Failed Test Could Further Delay NASA’s Troubled SLS Rocket

The January 16th “Green Run” test of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) was intended to be the final milestone before the super heavy-lift booster would be moved to Cape Canaveral ahead of its inaugural Artemis I mission in November 2021. The full duration static fire test was designed to simulate a typical launch, with the rocket’s main engines burning for approximately eight minutes at maximum power. But despite a thunderous start start, the vehicle’s onboard systems triggered an automatic abort after just 67 seconds; making it the latest in a long line of disappointments surrounding the controversial booster.

When it was proposed in 2011, the SLS seemed so simple. Rather than spending the time and money required to develop a completely new rocket, the super heavy-lift booster would be based on lightly modified versions of Space Shuttle components. All engineers had to do was attach four of the Orbiter’s RS-25 engines to the bottom of an enlarged External Tank and strap on a pair of similarly elongated Solid Rocket Boosters. In place of the complex winged Orbiter, crew and cargo would ride atop the rocket using an upper stage and capsule not unlike what was used in the Apollo program.

The SLS core stage is rolled out for testing.

There’s very little that could be called “easy” when it comes to spaceflight, but the SLS was certainly designed to take the path of least resistance. By using flight-proven components assembled in existing production facilities, NASA estimated that the first SLS could be ready for a test flight in 2016.

If everything went according to schedule, the agency expected it would be ready to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit by the early 2020s. Just in time to meet the aspirational goals laid out by President Obama in a 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, including the crewed exploitation of a nearby asteroid by 2025 and a potential mission to Mars in the 2030s.

But of course, none of that ever happened. By the time SLS was expected to make its first flight in 2016, with nearly $10 billion already spent on the program, only a few structural test articles had actually been assembled. Each year NASA pushed back the date for the booster’s first shakedown flight, as the project sailed past deadlines in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. After the recent engine test ended before engineers were able to collect the data necessary to ensure the vehicle could safely perform a full-duration burn, outgoing NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said it was too early to tell if the booster would still fly this year.

What went wrong? As commercial entities like SpaceX and Blue Origin move in leaps and bounds, NASA seems stuck in the past. How did such a comparatively simple project get so far behind schedule and over budget?

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A New Era Of Spacecraft Delivers Science On Time

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop on its final mission in 2011, it was truly the end of an era. Few could deny that the program had become too complex and expensive to keep running, but even still, humanity’s ability to do useful work in low Earth orbit took a serious hit with the retirement of the Shuttle fleet. Worse, there was no indication of when or if another spacecraft would be developed that could truly rival the capabilities of the winged orbiters first conceived in the late 1960s.

While its primary function was to carry large payloads such as satellites into orbit, the Shuttle’s ability to retrieve objects from space and bring them back was arguably just as important. Throughout its storied career, sensitive experiments conducted at the International Space Station or aboard the Orbiter itself were returned gently to Earth thanks to the craft’s unique design. Unlike traditional spacecraft that ended their flight with a rough splashdown in the open ocean, the Shuttle eased itself down to the tarmac like an airplane. Once landed, experiments could be quickly unloaded and transferred to the nearby Space Station Processing Facility where science teams would be waiting to perform further processing or analysis.

Atlantis is towed from the runway for payload processing.

For 30 years, the Space Shuttle and its assorted facilities at Kennedy Space Center provided a reliable way to deliver fragile or time-sensitive scientific experiments into the hands of researchers just a few hours after leaving orbit. It was a valuable service that simply didn’t exist before the Shuttle, and one that scientists have been deprived of ever since its retirement.

Until now. With the successful splashdown of the first Cargo Dragon 2 off the coast of Florida, NASA is one step closer to regaining a critical capability it hasn’t had for a decade. While it’s still not quite as convenient as simply rolling the Shuttle into the Orbiter Processing Facility after a mission, the fact that SpaceX can guide their capsule down into the waters near the Space Coast greatly reduces the time required to return experiments to the researchers who designed them.

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Short Video Recaps A Long Tradition Of Space Hacks

Human spaceflight has always been, and still remains, a risky endeavor. We mitigate risk by being as prepared as we can. Every activity is planned, reviewed, and practiced long before any rocket engines are ignited. But space has a history of not cooperating with plans, and thus there is a corresponding history of hacks to get missions back on track. YouTube space fan [Scott Manley] recaps some of his favorites in How a $2 Toothbrush Saved the ISS and Other Unbelievable Space Hacks.

The introduction explained this compilation was motivated by the latest International Space Station drama, where an elusive air leak has finally been tracked down. Air leaks are obviously much more worrying in a space station than in, say, a bicycle tire. Thus there exists a wide array of tools to track down leaks but they couldn’t find this one. Reportedly the breakthrough came from an improvised airflow visualization tool: leaves from a cut-open tea bag. Normally small floating particles are forbidden in space because they might end up in troublesome places. (Eyes, noses, onboard equipment…) Apparently the necessity of the hack outweighed the rules here.

Tea leaves are but the latest in a long line of hacks devised in the course of space missions, because things don’t always go according to the original plan. Or even any of the large volume of contingency plans. Solutions have to be cobbled together from resources on hand, because when we’re in space, what we brought is all we have. From directly editing production code during Apollo 14, to a field-built replacement fender for the Apollo 17 Lunar Rover Vehicle (top picture), to the $2 toothbrush pressed into service as metal debris cleaner. The mission must go on!

