NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) has extensive heritage in the space shuttle, which was retired over the summer, and in the Ares rocket hardware that was designed under the agency’s relatively short-lived Constellation lunar exploration program.
The same could be said of Jody Singer, who has spent most of her 26-year NASA career with the shuttle program, beginning in 1987 when she took a job overseeing main engine component deliveries during the orbiter fleet’s heyday. In March 2010, the month after U.S. President Barack Obama announced his intent to terminate Constellation, she became Ares deputy project manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
At the time, NASA was legally barred from halting work on Constellation-related contracts pending the passage of new legislation approving a restructured or alternative program. Constellation officially ended in June 2011, but by then Congress had passed legislation directing NASA to proceed with two key Constellation efforts under different names: The SLS, whose design closely resembles that of the Ares 5 heavy lifter; and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which is virtually identical to Constellation’s Orion crew capsule.
The 2010 NASA Authorization Act directs the agency to use existing contracts to the extent possible in developing the SLS and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. In the case of SLS, there are multiple Constellation-legacy contracts for different program elements, including the avionics package, the J-2X upper-stage engine and the shuttle-derived, side-mounted solid rocket boosters. By the time Constellation officially ended, these systems were well into development for the Ares 5’s smaller cousin, Ares 1, which is no longer in NASA’s plans.
Initial variants of the SLS — the first flight is targeted for 2017 — will feature the shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters developed by Alliant Techsystems. But NASA plans to hold a competition that could see those boosters replaced by liquid-fueled, side-mounted engines starting around 2021.
Singer spoke recently with Space News staff writer Dan Leone.
The funding recommended by Congress for SLS in 2012 is well below what was approved in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. Given that one of Constellation’s biggest vulnerabilities was that it was inadequately funded, how can you keep SLS healthy and on track?
It is going to be a hard job. We took a lot of time understanding where we were with the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and with the ground operations. We spent several months looking at design reference missions and understanding the budget and understanding what we then could perform to. So the vehicle that we’re going forward with is taking all that into account: using the assets we have available to help us fit within funding. We have balanced the funding that’s been given to us and understand the mission that we’ve got to do. And we can deliver. We’re still shooting for our first mission no later than 2017.
What, exactly, is that mission?
Right now, the mission itself is still under review. The first mission in 2017 would have the Space Launch System rocket and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. The initial preliminary planning of it is that that would be to test out the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and its systems. It would be an uncrewed mission. It would go around the Moon; it would then try to come back and test the heat shield. It would look at some of the interactions of the systems, and it would, on launch, check the interactions between the Space Launch System and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.
What’s the rationale for flying around the Moon and back?
The mission would be to go around the Moon and reach an altitude such as you could come back in and test re-entry — the heat shield, that type of thing. It’s still in the planning phases.
Is the SLS program office at Marshall doing anything yet besides absorbing what was formerly the Ares program?
Yes, there are a lot of things. We’re officially starting to stand up the program itself to go forward. Number one, part of our mission is taking advantage of the assets that were available on the shuttle program as well as on the Ares program and taking those assets and capabilities and making sure that we got the taxpayer dollars from those investments like the Ares 1 upper-stage engine, the J-2X. We’re also looking at the procurement strategy for the entire SLS vehicle. We’ve also begun bringing people onboard.
Where does this activity fit relative to plans to modify existing Ares contracts for SLS development?
This process would actually take us through the end of October, where we would then be able to go into contract discussions.
NASA intends to hold a competition for the SLS side-mounted boosters and select a design in 2016. Why not just go with the shuttle-derived boosters that are undergoing testing today?
The existing boosters we have on hand, they have the capability to support the 70-metric-ton [SLS]. In order to get to a higher-performing vehicle, we’re going to have to go to an advanced booster. Our current contractor did not have the initial capability to do that. So from a competitive standpoint, what we’re looking for is to get the ability to buy down the risk. With competition, you get a better price for the American taxpayer. We’ve got to get the best price for the government. Affordability will be a big part of that competition.
NASA has not said much about the advanced side-mounted boosters other than they could be solid or liquid fueled. What are some of the features you will be looking for?
That’s something the government is still working on. We still have design analysis requirements and cycles that are going on.
What are some of the upcoming milestones for the advanced booster competition?
There will be another industry day that will be specific to the booster. It’ll be happening this fall. Each one of the prime contractors who are interested in this would be given those requirements, and they would be given the performance, and they would come back and tell us the most affordable way to build that vehicle.
When would SLS fly with these new boosters?
The first launch is somewhere around the 2021 timeframe. That’s taking into account the amount of funding we’ve been given and also the amount of time that it would take to get the advanced boosters. It’s usually from five to eight years, somewhere in that timeframe, by the time that you have a booster go through a design, have the qualification and then produce a booster that you’re ready to fly on.
Given the axiom that competition spurs innovation and lowers costs, what is the justification for procuring so many SLS vehicle elements on a sole-source basis?
One of the things that you have to go through in writing a justification is you have to look at the amount of investment the government has already made. You look at the previous competition strategy: Was it initially competed? You also look at it from a procurement strategy: Is the technology you’ve been investing in applicable in the go-forward to the vehicle that we’re talking about? That will be part of the justification. We’ll say that there is applicability; that it was competed before, that there is applicability of the technology that goes forward, and that we’ve made a lot of investment into it already, and that a competition would not necessarily bring the price down.
The Space Shuttle Main Engines now slated to power the core stage of the SLS were never part of Constellation. Why was that part of SLS not subject to competition?
Well, the justification for that goes back to the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. Within it, there were discussions that said, “Let’s make sure that you maximize the use of existing contracts to the maximum extent practicable.” That’s part of our justification: We’ve got to meet the law. Part of the selection of the main engines is affordability: There are engines available, 15 of them. Also, the performance of those main engines is the performance that we need on SLS.