BOLE booster case
Northrop Grumman is manufacturing the first composite case for the BOLE boosters that will be used on the Space Launch System starting with the Artemis 9 mission. Credit: Northrop Grumman

WASHINGTON — NASA awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman Dec. 2 for the production of several pairs of Space Launch System solid rocket boosters as well as development of a new version of the booster.

The Booster Production and Operations Contract (BPOC), with a maximum value of $3.19 billion, covers production of the five-segment boosters that will be used on the Artemis 4 through Artemis 8 missions. It also includes funding for development of a new version of the boosters, called Booster Obsolescence and Life Extension (BOLE), including production of the first pair for the Artemis 9 mission.

The boosters for Artemis 4 through 8 “will carry us through the expenditure of the heritage shuttle hardware,” namely the steel cases used to house the booster segments, said Mark Tobias, SLS Deputy and BOLE Chief Engineer and Northrop Grumman Fellow, in a Dec. 3 interview.

Those boosters will be identical to those the company has built for the first three SLS launches. Besides the boosters that will help launch Artemis 1 in early 2022, the booster segments for Artemis 2 are complete and the motors for Artemis 3 cast. Tobias said he expected a “significant reduction” in the number of people needed to build the later boosters as the company shifts workers to the BOLE project, but did not give a specific number.

The BOLE boosters will replace the steel cases used now with stronger but lighter composite cases, among other changes. “The BOLE booster in general leverage significant investment the commercial side of our house has made,” he said.

Other changes include using an electronic thrust vector control system rather than one powered by hydrazine and use of a common propellant formulation. The changes are intended to both increase performance and reduce cost and complexity: eliminating hydrazine in the thrust vector control system, he said, reduces the amount of labor involved and improves safety in the process.

Development and qualification of the BOLE boosters will include five major static-fire tests, he said, the first of which is scheduled for the spring of 2024.

The BOLE boosters should improve the performance of SLS, in terms of payload placed into a translunar injection trajectory, by at least three metric tons. “It’s likely to do better on a nominal basis,” Tobias said. “The three metric tons is a worst-case prediction. On a nominal basis it could be more like five.”

The company has a long-term goal of reducing the cost of the booster by 25% to 50%. “We’ve attempted to incorporate as many cost savings as we can into the booster,” he said. “The BPOC contract represents the first significant step in achieving those cost reduction targets, and NASA has follow-on activities that they’re pursuing that will take us the rest of the way.”

NASA issued a request for information (RFI) Oct. 26 for a proposed initiative called Exploration Production and Operations Long-Term Sustainability. That would consolidate SLS production and operations into a single contract, called the Exploration Production and Operations Contract (EPOC), with NASA purchasing SLS launches as a service at a rate one crewed flight a year and possibly one or more cargo flights a year. NASA seeks “a substantial savings of 50% or more off of the current industry baseline per flight cost” under EPOC.

“We’re working to get our current multiple contracts into a single production and operations contract,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, at a Nov. 9 media teleconference about updates to the Artemis program. That could enable others to purchase SLS launches “and have it be a shared investment and resource from a government perspective.”

The RFI does not state what that “current industry baseline” cost of SLS per flight is. “I think we’d be really happy at some stage if we could get our launch and processing costs to between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, but we’ve got a little ways to go,” Lueders said.

The EPOC proposal is “very synergistic” with the work Northrop will be doing on its new BPOC contract, Tobias said. “Many of the changes that were put in place in the BPOC contract mesh and are highly portable with what NASA has defined in the RFI,” he said.

“We’re doing this as we march toward a really significant evolution of how NASA does business in the space arena, by moving to more commercial practices, more commercial standards and commercial technologies,” he said. “We’re on a very good path to support lunar exploration and ultimately Mars exploration.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...