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February 15, 2013

Aerojet Gets Final NASA SLS Booster Development Contract

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

NASA has awarded Aerojet a $23.3 million contract to develop engineering demonstrations and risk reduction concepts for advanced boosters to go with agency's Space Launch System (SLS).

SLS, if it makes it through federal budget tightening over the next decade, will be the vehicle to take NASA's manned Orion spacecraft and other payloads beyond Earth orbit. The baseline 70 metric ton version of SLS will use a pair of five-segment solid rocket boosters similar to those used with the Space Shuttle program. Advanced boosters with more thrust are needed to evolve SLS to a 130 metric ton version.

Aerojet is one of four companies that have won contracts to improve affordability, reliability and performance of an advanced booster for the 130 metric ton SLS. The company will work on improving a liquid oxygen and kerosene combustion engine. Work will include fabricating a representative full-scale 550,000 pound thruster class main injector and thrust chamber, and prepare to conduct a number of tests measuring performance and demonstrating combustion stability.

Other companies that have SLS advanced booster contracts are ATK Launch Systems, Dynetics Inc. and Northrop Grumman (News - Alert) Corporation Aerospace Systems. ATK is working on manufacturing improvements to its solid rocket booster. Dynetics has proposed using an updated version of the F-1 engine used in Apollo Saturn V first stage in a two engine booster.  Northrop Grumman, builders of the composite-based B-2 bomber, has a contract to develop low-cost manufacturing techniques for composite propellant tanks.

SLS has a long road to get to an advanced version. The 70 metric ton version is currently penciled in for an unmanned first flight in late 2017, followed by a second manned mission in 2021. Development costs through 2017 have been estimated by NASA at $10 billion, with a per mission launch cost of $500 million. An independent audit by Booz Allen Hamilton (News - Alert) found NASA's estimates "optimistic" and lacked reserves for to cover cost and schedule risk.

Budget sequestration could easily derail the late 2017 target date through a combination of cuts and delays to NASA's budget. Critics have called SLS the "Senate Launch System" and say while NASA may end up with a heavy lift system, it won't have the money for big projects requiring a capability to put 130 tons of payload into orbit. 

Finally, commercial space efforts may provide a more affordable path to science returns. The Golden Spike Company says for $7 billion in development money, plus $750 million (all inclusive) per mission, it should be able to deliver two astronauts to the Moon's surface for a multi-day stay by 2020.   Compare that to NASA's $10 billion estimate for developing SLS -- exclusive of Orion crew capsule development and Kennedy Space Center improvements -- for a single 2021 flyby of the Moon.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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