SLS, Orion Year in Review

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Orion ground test vehicle has been lifted high in the air by crane in the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building. (Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)
At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Orion ground test vehicle has been lifted high in the air by crane in the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building. (Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)

Four of the lead contractors working on the Space Launch System and Orion — Aerojet Rocketdyne, ATK, Boeing and Lockheed Martin — issued the following press release last week highlighting progress during 2013. I’ve added photos illustrating some of the major milestones.

Washington, D.C., Jan. 7, 2014 – The NASA Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion teams accomplished unprecedented progress in 2013 with the design, development and testing of the next-generation vehicles destined to explore deep space.

“Our industry partners have worked tirelessly to help us build the rocket and spacecraft that will enable us to push the boundaries of human exploration,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, William Gerstenmaier. “In 2013 significant progress was made building and testing hardware that will make human exploration of deep space a reality, and 2014 will be even better.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne, a GenCorp company, is leveraging its history as a propulsion provider for every NASA human spaceflight program to deliver a new era of power for SLS.

Four RS-25 engines, like the one pictured undergoing a hot-fire test, will power the core stage of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) -- NASA's new heavy-lift launch vehicle. (Credit: NASA)
Four RS-25 engines, like the one pictured undergoing a hot-fire test, will power the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) — NASA’s new heavy-lift launch vehicle. (Credit: NASA)

In 2013 Aerojet Rocketdyne teamed with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. and Boeing to successfully integrate four RS-25 core stage engines that will power the SLS core stage to an initial low-Earth orbit. By repurposing the RS-25 engines, previously flown as the Space Shuttle Main Engines, the SLS program is able to use a proven human-rated engine without significant development and production costs.

A J-2X engine test firing on April 4, 2013, at Stennis Space Center. (Credit: NASA/SSC)
A J-2X engine test firing on April 4, 2013, at Stennis Space Center. (Credit: NASA/SSC)

An option for SLS upper-stage propulsion, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s J-2X engine successfully demonstrated full power operation for twice its designed life service during development tests at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Eighteen tests were conducted, and continued process improvements enabled a 50-percent reduction in engine assembly and test installation costs.

ATK provides the twin five-segment solid rocket boosters for NASA’s SLS. In 2013 ATK successfully completed its solid rocket booster Preliminary Design Review (PDR) with NASA and is on track to support the first flight of SLS in 2017.

ATK employees at the company's Promontory, Utah facility prepare a segment of a qualification motor for NASA's Space Launch System for transport. (Credit: ATK)
ATK employees at the company’s Promontory, Utah facility prepare a segment of a qualification motor for NASA’s Space Launch System for transport. (Credit: ATK)

A new upgraded ground test controller (GTx), used to operate the booster during a full-scale ground test was developed in 2013. The use of modern technology allows this critical operations and monitoring system to function independently. The booster qualification ground tests certify the rockets for flight.

ATK made tremendous progress with its SLS booster avionics and controls system. Key avionics tests were conducted in February and December. These tests included a “hot fire” of the flight computer as it controlled fully integrated thrust vector control through an SLS launch simulation.

Engineers at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility transfer a 22-foot-tall barrel section of the SLS core stage from the Vertical Weld Center. (Credit: NASA)
Engineers at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility transfer a 22-foot-tall barrel section of the SLS core stage from the Vertical Weld Center. (Credit: NASA)

Boeing is ahead of schedule designing, developing and manufacturing the rocket’s cryogenic stages and avionics, making SLS the largest, most capable rocket, ever. Boeing is working with NASA to renovate the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the Saturn V was built, to accommodate today’s larger rocket. Five of the six large tools are in place and welding hardware. The vertical assembly center, the largest tool that will integrate all the pieces of rocket hardware, will be on line by summer 2014.

The ‘brains’ of the rocket, the avionics, are under development at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’s Software Integration Test Facility. Boeing completed “First Light” in December 2013, achieving the capability to fully test flight-like avionics that will control the rocket in all phases from ground and flight operations. The<span> flight computer has the most powerful processor ever used for a launch vehicle.

The avionics subsystem and hardware are cleared for Flight Control Test 1, testing the avionics and controls for NASA's Space Launch System booster. (Credit: ATK)
The avionics subsystem and hardware are cleared for Flight Control Test 1, testing the avionics and controls for NASA’s Space Launch System booster. (Credit: ATK)

While SLS will provide an entirely new capability for exploration, its focus is on the safe transportation of the Orion spacecraft. Orion is the first spacecraft in history capable of taking humans to multiple destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.

Technicians work inside the Orion crew module being built at Kennedy Space Center to prepare it for its first power on. Turning the avionics system inside the capsule on for the first time marks a major milestone in Orion’s final year of preparations before its first mission, Exploration Flight Test. (Credit:  Lockheed Martin)
Technicians work inside the Orion crew module being built at Kennedy Space Center to prepare it for its first power on. Turning the avionics system inside the capsule on for the first time marks a major milestone in Orion’s final year of preparations before its first mission, Exploration Flight Test. (Credit:
Lockheed Martin)

In 2013, for the first time, Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin and NASA engineers powered on the Orion crew module at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This critical milestone brought together hundreds of separate electronic elements that have been designed, built and tested by dozens of companies across the country involved in the Orion program. The test successfully demonstrated that the crew module avionics were integrated properly and are in good health.

Most recently, the Orion heat shield was delivered to Kennedy Space Center and will soon be fastened onto the crew module. The 16.5 foot diameter heat shield is the largest of its kind ever built. It was fabricated by Lockheed Martin in Denver, and Textron Defense Systems, outside of Boston, covered the shield’s outer surface with Avcoat™, an ablative material system used on the Apollo spacecraft.

The heat shield for the Orion spacecraft has been placed on a work stand inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: NASA/Mike Chambers)
The heat shield for the Orion spacecraft has been placed on a work stand inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: NASA/Mike Chambers)

“For the first time since the dawn of human spaceflight, destinations like Mars are in reach,” said Gerstenmaier. “Development of SLS and Orion is reaching expectation and the benefits of their success will be for all humanity.”

To learn more about the SLS and Orion teams, visit:

To explore the network of companies supporting deep space missions, visit the SLS and Orion supplier map at: http://www.nasa.gov/externalflash/ESDSuppliersMap/