Credit: NASA

Profile | John Honeycutt
Space Launch System Program Manager, NASA

Building the Big Rocket

John Honeycutt took over as program manager for NASA’s Space Launch System in early October, about three years before the rocket is supposed to make its maiden flight. The 16-year NASA veteran had been Todd May’s deputy on the program since 2013 and netted his promotion shortly after May became deputy administrator of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama: NASA’s lead SLS center.

Strategically speaking, SLS is the linchpin for NASA’s much-hyped (and mostly unfunded) “Journey to Mars.” Under that plan, the rocket would launch astronauts to new crewed habitats in lunar orbit in the 2020s — to test out hardware needed for the long cruise to Mars — and to Mars itself in the 2030s.

SLS is being built by NASA and its former space shuttle contractors, including Boeing Defense, Space & Security; Aerojet Rocketdyne; and Orbital ATK. Those companies are respectively providing the rocket’s core and upper stages, main-stage engines, and strap-on boosters.

Honeycutt says these major SLS contractors are on track to ship their contributions to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in time for a late-2018 launch to lunar orbit. That uncrewed mission — in which SLS would launch the Lockheed Martin-built Orion crew capsule — is one of just two on the books at NASA. The second, scheduled for the early 2020s, would be a crewed repeat of the first, and the first space launch since 1972 to send humans beyond low Earth orbit.

In September, four years after unveiling its initial design for SLS, NASA announced it was ready to start construction on flight hardware for the rocket. A month later, Honeycutt found himself at the helm of a project that employs some 4,200 people, and on which NASA spends more than $1.5 billion annually.

Honeycutt, who is now supervising final repairs to critical SLS manufacturing infrastructure in Louisiana, spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

SLS just passed its critical design review, and NASA has given the green light to start construction of flight hardware. But that cannot happen until Boeing fixes the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) at the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana, which was installed incorrectly and as a result could not accommodate pieces of the SLS stages. The tool was supposed to be up and running in March. When will it be ready?

So the earliest the flight hardware would roll out is March 2016. The qualification hardware is going to start rolling out at the end of January. The four large vertical towers on the tool were misaligned and we had to come up with a fix. So we put big, adjustable — for lack of a better word — turnbuckles at locations all up and down each tower and then adjusted each tower. We also had to go in and spend time recoding software in order to make the tool work properly after the fix. That was another unexpected delay in the repair.

When NASA announced the completion of the Space Launch System's critical design review Oct. 22, it also released an updated illustration of the rocket, with the core stage now orange instead of white. NASA said in a press release that orange is "the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements," as was the case with the shuttle's external tank. Not explained in the release, those, are the curved gray and orange stripes on the solid rocket boosters. Some think they are intended to evoke memories of the shuttle itself or the logo of original shuttle contractor Rockwell International — or, perhaps, computer game company Atari. Credit: NASA
When NASA announced the completion of the Space Launch System’s critical design review Oct. 22, it also released an updated illustration of the rocket, with the core stage now orange instead of white. Credit: NASA
When NASA announced the completion of the Space Launch System’s critical design review Oct. 22, it also released an updated illustration of the rocket, with the core stage now orange instead of white. Credit: NASA

ESAB Welding & Cutting, a Boeing subcontractor hired in 2013 to build the VAC, was responsible for the misalignment. What corrective action did Boeing take? Is NASA satisfied with that action?

Boeing is our prime contractor; they’re responsible for having the VAC built and installed and operating correctly. NASA doesn’t generally tell our prime contractors how to manage their subcontractors. I would say that Boeing understands what they’ve done wrong, and they’re in the process of going off and fixing it.

What will happen with SLS if there is another partial government shutdown after Dec. 11, when the federal government’s current stopgap spending bill expires?

There’s a potential for work at the Michoud Assembly Facility to continue, but the rest of the work on SLS would stop. Most of the work is at Michoud; it’s the welding, primarily at this early stage of the project, and assembly of the large structures. But if a shutdown went on too long, it could also affect the integration of the vehicle, installing components and putting the thermal protection system on the stage.

Vertical Assembly Center
The 50-meter-tall Vertical Assembly Center uses a technique called friction stir welding to bond pieces of metal without melting them or using filler material to seal joints. Credit: NASA

Members of Congress, the NASA-chartered Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel and former agency officials have all questioned the agency’s decision to build — and human certify — two different SLS upper stages: the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) for the first two SLS missions, and a more powerful Exploration Upper Stage for later missions. Both stages would be built around Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10 engines, so why not just pick one stage and stick with it?

Short answer is, it was a budget-driven decision that allowed us to meet our early exploration goals. The Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage fits the mission to go to the moon and come back on EM-1 [Exploration Mission 1] in 2018, and it fits the mission to take crew to the moon and back on EM-2. We’re in the process of doing the planning to figure out when the best time to bring an Exploration Upper Stage onboard is. This summer, we had a preliminary design review checkpoint for that stage, and at that checkpoint, we ask ourselves two questions. The first was, “Are we ready to proceed to a preliminary design review with an Exploration Upper Stage?” And the answer to that was “yes.” The second question we asked ourselves is, “Should we proceed?” And we answered that “no.” The primary reason for that is we’d require quite a bit of engineering work, not only on SLS but on Orion and supporting ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center as well.

With all that said, how far along is United Launch Alliance, Boeing’s subcontractor for that interim upper stage, on the flight hardware?

The upper stage is on track. We went to United Launch Alliance the week of Oct. 28 and we received an ICPS structural test article from them that’s slated to be tested in a structural test stand at Marshall in summer 2016. I got to see some of the upper-stage flight hardware when I was at ULA and it’s going to be finished, I believe, probably the second quarter of 2016.

What about the rest of the SLS elements? The core stage? The strap-on boosters?

I’m on track today to deliver a core stage to the Kennedy Space Center in January of 2018. And that’s got plenty of time in it in support of a late-2018 launch date. When the core stage gets shipped, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RS-25 engines will be integrated into it. We’re also getting ready to build the first flight set of strap-on boosters. The big pieces are out with Orbital ATK in Utah.


Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.