NASA’s Giant SLS Rocket Rolled Back For Repairs

There’s little debate that the most exciting move in a rocket’s repertoire is when it launches itself skywards on a column of flame. But failing that, it’s still pretty interesting to see how these massive vehicles get juggled around down here on terra firma before getting fired off into the black. Which is great for anyone interested in NASA’s towering Space Launch System (SLS), as it’s been doing an awful lot of milling about on the ground for a vehicle designed to return humanity to the Moon.

Most recently, the SLS completed a trek from the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to launch pad 39B and back again aboard the same “crawler” that moved the Space Shuttle and Saturn V before it. While the nearly 60-year-old tracked vehicle has received some updates to carry the 98 meter (322 ft) tall booster, clearly the space agency subscribes to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought.

The ICPS being loaded onto the SLS

The SLS itself however is definitely in need of some work. The rocket was brought out to the pad for the first time on March 18th, where it was to conduct what’s known as a “wet dress rehearsal” — a test of the pre-flight operations, propellant loading, and countdown that includes everything except engine ignition. Unfortunately, the test was plagued with technical issues, and after three attempts, it was decided to bring the rocket back into the VAB to make the necessary repairs to both it and the ground support equipment.

One issue involves a valve in the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), a propulsion module that’s being used on the early SLS flights to provide the trans-lunar injection (TLI) burn that will send the Orion spacecraft on a course towards the Moon. As the name implies, the ICPS is destined to be replaced with the larger Exploration Upper Stage on later missions. There’s also a leak on the launch tower itself that will need to be addressed. After the identified problems are repaired and some adjustments are made, the SLS will once again be rolled out to the pad to reattempt the launch rehearsal.

Now in development for over a decade, the Space Launch System has been plagued with technical issues and delays. At the same time, commercial launch providers like SpaceX have moved the state of the art forward considerably, leading many to wonder if the mind-bogglingly expensive rocket will be able to compete with in-development vehicles such as Starship and New Glenn. The fact that missions which were previously assigned to the SLS have started to get shifted over to commercial rockets would seem to indicate that even NASA is losing confidence in their flagship program.

NASA Continues Slow And Steady Pace Towards Moon

It’s often said that the wheels of government turn slowly, and perhaps nowhere is this on better display than at NASA. While it seems like every week we hear about another commercial space launch or venture, projects helmed by the national space agency are often mired by budget cuts and indecisiveness from above. It takes a lot of political will to earmark tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars on a project that could take decades to complete, and not every occupant of the White House has been willing to stake their reputation on such bold ambitions.

In 2019, when Vice President Mike Pence told a cheering crowd at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center that the White House was officially tasking NASA with returning American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024, everyone knew it was an ambitious timeline. But not one without precedent. The speech was a not-so-subtle allusion to President Kennedy’s famous 1962 declaration at Rice University that America would safely land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade, a challenge NASA was able to meet with fewer than six months to spare.

Unfortunately, a rousing speech will only get you so far. Without a significant boost to the agency’s budget, progress on the new Artemis lunar program was limited. To further complicate matters, less than a year after Pence took the stage in Huntsville, there was a new President in the White House. While there was initially some concern that the Biden administration would axe the Artemis program as part of a general “house cleaning”, it was allowed to continue under newly installed NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The original 2024 deadline, at this point all but unattainable due to delays stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, has quietly been abandoned.

So where are we now? Is NASA in 2022 any closer to returning humanity to the Moon than they were in 2020 or even 2010? While it might not seem like it from an outsider’s perspective, a close look at some of the recent Artemis program milestones and developments show that the agency is at least moving in the right direction.

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Robot astronaut gazing at the moon

NASA’s New Moon Missions Are Happening Really Soon

NASA first landed a human on the moon back in 1969, and last achieved the feat in December 1972. In the intervening years, there have been few other missions to Earth’s primary natural satellite. A smattering of uncrewed craft have crashed into the surface, while a mere handful of missions have achieved a soft landing, with none successful from 1976 to 2013.

