Jason DavisSep 21, 2016

Five things we learned from our #RocketRoadTrip

We're back from our #RocketRoadTrip! It was quite a journey. Over a ten-day span, we visited four NASA field sites and two major Space Launch System contractors, after watching the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft blast off on a seven-year journey to collect a sample from a near-Earth asteroid. 

We spent hours on the road verbally processing everything we were seeing, debating some important questions: Will SLS be financially feasible? Is NASA's legacy Apollo and Shuttle infrastructure a burden, or an asset? How much muffuletta can one consume and still be fresh for a post-lunch interview?

Our trip took the better part of a year to plan. We are eternally grateful to our members, who financially supported this ambitious reporting endeavor, as well as our colleagues at The Planetary Society and the dozens of folks across NASA and its suppliers who granted us the access we requested to make this trip a reality. 

So what did we learn?

A lot—the entire experience was a bit like drinking from a fire hose. We'll be sorting through our material for quite some time to incorporate it into written pieces, a video for our Horizon Goal series, and new episodes of The Space Advocate.

But in the short term, I wanted to capture a few key thoughts swirling in my brain and wrangle them into a coherent article. So, without further ado, here are five things we learned from our #RocketRoadTrip.

Want more pictures? Check out our Flickr album for all the highlights.

Exploration Mission 1 Orion flight spacecraft
Exploration Mission 1 Orion flight spacecraft The Orion EM-1 flight unit at Kennedy Space Center.Image: Jason Davis / The Planetary Society

1. It's happening.

SLS has been more than a PowerPoint rocket for quite some time. But in order to get the vehicle and Orion off the ground in 2018, there is now a sustained buzz of activity across all of NASA's southern centers. 

At Kennedy Space Center, more than half of the massive SLS access platforms are installed in the Vehicle Assembly Building. During previous visits, I've been allowed to peek into the actual SLS high bay, but not this time—it's currently an active construction site, with sparks from welders' torches visible in one direction, and ceiling cranes on the move in the other. Out at launch pad 39B, the spic-and-span flame trench I saw last year is now cluttered with scaffolding, as workers install new heat-resistant bricks.

The managers are busy, too. In Marshall Space Flight Center director Todd May's office, the chime of incoming emails frequently interrupted our conversation. On a white board in SLS chief engineer Garry Lyles' office, hastily scribbled "Notes from Gerst" (Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's human spaceflight division) overlooked stacks of notebooks on Lyles' desk.

In a John Henry-esque moment, conversations with managers at Marshall were drowned out by a worker swinging a massive hammer at a pylon underneath the SLS hydrogen tank test platform. Down at Stennis Space Center, it was just plain hard to hear anything at test stand B-2, where workers are preparing to host the SLS core stage for an all-up test firing.

Inside a high bay at the Michoud Assembly Facility, our video interviews with director Bobby Watkins were interrupted by a jackhammering worker preparing a stand for the Exploration Upper Stage, which will fly on the second SLS mission. (The workers politely stopped for a moment, resulting in jokes that an EUS delay can now be blamed on The Planetary Society.) One Boeing floor manager we interviewed at Michoud said she had recently been pulling 12-hour shifts. 

For the first time since the cancellation of the Constellation program, NASA's human spaceflight program seems to have regained momentum. It appears poised to have the necessary political support, too. The latest NASA authorization bill introduced by the Senate specifically endorses SLS and Mars (and would authorize a hefty $500 million increase above last year’s spending), while current presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton appears to support the Obama administration's humans-to-Mars plans


2. The margin left on the 2018 SLS launch deadline is now razor-thin.

Have you ever reached the point in a large project where all remaining items on your to-do list become equally important, forcing you to shift into a work-hard-until-it-all-gets-done kind of mentality?

That seems to be where the SLS, Orion and ground systems programs are.

NASA's official stance is that SLS will be ready to fly in November 2018. But the agency continues to work internally toward a September 2018 goal. 

That's just two years from now. Here's a very broad overview of what has to happen between now and then:

Michoud must complete the core stage liquid oxygen tank, bolt it to the just-finished hydrogen tank and the (under construction) intertank section, add the engine section (which still needs engines from Stennis), spray the tanks with foam, and ship the whole thing to Stennis for the aforementioned test-firing at the (almost completed) B-2 test stand.

The core stage then ships to Kennedy Space Center, where it will be mated to the solid rocket boosters on the (almost ready) mobile launcher in the (getting close to finished) Vehicle Assembly Building.

The off-the-shelf second stage will be added, as well as Orion, which is still mostly a pressure vessel shell at the moment. And there's also the Orion service module, which needs to be completed by the European Space Agency.

The flame trench at pad 39B must be finished, along with all of the mobile launcher umbilical connections and pad infrastructure. NASA also has to finish and test all associated software, including SLS avionics and ground systems monitoring. 

In the meantime, engineers have to finish poking and prodding all the SLS and Orion qualification test articles and rocket pieces to make sure their flight counterparts are cleared to fly.

Nothing major can go wrong. There can be no problems that would cause major delays.

And keep in mind the last time humanity launched a rocket this powerful was 1973. 

Some assembly required
Some assembly required Four RS-25 flight engines, like the one shown at top, will be turned upside down and mounted to the rocket's engine section (middle) using the white pins (bottom). The engine is currently stored at Aerojet Rocketdyne's facility at Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, but will be mounted to the SLS hardware at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.Image: Jason Davis / The Planetary Society

3. SLS is staggeringly large.

Our timing at the Michoud Assembly Facility could not have been better. We managed to see both the completed hydrogen tank test article, which will be shipped up to Marshall Space Flight Center for stress testing, as well as the identical flight article, which just received its final welds in the Vertical Assembly Center the night before.

