Government shutdown will likely stall some of its growing momentum in 2019.