However, NASA aims to resume missions to the lunar surface, albeit in an uncrewed capacity at this stage. And you won’t have to wait very long, either. The world’s premier space agency aims to once again fly to the Moon beginning in February 2022.

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NASA Sets Eyes On Deep Space With Admin Shuffle

Since the Apollo 17 crew returned from the Moon in 1972, human spaceflight has been limited to low Earth orbit (LEO). Whether they were aboard Skylab, Mir, the Space Shuttle, a Soyuz capsule, or the International Space Station, no crew has traveled more than 600 kilometers (372 miles) or so from the Earth’s surface in nearly 50 years. Representatives of the world’s space organizations would say they have been using Earth orbit as a testing ground for the technology that will be needed for more distant missions, but those critical of our seemingly stagnated progress into the solar system would say we’ve simply been stuck.

Many have argued that the International Space Station has consumed an inordinate amount of NASA’s time and budget, making it all but impossible for the agency to formulate concrete plans for crewed missions beyond Earth orbit. The Orion and SLS programs are years behind schedule, and the flagship deep space excursions that would have utilized them, such as the much-touted Asteroid Redirect Mission, never materialized. The cracks are even starting to form in the Artemis program, which appears increasingly unlikely to meet its original goal of returning astronauts to the Moon’s surface by 2024.

But with the recent announcement that NASA will be splitting the current Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate into two distinct groups, the agency may finally have the administrative capacity it needs to juggle their existing LEO interests and deep space aspirations. With construction of the ISS essentially complete, and the commercial spaceflight market finally coming together, the reorganization will allow NASA to start shifting the focus of their efforts to more distant frontiers such as the Moon and Mars.

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As Chinese Wheels Touch Martian Soil And Indian Astronauts Walk Towards The Launch Pad, Can We Hope For Another Space Race?

If you were born in the 1960s or early 1970s, the chances are that somewhere in your childhood ambitions lay a desire to be an astronaut or cosmonaut. Once Yuri Gagarin had circled the Earth and Neil Armstrong had walked upon the Moon, millions of kids imagined that they too would one day climb into a space capsule and join that elite band of intrepid explorers. Anything seems possible when you are a five-year-old, but of course the reality remains that only the very fewest of us ever made it to space.

Did You Once Dream Of The Stars?

The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Finland in 1961. Arto Jousi, Public domain.
The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Finland in 1961. Arto Jousi, Public domain.

The picture may be a little different for the youth of a few decades later though, did kids in the ’90s dream of the stars? Probably not. So what changed as Shuttle and Mir crews were passing overhead?

The answer is that the Space Race between the USA and Soviet Union which had dominated extra-terrestrial exploration from the 1950s to the ’70s had by then cooled down, and impressive though the building of the International Space Station was, it lacked the ability to electrify the public in the way that Sputnik, Vostok, or Apollo had. It was immensely cool to people like us, but the general public were distracted by other things and their political leaders were no longer ready to approve money-no-object budgets. We’d done space, and aside from the occasional bright spot in the form of space telescopes or rovers trundling across Mars, that was it. The hit TV comedy series The Big Bang Theory even had a storyline that found comedy in one of its characters serving on a mission to the ISS and being completely ignored on his return.

A few years ago a Chinese friend at my then-hackerspace was genuinely surprised that I knew the name of Yang Liwei, the Shenzhou 5 astronaut and the first person launched by his country into space. He’s a national hero in China but not so much on the rainy edge of Europe, where the Chinese space programme for all its progress at the time about a decade after Yang’s mission had yet to make a splash beyond a few space watchers and enthusiasts in hackerspaces. But this might be beginning to change.

