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NASA’s Big Rocket a Step Closer to Reality

The Space Launch System has been approved for production

Posted by Jason Davis and Casey Dreier

28-08-2014 12:33 CDT

Topics: Explaining Policy, Space Policy, mission status, human spaceflight, SLS/Orion

NASA announced that the Space Launch System (SLS) passed a critical milestone yesterday that moves the massive rocket a step closer towards reality. But buried within the announcement was news that the SLS’s inaugural launch date could slip by nearly a year to November of 2018. 

The milestone has the delightfully obtuse name of Key Decision Point C (KDP-C). NASA missions are broken down into project phases A through F, each representing a different point and set of challenges in the lifecycle of the program. Phase A, for example, is primarily focused on basic concept and technology development. Phase E, on the other hand, is the actual operations part of a mission. The Curiosity rover is in Phase E as we write this.

Phase C, as you might imagine, sits squarely in the middle of these two extremes. But it’s important, as it represents a major shift in the project, and KDP-C is the gateway for this shift. As of now, the SLS has moved on from design and development into actual physical implementation. Fine-grained schematics can now be developed for all systems and subsystems. The components that make up these systems are being built or bought. No more major design changes can happen from this point on without major costs and delays. 

NASA flight mission project life cycle

NASA / GAO

NASA flight mission project life cycle

To pass into Phase C-land, the SLS had to make it through two major reviews: a technical assessment and a programmatic assessment.

The technical assessment looked at the vehicle’s design to make sure it can actually fly, a rather important capability for a rocket. Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s associate administrator, said the vehicle passed its technical assessment with flying colors. “There were absolutely no issues with the great progress that the team has made, and they were cleared to proceed to the critical design review,” he said. The Critical Design Review (CDR) is another technical test the SLS will face midway through Phase C, where a group of experts reviews the detailed design drawings and test plans.

The second component of KDP-C was the programmatic assessment. Here, NASA took cost and scheduling estimates for the project and fed them into modeling software. The modeling software spits out an industry standard number called a Joint Confidence Level (JCL). Government Accountability Office and NASA standards call for a JCL of 70% or higher for most projects to remain healthy. JCLs have been successfully used on NASA science missions, but this is the first time they have been used on a human spaceflight program.

Basically, the JCL calculates the likelihood you’ll deliver an on-time and on-budget project under various cost and schedule scenarios. Do you want an aggressive timeline and a high level of confidence that you will achieve it? You’ll need to increase the money available to the program to be able to throw resources at unexpected problems. Don't have extra money? The JCL will tell you that you'll need to delay your goals instead. This confidence level helps managers get a grasp on what financial/time cushion is needed to complete a project.

The problem is that the SLS’s budget has been and will remain relatively flat. Engineering projects usually have a curve of funding that peaks during the construction phase of the mission, since this is when workforce needs are the highest. This is also the phase when most technical and engineering problems crop up. The SLS doesn’t have the luxury of a proper funding profile within NASA’s already strained budget, so there’s little room for an extra financial cushion.

So essentially, to get a JCL of 70% with a White House-proposed budget of $7 billion from February 2014, the modeling software told NASA they should be prepared for the December 2017 launch date to slip to November 2018. William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, hopes to beat that November 2018 estimate, and said his teams are continuing to operate on their original schedules. The original 2017 launch date can happen if nothing goes wrong. But the whole point of the JCL is that it assumes something will go wrong—it always does.

The exact reasons the programmatic assessment decided the December 2017 launch date wasn’t feasible isn’t clear, but we do know that it’s not related to the Orion crew capsule. “[The JCL assessment] includes just the development activities associated with building the rocket,” Gerstenmaier said, adding that a KDP-C analysis for SLS ground systems is expected next. Orion will also face a KDP-C sometime after its inaugural test flight.

NASA currently has official plans for three flights of Orion—the latter two of which take place with SLS. The first launch happens this December on top of a Delta IV Heavy rocket and is uncrewed. Orion next flies on the debut launch of SLS, which now has the “no later than” date of November 2018. This mission will also be without a crew.

The SLS will then launch the first crewed mission sometime around 2021. Gerstenmaier said that if the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission has delivered an asteroid to lunar orbit by then, this mission will visit the asteroid. If not, it will still send humans to orbit the moon, but serve as a test flight. Current budget plans do not include anything beyond this for either the SLS or Orion.

SLS pierces the clouds

NASA / MSFC

SLS pierces the clouds
The 70-metric-ton version of NASA's Space Launch System pierces the clouds in this artist's rendering.
 
See other posts from August 2014

 

Or read more blog entries about: Explaining Policy, Space Policy, mission status, human spaceflight, SLS/Orion

Comments:

Bob Ware: 08/28/2014 12:52 CDT

Thanks Jason - a nice piece from the release I saw yesterday also. However - (my view only) - The SLS/Orion budget sounds like the budget for Buran when Buran was at this same point in its life cycle. By analogy this is like selling personal cars on an aircraft carrier to the crew so they can get around on their time off. Where's the budget after 2018? I'll bet it's not coming other than for a LEO flight to ISS, never mind the private contractor NASA is to award that job to later this week (at this time frame).