Pictures of the hydrogen tank do not do it justice. It's the same width as a space shuttle external fuel tank (8.4 meters), but longer (64.6 versus 46.8 meters).

And that's just one piece of the rocket—the first assembled SLS-Orion stack will stand just shy of 100 meters tall.

Are you are old enough to have seen a Saturn V moon rocket in person? If not, have you met someone who has? Or perhaps you've visited one of the three remaining flight vehicles at Kennedy Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center or Johnson Space Center?

If so, you'll probably agree that the mammoth Saturn V was a once-in-a-generation rocket, rivaled only by the space shuttle, that helped inspire an entire generation of engineers, scientists and space fans.

The Space Launch System has the potential to follow that lineage.

4. Building staggeringly large rockets requires staggeringly large—and complex—infrastructure.

This was my third visit to Michoud Assembly Facility. And only on this third visit have I truly started to comprehend how difficult it is to build a rocket on this scale.

The factory floor—43 acres under one roof—is filled with gigantic, one-of-a-kind welding tools that had to be created specifically for SLS and Orion. The rocket is so big that engineers worry about the fuel tanks sagging when placed on their sides. Every part of the building process presents unique logistical challenges, right down to procuring enough transport carts and deciding on a safe flooring surface. (We heard a fascinating story about a heavy lift cart that built up enough static electricity to give an unsuspecting engineer quite a powerful jolt.)

Carl Sagan once said that if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you have to invent the universe. Likewise, to build a giant rocket, you must first invent the tools and facilities necessary to build that rocket.

Last Monday, in an email to select media representatives, Jeff Bezos revealed Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket system. At 7 meters in diameter, it will be larger than any rocket flying today and just 1.4 meters shy of the diameter of the Space Launch System. 

Blue Origin’s announcement was low on details, and we probably won't find out more specifics anytime soon, given the company’s aura of secrecy and its history of granting exclusive access to just a small cadre of reporters.

So, as the Blue Origin concept was revealed, we were getting a direct, on-the-record look at what NASA, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Teledyne Brown Engineering are doing to build a heavy lift rocket. (Aerojet's only condition was having an ITAR officer accompany us to ensure we didn't capture any export-controlled footage, such as a close-up of the RS-68 engine.)

Bezos says the New Glenn will fly by the end of the decade, four years from now. If it does, that'll be quite a triumph for Blue Origin, considering it took NASA seven years to fly SLS—even with the benefit of existing shuttle facilities and the flight-proven RS-25 engine.

If Blue Origin is committed to New Glenn, they probably know what they’re getting into in terms of the infrastructure required to build such a massive rocket. Elon Musk and SpaceX are in the same situation with their yet-to-be-announced launcher that Musk wants to use to send colonists to Mars.

The point? It doesn't matter whether you're a large government contractor like Boeing, a hip startup like SpaceX or a secretive firm like Blue Origin—at the end of the day, building a heavy lift rocket requires tools and processes right on the edge of what's theoretically possible, and the work takes place in cavernous factories surrounded by highly skilled workers.

Space, as we're so often reminded, is hard.

Completed SLS flight hydrogen tank
Completed SLS flight hydrogen tank The completed SLS hydrogen tank for Exploration Mission 1 sits in the Vertical Assembly Center at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The tank measures 8.4 by 64.6 meters, yet the entire vehicle stack will be almost 100 meters tall.Image: Jason Davis / The Planetary Society

5. SLS and Orion generate American jobs.

A large area of emphasis for this trip was investigating the impact SLS and NASA's southern field sites have on the economy.

In Alabama alone, the Space Launch System supports about 13,000 jobs and generates $2.4 billion in economic output. (We're currently working with NASA to get more complete data from all of the centers we visited.)

Here's one interesting case study from our visit to Teledyne Brown Engineering in Huntsville. Teledyne has been a key Marshall Space Flight Center contractor since Wernher von Braun roamed the countryside there during the Apollo era. 

Among other things, Teledyne is currently building the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, a giant cone that connects the SLS upper stage to Orion. That contract alone is worth $60 million

At Teledyne, we asked for a list of the company's subcontractors working on SLS-related projects, and within minutes, received an Excel spreadsheet printout with the names of 62 companies around the U.S. There's even one in my home state of West Virginia!

Later, at Michoud, we asked a Boeing representative for the same information, and were told there are Boeing SLS subcontractors in 49 U.S. states. (We jokingly pressed them to confess which state has been left out—word has it that it's North Dakota.)

So, though Boeing is a large, old-school conglomerate that earns a lot of government dollars off a Congressionally mandated rocket, a lot of that trickles down to mom-and-pop shops around the country. Some NASA observers bemoan SLS and many aspects of the agency a mere jobs program. But these jobs aren’t abstractions; they’re a mix of blue and white collar jobs, many of which are involved in high-end manufacturing, which is an area of emphasis for both political parties in the U.S.

It can be argued, then, that the SLS workforce helps ensure widespread, personal support for NASA’s big goals, including the Journey to Mars. My wife's grandfather worked for a machine shop in New York City that once manufactured parts for the Apollo Lunar Module. It's a piece of our family lore, and was one of his favorite stories—we even have blueprints to corroborate the story. 

That's it for now. Thanks again for joining us on our #RocketRoadTrip!

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