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Hackaday Links: February 28, 2021

In an announcement that came as a surprise to few, NASA now says that landing humans on the Moon by 2024 is no longer likely. Acting administrator Steve Jurczyk lays the blame at the feet of Congress, for failing to provide the funds needed for Human Landing Systems development, a critical step needed to meet the aggressive overall timeline. The announcement doesn’t mark the end of the Artemis program; in fact, NASA is continuing to work on a realistic timeline for getting boots back on the lunar surface, and a decision on which of the three submitted proposals for a lunar lander will be further developed should be coming in the next few months. As far as we can see, this is simply an adjustment to the original timeline for a landing, but given the stunning recent success of Perseverance showing just what robots can do, we’d expect pushback from some quarters on the need for human exploration.

The entry-level 3D design market was thrown into considerable turmoil last year when Autodesk changed the licensing terms for its flagship Fusion 360 package. Hobbyists who had been enjoying relatively unfettered access to the powerful suite chafed at the new restrictions, leaving many to threaten to jump ship, apparently without much thought given to the dearth of alternative products. That may be changing now that Dassault Systèmes has announced two new versions of SolidWorks aimed at the maker and student segments. The Makers offer is intended for hobbyists who want to design for benchtop manufacturing methods like 3D-printing. The Students offer is aimed at engineering and design students looking to gain experience with the tools they’ll be expected to have mastered by the time they enter the job market. It looks like the Makers offer will be at least partly contingent on the interest expressed by the community, so you might want to make your feeling know on the subject. If the Makers edition comes to pass in the second half of this year, it will likely target a $99/year price point.

We stumbled upon an interesting YouTube series the other day that stirred the creative juices. We all probably remember the first time we learned about the Mandelbrot set, the fractal number set that looks something like a lumpy kidney bean and continues to do so no matter how far you zoom into it. The image may be complex but the math behind it is simple enough to implement in software that it’s often done as an exercise for CS students and other unfortunates. But implementing a Mandelbrot set generator in logic is possible too, which WildEngineering did in this video series. Rather than implement this as discrete logic gates, he used a neat logic simulator called Digital, which looks like a handy tool to learn all by itself. The Mandelbrot generator concepts are really instructive too, and it sure seems like the next logical step would be to gather the needed 74xx-series chips and start breadboarding. We’d love to give it a whirl ourselves, but won’t be heartbroken if someone beats us to it.

If it sometimes appears that we at Hackaday get a little frustrated with the comments section of the articles we write, rest assured that we know that we have the best readers on the planet, hands down. Where the toxicity of other corners of the Internet is often unbearable, our readers truly do make this a fabulously collaborative environment, on the whole.

In fact, some commenters even go so far as to basically write their own articles in response to one of ours, and when that happens we like to point it out. The article that spawned the effort was Kristina Panos’ excellent “What If I Never Make Version Two?”, a recent piece that dips a toe into the psychology of hacking. Peter Walsh picks up on the theme with his Hackaday.io page entitled “The Psychology of Version Two”, which we really enjoyed. After a brief look at the neurochemistry of happiness, Peter dives into some “brain hacks” to assess the need for a version 2. There are some great tips, and we really enjoyed both the original article and Peter’s response.

NASA Selects SpaceX To Launch Lunar Gateway

While not a Cabinet position, the NASA Administrator is nominated by the president of the United States and tasked with enacting their overall space policy. As such, a new occupant in the White House has historically resulted in a different long-term directive for the agency. Some presidents have wanted bold programs of exploration, while others have directed NASA to follow a more reserved and economical path, with the largest shifts traditionally happening when the administration changes hands between the parties.

So it’s no surprise that the fate of Artemis, a bold program initiated by the previous administration that aims to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon, has been considered uncertain since the November election. But the recent announcement that SpaceX has been awarded a $331.8 million contract to launch the first two modules of the lunar Gateway station, an orbital outpost that will serve as a rallying point for astronauts coming and going to the Moon’s surface, should help quell some concerns. While the components still aren’t slated to fly until 2024 at the earliest, it’s a step in the right direction and strong indicator that the new administration plans on seeing Artemis through.

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