HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — By reusing heritage hardware and leveraging five years of design work funded under the now-defunct Constellation lunar exploration initiative, NASA aims to contain the cost of developing what would be the world’s most powerful rocket.

But the NASA centers tasked with fielding the congressionally mandated Space Launch System (SLS) in time for a late 2017 debut are also keenly aware of the need to keep a lid on production and operations costs and view system commonality as the key to long-term affordability.

“We are working very hard to have these systems developed as efficiently as we can but also recognize that the long-term cost of ownership or the production and operation costs — matter just as much,” Dan Dumbacher, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, said Oct. 16 here during the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium.

NASA officials are not ready to publicly project how much SLS will cost to develop, or to produce and operate given a launch rate expected to be no more than once per year. Estimates are being held close to the vest until the program passes a preliminary design review scheduled for 2013.

For now, SLS program officials are hoping NASA can maintain annual funding for their project, along with the Orion deep-space crew capsule that will launch atop the heavy lifter and associated ground infrastructure, at or near the roughly $3 billion spent in 2012.

NASA is developing common flight hardware wherever it can to stretch those dollars as far as possible.

Engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center here, for example, are designing an SLS payload adapter that will also be used in 2014 when NASA launches an unmanned Orion capsule atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket for a 90-minute test. That mission is meant to prove that Orion’s heat shields and landing system are up to snuff.

Another example is NASA’s decision to power the SLS core stage with leftover space shuttle main engines — the agency has 11 flight-ready RS-25s at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi “ready to be installed,” as one SLS official put it. This will allow the agency to bypass a costly effort to human-rate the RS-68 engines that were planned for Ares 5, the cargo-only heavy lifter NASA was pursuing under Constellation.

But rather than reuse the RS-25’s flight-proven but aging main engine controller the on-board computer that controls the engine’s functions and monitors performance NASA wants to use a single, more advanced design for both the SLS core stage and the rocket’s eventual J-2X-powered upper stage. Initial SLS test flights will use the Delta 4’s RL-10 upper stage.

“As one of our affordability initiatives we’re actually taking the new J-2X controller and we’re adapting it to be a common controller for both RS-25 and J-2X,” said Todd May, manager of the SLS Program Office at Marshall. “We’ve run that design in our simulations lab and it’s looking good so far.”

The preliminary design review for the common controller is getting under way this fall, he said.


Meanwhile, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Exploration Vehicle, which is further along than its SLS launcher, is facing a budget reduction in 2013. NASA has proposed cutting the project’s $1.2 billion budget by nearly $200 million in order to push the SLS budget closer to $1.9 billion.

NASA and Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver have identified 300 “affordability initiatives” expected to save a combined $1.5 billion in the long run, according to Charlie Lundquist, manager of the Orion Crew and Service Module project at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Many of these have been implemented; many others are under evaluation,” he said.

Since late 2009, Lundquist said, the Orion program has reduced its civil servant work force by roughly 45 percent. By focusing the reductions on contractor oversight and administrative jobs, he said, NASA was able to maintain the number of civil servants working on government-furnished hardware and doing testing.

“We’re also recycling some shuttle hardware,” Lundquist said during a panel discussion here. “The Orbital Maneuvering System on shuttle there’s 11 of those in inventory and we’re taking those, we’re going to use those as our main engine. So that’s about $130 million cost savings by recycling that particular shuttle asset.”

Ground Operations

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which has seen steep contractor job losses since the agency phased out the shuttle, is also focused on commonality and affordability, but for slightly different reasons than Johnson and Marshall.

After devoting the past 30 years to supporting a space shuttle program that flew as many as 10 times in a year, the Florida spaceport is retooling to support an SLS-Orion combo expected to launch perhaps once a year.

NASA budgeted about $300 million in 2012 for SLS ground systems work at Kennedy. An additional $130 million was set aside for the 21st Century Launch Complex, an initiative intended to make Kennedy infrastructure launcher agnostic.

“We’re trying to design around any vehicle that would like to come to Kennedy,” said Scott Colloredo, chief architect for Kennedy’s Ground Systems Development and Operation Program.

In order to make Kennedy’s Space Launch Complex 39 suitable for SLS and attractive to launch service providers such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), Kennedy has adopted a so-called clean pad approach that does away with the massive, permanent launch structures used for shuttle. SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., currently launches out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which is co-located with Kennedy, but the company has plans to develop its own launch facility in Texas. 

“The idea is we treat the pad a little more like a runway,” Colloredo said.

Most SLS prelaunch processing will take place inside Kennedy’s cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building, after which the rocket will be rolled out to the nearby launch pad. Once it arrives at the pad, the rocket will require fewer unique connections prior to liftoff than the space shuttle. 

“We like to think that increases our reliability of getting off the pad, shortens the vulnerability to weather while you are at the pad and generally it’s a better concept,” he said. “The out-product of all that is if you go with this clean pad approach we feel that you open the opportunity … to share the pad with other vehicles.”

While the bulk of Kennedy’s ground systems funding is focused on SLS preparations, Colloredo said the 21st Century Launch Complex account also can cover the marginal cost of making the spaceport’s infrastructure compatible with other launchers.

Among the initiatives Kennedy is funding are a universal lightning protection system, a universal flame deflector and an open command-and-control architecture that should work with a wide variety of launch vehicles, Colloredo said.



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Brian Berger is editor in chief of and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. He was named senior staff writer in 2004, a position he held...