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The Astronomical Grit Of Ronald McNair

There is more than one way to lead a successful life. Some people have all the opportunity in the world laid out before them, and it never does them any good. Others have little more than the determination and desire they’ve dredged up within themselves, and that grit turns out to be the abrasive that smooths the path ahead.

Ronald McNair succeeded despite poverty, racism, and an education system designed to keep Black people down. He became an accidental revolutionary at the age of nine, when he broke the color barrier in his small South Carolina town via the public library. This act of defiance in pursuit of education would set the course for his relatively short but full life, which culminated in his career as a Space Shuttle mission specialist.

Rule-Breaker with a Slide Rule

Ronald McNair was born October 21, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina, the second of three sons, to Pearl and Carl McNair. His mother was a teacher, and encouraged his love of reading. Ronald’s father, Carl was an auto mechanic who never finished high school and always regretted it. Though the family was poor, Ron grew up surrounded by books, music, and support.

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Falcon 9 Beats Shuttle’s Reflight Record, But Still Has A Long Way To Go

Put simply, the goal of any reusable booster is to reduce the cost of getting a payload into space. The comparison is often made to commercial aviation: if you had to throw away the airliner after every flight, nobody could afford the tickets. The fact that the plane can be refueled and flown again and again allows operators to amortize its high upfront cost.

In theory, the same should hold true for orbital rockets. With enough flight experience, you can figure out which parts of the vehicle will need replacement or repair, and how often. Assuming the fuel is cheap enough and the cost of refurbishment doesn’t exceed that of building a new one, eventually the booster will pay for itself. You just need a steady stream of paying customers, which is hardly a challenge given how much we rely on our space infrastructure.

But there’s a catch. For the airliner analogy to really work, whatever inspections and repairs the rocket requires between missions must be done as quickly as possible. The cost savings from reuse aren’t nearly as attractive if you can only fly a few times a year. The key to truly making space accessible isn’t just building a reusable rocket, but attaining rapid reusability.

Which is precisely where SpaceX currently finds themselves. Over the years they’ve mastered landing the Falcon 9’s first stage, and they’ve even proven that the recovered boosters can be safely reused for additional flights. But the refurbishment process is still fairly lengthy. While their latest launch officially broke the record for fastest reflight of a space vehicle that had previously been set by Space Shuttle Atlantis, there’s still a lot of work to be done if SpaceX is ever going to fly their rockets like airplanes.

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Phantom Express: The Spaceplane That Never Was

Even for those of us who follow space news closely, there’s a lot to keep track of these days. Private companies are competing to develop new human-rated spacecraft and assembling satellite mega-constellations, while NASA is working towards a return the Moon and the first flight of the SLS. Between new announcements, updates to existing missions, and literal rocket launches, things are happening on a nearly daily basis. It’s fair to say we haven’t seen this level of activity since the Space Race of the 1960s.

With so much going on, it’s no surprise that not many people have heard of the XS-1 Phantom Express. A project by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the XS-1 was designed to be a reusable launch system that could put small payloads into orbit on short notice. Once its mission was complete, the vehicle was to return to the launch site and be ready for re-flight in as a little as 24 hours.

Alternately referred to as the “DARPA Experimental Spaceplane”, the vehicle was envisioned as being roughly the size of a business jet and capable of carrying a payload of up to 2,300 kilograms (5,000 pounds). It would take off vertically under rocket power and then glide back to Earth at the end of the mission to make a conventional runway landing. At $5 million per flight, its operating costs would be comparable with even the most aggressively priced commercial launch providers; but with the added bonus of not having to involve a third party in military and reconnaissance missions which would almost certainly be classified in nature.

Or at least, that was the idea. Flight tests were originally scheduled to begin this year, but earlier this year prime contractor Boeing abruptly dropped out of the program. Despite six years in development and over $140 million in funding awarded by DARPA, it’s now all but certain that the XS-1 Phantom Express will never get off the ground. Which is a shame, as even in a market full of innovative launch vehicles, this unique spacecraft offered some compelling advantages.

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The Spitzer Space Telescope Ends Its Incredible Journey

Today, after 16 years of exemplary service, NASA will officially deactivate the Spitzer Space Telescope. Operating for over a decade beyond its designed service lifetime, the infrared observatory worked in tandem with the Hubble Space Telescope to reveal previously hidden details of known cosmic objects and helped expand our understanding of the universe. In later years, despite never being designed for the task, it became an invaluable tool in the study of planets outside our own solar system.

While there’s been no cataclysmic failure aboard the spacecraft, currently more than 260 million kilometers away from Earth, the years have certainly taken their toll on Spitzer. The craft’s various technical issues, combined with its ever-increasing distance, has made its continued operation cumbersome. Rather than running it to the point of outright failure, ground controllers have decided to quit while they still have the option to command the vehicle to go into hibernation mode. At its distance from the Earth there’s no danger of it becoming “space junk” in the traditional sense, but a rogue spacecraft transmitting randomly in deep space could become a nuisance for future observations.

From mapping weather patterns on a planet 190 light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major to providing the first images of Saturn’s largest ring, it’s difficult to overstate the breadth of Spitzer’s discoveries. But these accomplishments are all the more impressive when you consider the mission’s storied history, from its tumultuous conception to the unique technical challenges of long-duration spaceflight.

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