At a Capitol Hill luncheon Wednesday, NASA officials provided a standing room only audience with an update on the development of key elements of the agency’s exploration plans: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, and ground systems to support those vehicles. And while officials gave the message that development of all three was going well, there was uncertainty—or, at least, confusion—about one longer-term element of the plan.
“We believe we are on a mission. We have a deeper purpose,” said Dan Dumbacher, deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations, after providing a quick overview of those three programs, including this fall’s test flight of the Orion spacecraft, designated Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1). “Step one is coming up this fall, December 2014, EFT-1, and what we get to be doing with Orion. So be watching for that, watch us make the progress.”
The message that Dumbacher and the NASA managers of Orion, SLS, and ground systems provided the audience at the Space Transportation Association event was that all three programs were making good progress. “In SLS, we’re kind of in blocking and tackling mode right now,” said SLS manager Todd May. He said they kicked off last week a critical design review for the core stage and the booster stage last week, and currently have five months of slack on their critical path.
Dumbacher said that there “standard hardware development kind of things” the Orion program has had to work through as it prepares for EFT-1. “You always learn when you do hardware,” he said. Budget issues, including sequestration and the government shutdown last October, also complicated matters. “The bottom line is that all three—ground systems, Orion, and SLS—will be ready for EM-1″ in late 2017, he said.
What happens beyond EM-1 has been the subject of some speculation in recent weeks, which Dumbacher addressed in his opening comments. “Despite what some people might want to say in the blogosphere, [EM-2] will be crewed,” he said. “There’s word out there that we’re not going to fly crew until EM-3. Don’t believe it. The baseline plan continues to be the baseline plan of crew on EM-2.”
That “word out there in the blogosphere” was actually also in trade publications like Space News, which reported last month that EM-2 might not carry crew since industry was expecting it to be the first flight of a new, more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) that would replace the Delta IV-derived Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) that will fly on EM-1. Boeing executives at the 30th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs last month said that the EUS could be ready in time for EM-2, although as Boeing vice president John Elbon said there, “the architectures haven’t been laid out yet” for its use for EM-2 or beyond, including whether its first flight would carry a crew.
Asked later in the event about the use of the EUS, Dumbacher said NASA had made no decisions yet about when and how to fly the upper stage. “Our baseline plan, and I will start there, is the ICPS on EM-1 and EM-2,” he said. “We are looking at the upper stage and when we can bring it in to the program, what’s the place to do it. Todd [May] and his team are doing all the trades, including trades on the engines. We’re still working through all that.”
Dumbacher confirmed after the luncheon that the “trades on the engines” includes whether to use RL10 engines for the EUS, as has been widely reported, or the J-2X engine that NASA has been developing since the Constellation program. He added that NASA was looking at a range of opportunities to first fly the EUS, from EM-2 to as late as EM-5.