Bob Ware: 08/28/2014 12:58 CDT

Casey - Thanks for the contribution but I do not see the budget going to be there for this after 2018, as stated above. I guess we'll be busy trying to see that Orion has a budget but not at the expense of automated missions. I do prefer astronauted flight but the automated missions are also needed to pave the wave or to go where technologically humans can't go to (at this time). Those don't need to be cut either. Good luck to us on the budget battles to come over this after 2018. We are only in skirmishes now. The real battles will come after the 2018 FY. (my view)

Stephen: 09/01/2014 09:22 CDT

Interesting article. "The SLS will then launch the first crewed mission sometime around 2021. ... Current budget plans do not include anything beyond this for either the SLS or Orion." So why exactly is the US spending all that money again on not one but two programs which may turn out to be dead ends? "Gerstenmaier said that if the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission has delivered an asteroid to lunar orbit by then, this mission will visit the asteroid." When read with the preceding quote… So unless an asteroid retrieval is achieved by 2021, Obama's manned mission to an asteroid many never happen at all? I note that 2021 is the year following 2020. If NASA needs 6+ years to plan, build, and send a rover to Mars in 2020, how long will it need to not only plan, build, and send an asteroid retrieval mission, but also retrieve (to lunar orbit) an asteroid by 2021? The clock is ticking.

Casey Dreier: 09/02/2014 02:01 CDT

Stephen: I think a crewed mission to an asteroid planned more for the mid-2020s. Gerstenmaier is playing up expectations a bit, because, as you point out, the timeline would be very difficult to work out. I don't think the timeline precludes either the SLS or a human mission to an asteroid, as the SLS can fly around the Moon, Apollo 8-style, and wait for the next launch opportunity once the asteroid is in place. As to why the US is spending money on Orion and SLS? That all goes back to the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, passed by Congress, which specified both programs after the White House cancelled the Constellation program. That's the short answer. The long answer deserves its own feature-length piece in a magazine.

Stephen: 09/03/2014 04:50 CDT

@Casey Dreier: "I think a crewed mission to an asteroid [is] planned more for the mid-2020s." Even the mid-2020s seem a trifle optimistic to be talking about missions to MOVE asteroids around like chess pieces. The 2120s maybe… After all, NASA would presumal;y need to do a few test/practice missions first. "as the SLS can fly around the Moon, Apollo 8-style, and wait for the next launch opportunity once the asteroid is in place."' Not sure I understand that. Correct me I'm mistaken, but the SLS is a launch vehicle. It won't be going to the Moon. The Orion spacecraft which the SLS launches is what would travel to lunar orbit. But even if the SLS could, what would be the point in sending it there without any astronauts aboard and no asteroid in a lunar parking orbit? "That's the short answer. " The short answer is that American manned space program currently has no future. There are no firm mission plans beyond the ISS and that is due to end some time in the 2020s. The longer answer is that one asteroid retrieval mission (ARM) does not a future make; and even that ARM has not yet been funded, least of all formally proposed and agreed to. NASA in its illustrious history has "flown" more paper missions than it has actual ones. Thus far this ARM seems another such paper fantasy, one whose only sign of a more tangible existence is a presidential press release.

Casey Dreier: 09/03/2014 04:55 CDT

Stephen, forgive my shorthand in my response. I lump SLS with SLS/Orion, and Orion would be the spacecraft orbiting the Moon, Apollo 8-style. The Asteroid Initiative at NASA has identified several candidate asteroids that they could redirect into lunar orbit by the mid-to-early 2020s. More options are available if they grab a boulder off of a larger asteroid. NASA has yet to select which method they will pursue. We are told that selection will occur before the end of the year.

Stephen: 09/04/2014 06:20 CDT

@Casey Dreier: "The Asteroid Initiative at NASA has identified several candidate asteroids that they could redirect into lunar orbit by the mid-to-early 2020s.."' Thanks, Casey. Glad to hear it. On the other hand, the Washington Post noted back in July 2013: "NASA’s asteroid initiative is in preliminary stages, and the capture mission isn’t even an official program yet." http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/nasa-asteroid-mission-is-new-focus-of-budget-debate-in-congress/2013/07/20/a5166f82-f136-11e2-a1f9-ea873b7e0424_story.html Hopefully once they decide where to go they will be able to design the mission around it, although that does seem to be the opposite to what happens with Mars rovers. (Set up mission first then decide where to go based on what the rover is capable of.)

Jason Davis: 09/04/2014 01:23 CDT

Hi Stephen, If you're interested, you can read about the current list of possible ARM targets here: http://www.planetary.org/blogs/jason-davis/2014/the-latest-on-nasas-asteroid.html Michelle Gates said that NASA doesn't need to identify a final target until a year before launch of the capture vehicle, which is tentatively scheduled for 2019. As you and Casey note, having the asteroid back in lunar orbit by 2021 seems very optimistic if the vehicle uses solar electric propulsion. If that happens, the plan would presumably be to send a yet-to-be-budgeted SLS/Orion to visit the asteroid. Jason

Stephen: 09/12/2014 02:06 CDT

@Jason Davis Thanks, Jason. "If that happens, the plan would presumably be to send a yet-to-be-budgeted SLS/Orion to visit the asteroid." This does, of course, assume that the production lines for the SLS continue to be maintained, or can be (easily) restarted.

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