NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems Make Progress as SLS/Orion Launch Slips

A liquid hydrogen storage tank is photographed at Launch Pad 39B on Nov. 8, 2019, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credits: NASA/Ben Smegelsky)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) required for NASA’s Artemis moon program are making progress as the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft continues to slip into the future.

“According to officials, most of the infrastructure needed for the Artemis I is nearing operational readiness. Currently, the program plans to finish the system acceptance and operational readiness reviews for vehicle stacking in September 2020,” according to a new assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

That readiness date will be at least one year before the Artemis I launch that will send an automated Orion spacecraft around the moon. NASA recently pushed back the date for the flight from the space agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to late 2021.

Credit: GAO

The delay could result in additional cost overruns for the EGS program. Officials told GAO they could support an earlier March 2021 launch date without exceeding current budget outlays.

The EGS program is making progress on the required software. It is also trying to solve a number of technical issues with the infrastructure.

“For example, the Mobile Launcher’s pressure panel—which monitors and regulates the flow of fuel, oxidizer, and conditioned air into and out of the Mobile Launcher—has ongoing issues with leaks. The leaks are difficult to detect and challenging to repair as they often occur in areas that are not easily accessible,” the assessment said.

EGS officials said it will take four months and possibly longer to conduct integrated test and checkout procedures prior to the Artemis I launch.

GAO’s assessment of EGS follows.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Report to Congressional Committees

Government Accountability Office
April 2020

Exploration Ground Systems

The Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) program is modernizing and upgrading infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center and developing software needed to integrate, process, and launch the Space Launch
System (SLS) and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion).

The EGS program consists of several major construction of facilities and ground support equipment projects including the Mobile Launcher (pictured to the left), Crawler Transporter, Vehicle Assembly Building, and launch pad, all of which need to be complete before the first uncrewed exploration mission, Artemis I.

Project Summary

After a series of delays, NASA had planned to conduct the uncrewed demonstration of Artemis I in June 2020, but the agency is currently reevaluating this date. NASA officials stated that EGS is prepared to support an Artemis I launch date from November 2020 through March 2021 without impact to schedule and costs or to development plans for subsequent Artemis missions.

However, according to officials, while most of the infrastructure needed for the Artemis I launch is nearing operational readiness, the delivery of Orion and SLS hardware is essential for successful EGS operations. Any delays in hardware delivery beyond the current schedule will impact the stacking of the vehicle in
preparation for integrated test and checkout procedures before launch and will result in schedule and cost overruns.

The EGS program’s costs are currently estimated through a March 2021 launch date for Artemis I; however, costs will remain uncertain until a new launch date is established. The program continues to report progress and improvements to its launch software, which represents the program’s critical path.

Cost and Schedule Status

After a series of delays, NASA had planned to conduct the uncrewed demonstration of Artemis I in June 2020, but the agency is currently reevaluating this date. NASA officials stated that EGS is working toward a November 2020 Artemis I launch date but is prepared to support a launch date through March 2021 without impact to schedule and costs or to development plans for subsequent Artemis missions.

According to officials, however, the timely delivery of Orion and SLS hardware is essential for EGS to support any launch readiness date. Any delays in hardware delivery will delay the stacking of the vehicle in preparation for integrated test and checkout procedures—a series of final tests that ensures all Artemis hardware operates as expected following integration and stacking—and could result in schedule and cost overruns.

Currently, the EGS program is measuring cost growth to a March 2021 baseline launch date for the uncrewed demonstration of Artemis I, although this date remains tentative until NASA officially establishes a new launch date.

Software

The EGS program has made progress on its two major software development efforts—Spaceport Command and Control System (SCCS), which will operate and monitor ground equipment, and Ground Flight Application Software (GFAS), which will interface with flight systems and ground crews. According to program officials, these software development efforts, which represent the EGS critical path, will culminate in the release and testing of SCCS 6.2 in May 2020 to support operations for Artemis I.

In addition, development of the GFAS software is substantially complete with only verification and validation of the GFAS software remaining. Although software development is currently on track, late deliveries from Orion and SLS could limit the amount of time EGS has post-delivery to integrate and test software components from each of the three programs.

Integration and Test

Before beginning integrated test and checkout procedures, the program must complete multi-element verification and validation as well as system acceptance and operational readiness reviews. Multi-element verification and validation is a process that determines if the launch and processing systems at Kennedy Space Center meet program requirements and specifications and can operate together to fulfill their intended purpose. According to officials, the EGS program completed multi-element verification and validation of the Mobile Launcher and the launch pad in January 2020.

However, program officials stated that they are addressing challenges that emerged during integration and testing. For example, the Mobile Launcher’s pressure panel—which monitors and regulates the flow of fuel, oxidizer, and conditioned air into and out of the Mobile Launcher—has ongoing issues with leaks. The leaks are difficult to detect and challenging to repair as they often occur in areas that are not easily accessible.

Following multi-element verification and validation, the program must undergo system acceptance and operational readiness reviews, which further demonstrate EGS’s readiness to receive, process, integrate, and launch flight hardware.

According to officials, most of the infrastructure needed for the Artemis I is nearing operational readiness. Currently, the program plans to finish the system acceptance and operational readiness reviews for vehicle stacking in September 2020.

Following these two series of reviews, the EGS program can begin integrated test and checkout procedures. According to current schedule estimates, the EGS program needs approximately 4 months to complete integrated test and checkout procedures prior to the Artemis I launch.

However, the EGS program continues to track a risk that 4 months may be insufficient time for this process based on factors such as historical pre-launch integrated test and checkout delays and additional effort and time the program may need to test a new vehicle for the first time.