NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is spearheading one of the space agency’s most challenging jobs: designing, developing and building the Space Launch System (SLS), a new rocket capable of sending 130 metric tons into deep space.

NASA plans to send a small version of that rocket with a lift capacity of 70 metric tons on its first flight in 2017. The rocket is expected to carry an unmanned version of the Orion crew capsule beyond Earth’s orbit on a trip around the Moon.

“The team is attacking the 2017 milestone in an aggressive way,” said Todd May, SLS program manager. May, who previously served as deputy associate administrator for programs in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said he is accustomed to firm deadlines. When May was the program manager for NASA’s Discovery and New Frontiers missions, for example, NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons probe had to depart during a 35-day launch window. “If we missed that, we would have had to wait a year,” May said.

With that experience in mind, May said his SLS team is “crisply moving toward preliminary design review, cutting drawings as we speak.” Utah-based ATK Aerospace Systems, prime contractor for the rocket’s five-segment solid boosters, has conducted three tests of the SLS development motor, and program officials plan to lock in the design and begin testing flight motors next spring. A year later, program officials plan to conduct the SLS critical design review.

NASA Marshall Space Flight Center at a Glance

Established: 1960

Location: Huntsville, Ala.

Top Official: Gene Goldman, acting director

Mission: To perform engineering design, development, integration and operations of systems required for space exploration, operations and scientific research.

Employees: 2,400 civil servants, 3,100 contractors

President Barack Obama’s budget request, released in February, calls for SLS spending to rise from $1.34 billion in 2013 to approximately $1.4 billion in 2014. According to the budget blueprint, which requires congressional approval, SLS funding would then remain near $1.4 billion in 2015 and 2016 before falling slightly to $1.36 billion in 2017.

To build the new rocket given that relatively flat budget, program mangers will look continuously for cost savings. “When you don’t have the ability to increase funding to cover inflation, you tend to have decreasing buying power as you move forward,” May said. “Continuing to find ways to make things more affordable becomes a way of life.”

For example, SLS program officials are exploring ways to slash the cost of manufacturing valves by exploring a new process called direct metal sintering, which uses lasers to build extremely complex parts based on three-dimensional computer-aided designs. “A little bit of investment into that process could make valves less expensive to build,” May said.

While SLS is Marshall’s largest single program, it is by no means the only one. Marshall officials manage a variety of programs, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, scientific research onboard the international space station, Discovery and New Frontiers principal investigator-led missions, Centennial Challenge programs and the Servir environmental imaging network. The center also features a unique X-ray telescope and cryogenic facility where engineers are testing mirrors destined for the James Webb Space Telescope.

“We offer technical diversity,” Marshall’s acting director, Gene Goldman, said. “Marshall is recognized for its work in propulsion, but we do so much more than that.”

Since Marshall was established in 1960 to develop the rockets that would carry astronauts into space, the Huntsville, Ala.-based center has led propulsion system design and development for the space agency. Marshall was responsible for space shuttle propulsion, payloads and crew training. The center also was charged with developing propulsion systems for NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program.

After the White House canceled the Constellation program in 2010 and the shuttle stopped flying in 2011, employment at Marshall declined significantly. “Over the course of the last two years, we probably lost about 1,700 people,” Goldman said.

Marshall now employs a total work force of about 5,500 people. “Since we are working under a flat budget within NASA, we don’t expect to see employment grow to any extent,” Goldman said. “We expect our work force to remain relatively stable over the next few years.”

Nevertheless, the type of work Marshall performs is changing slightly as it expands efforts to support commercial contractors. “We’ve greatly increased the number of Space Act Agreements that we are using to support commercial entities,” Goldman said. The center now has approximately 200 Space Act Agreements and is setting up an office to facilitate NASA-industry partnerships, he added.

While NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi is equipped to test large rocket engines, Marshall has unique facilities and expertise that companies are using to test rocket components such as blades and turbines, Goldman said.

On May 23, Marshall announced that it had completed a series of 176 wind tunnel tests in support of Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket program. The tests, which were conducted at speeds as high as Mach 5, provided data SpaceX will use for development of a Falcon 9 first stage capable of making a propulsive landing.

On May 14, Marshall announced the completion of tests that used a scale model of Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser spaceplane mounted on a scale model of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket to determine the optimum launch configuration. By using the Marshall wind tunnel to test various configurations at subsonic, transonic and supersonic speeds, engineers obtained data that will help Sierra Nevada determine the best way to position the space plane on the rocket for ascent.

Marshall also has numerous active science programs. From a command post that operates around the clock, Marshall personnel assist astronauts in coordinating and synchronizing about 150 ongoing science experiments being conducted on the international space station, including those led by NASA and its international partners. In addition, researchers at Marshall are developing advanced optics for X-ray astronomy, conducting research on solar physics and supporting investigations of space weather, said Dan Schumacher, manager of Marshall’s Science and Technology office.

In spite of changes stemming from future budget constraints or policy decisions, Goldman does not expect Marshall’s role within NASA to change in the years ahead. “Certainly the programs will change, but I would expect propulsion, science and technology development to continue to be our areas of emphasis,” Goldman said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...