Engineers at Kennedy Space Center are testing the newest in umbilical technology in support of NASA’s Space Launch Initiative (SLI)-a technology development effort to establish reliable, affordable space access.

“Umbilicals are the lifeline for any Space Launch Vehicle,” said Warren Wiley, KSC’s SLI program manager. “Fluids including propellants, pressurization gasses, and cooling systems, power, communications, and instrumentation readings all flow through the umbilical. They are large devices that are manpower intensive to mate, test, and maintain.”

Traditional umbilical systems release at vehicle lift-off (T-0) and can also take extensive connection time-reducing potential flight rate. The Smart Umbilical Mating System, three years in development by Rohwetter Systems, Oviedo, Fla., and NASA will serve as a modern, next-generation umbilical system.

“The concept is to replace a T-0 umbilical with an automated umbilical which has a mate, demate and remate capability,” said Tom Lippitt, KSC’s spaceport engineering and technology lead engineer. “The ability to quickly and reliably mate and demate umbilical connectors under automated control, along with remote connection verification would reduce the time and labor hours required to prepare for launch. The Smart Umbilical Mating System will also be used as a testbed for quick disconnect development and for advance control and leak detection technologies.”

The system will be used as a development tool for future launch vehicle technology development. According to Lippitt, several technologies being developed relate to umbilicals, such as ice suppression, leak sensing, quick disconnects and others. By using the Smart Umbilical Mating System, the new technologies can be tested in cryogenic conditions.

“In addition to ground-based applications, planetary systems and rovers will require umbilical mating for propellant loading and electrical and data connection,” said Lippitt. “The technology developed as part of this project may be applied to develop simple, reliable, self-sufficient mating. Some of this work will be required to make certain missions and systems feasible such as the Mars methane fueled rovers.”

Kennedy Space Center is responsible for managing SLI’s Ground Operations Project-NASA’s effort to reduce the risk associated with developing a second generation Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) by defining, developing and testing technologies needed to safely and cheaply access space.

“The project will address the SLI goals of reducing operating costs by reducing the maintenance and manpower needed to do the connections and increase safety by automatically performing hazardous tasks and reducing potential failure modes,” said Wiley.

Space Launch Initiative is a NASA wide research and development program managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala. It is designed to improve safety, reliability and cost effectiveness of space travel for second generation reusable launch vehicles.