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NASA revises its SLS launch schedule, pending approval of the range’s safety office

NASA today announced that it is now targeting September 27, 2022 for the first test launch of its SLS rocket and Orion capsule.

Engineers have — on the launchpad — completed the repair work on the hydrogen leak that caused the previous launch scrubs. The plan now is to do a test fueling on September 21st to see if the repair worked.

If all is then well, the agency wants to launch on September 27th. To do so however NASA needs to get the approval of the safety range office to waive the use-by date of the batteries used to terminate the flight after launch, should something go seriously wrong. The rules require those batteries to be checked every 20 days, and as of today they have been in use for 31 days. The range had already given NASA a five day waiver so it could try to launch on September 5. To launch on September 27th will require the range to allow those batteries to remain unchecked for 46 days, more than double their accepted use-by date.

For the range to allow such a waiver would be I think entirely unprecedented, especially for the very first launch of a new rocket. Such test launches are exceedingly risky. A lot can go wrong, and often does when a rocket tries to fly for the first time. To allow such a lift-off with a questionable flight termination system seems completely insane and irrational.

NASA is also proposing an October 2nd launch date. I suspect this date is based on the range safety office refusing to give this waiver. If so, NASA would then do its September 21st fueling test on the launchpad, quickly roll the rocket back to the assembly building to check the batteries, and then try to get it back to the launch pad in time for that October 2nd date.

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21 comments

  • pzatchok

    I wonder if those checks are more make work than actually truly necessary to be done so often
    NASA make work..

  • Ray Van Dune

    Looks like Blue Origin could have used a few more safety checks. At least they launched in the middle of a desert, but I have not seen any video of the rocket post-failure. Sorry, I have trouble calling it a “booster”.

  • Richard M

    For the range to allow such a waiver would be I think entirely unprecedented, especially for the very first launch of a new rocket. Such test launches are exceedingly risky. A lot can go wrong, and often does when a rocket tries to fly for the first time. To allow such a lift-off with a questionable flight termination system seems completely insane and irrational.

    Wayne Hale, the former Shuttle program manager, had this reaction on Twitter the other day: “In my time I went hat in hand to the Eastern Range to ask them to change a rule in our favor several times. Let’s just say my batting average was rather low.”

    There’s been turnover at the Eastern Range since Wayne’s day, and indeed it’s the Space Force running it now. But this would be a pretty major change in mindset.

    But I guess we will know soon enough.

  • Richard M

    P.S. As I understand it, if the Space Force’s Delta 45 says “no,” that would of course require a rollback to the VAB to replace the FTS, and more to the point – ah, I see Eric Berger just confirmed it – that is a 30 day turnaround, minimum. (It sounds insane, I know, that simply replacing the FTS requires a one month turnaround, but there you are.)

    That being the case, if that happens, I think they’re stuck pushing back to the Oct. 17 to Oct. 31 launch window range.

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrote: “I wonder if those checks are more make work than actually truly necessary to be done so often
    NASA make work.

    NASA has a habit of “derating” hardware tin order to make sure that it is more robust than its expected use. For example, a 1 watt resistor may be derated to ½ watt, giving plenty of margin to make sure a current spike does not destroy the system, which already does not expect to see a whole ½ watt of power. The battery was most certainly derated as to its useful lifetime in order to ensure that it was well charged during launch, and they may be counting on that derating to convince the range safety office that it is still good to use for flight. The schedule that NASA had started with for these batteries may have been more like changing out household smoke alarm batteries every time we switch from daylight savings time to regular worldwide time and vice versa.

    This would be why NASA thinks that they have a chance to convince the range safety office to let them fly without checking the current batteries. It is hard to say whether they will accept the manufacturer’s rating on the batteries.

    So the answer is that these checks are not make work, but they are not actually, truly necessary to be done so often.

  • John

    If that battery has to charge the capacitors that will fire the detonators that blow whatever self-destructs the flying pig, then I can’t see range safety issuing a waver unless the safety factor is huge and well-known. If the battery just has to power electronics, then they may be able to check functionality before flight and do a waiver. Just a wild guess.

  • Ray Van Dune

    The simplest way to make safety rules work is to:
    1. Make them realistic and,
    2. Obey them.

    Part 1. is debatable here, leading to the temptation to break part 2. The rule is thus worthless.

  • David

    Does someone know what type of battery is used for the FTS on this bird? Is it the one for the core stage or the SRB’s? And, is the battery in question a thermal, Li-ion type, or something else?

    Does someone know who the battery manufacturer(s) is(are)? I read everything I could find online and my best guess is EaglePicher, but that’s just a guess.

    Actually, as just a person who loves space flight, launches and all that, but is not in the business, my search trying to find out about these batteries was quite educational and very interesting! It blew my mind how many types of batteries there are. Thought I’d try to find out on my own, but no luck, so I thought I might try here again.

  • wayne

    David–
    Byall means follow up on the battery thing’–I’d like to know if they were manufactured in china.

  • Richard M

    I’m not 100% certain, but I think the FTS batteres are lithium ion systems, manufactured by Eagle Picher. EP has contracted the FTS systems for just about all of NASA’s HSF vehicles, and does ULA’s as well. (EP’s batteries also power the Orion spaceraft as well.)

    If true, their main plant is in Joplin, Missouri, but I have no idea at all what their supply chains look like.

  • Ray Van Dune

    As important as the specs of the battery itself is the engineering of how it is used in the system. When I mentioned the issue, my daughter who is no technician, asked “Why put a battery in something in a way that you cannot test or replace it easily?” Good question.

    Probably because that’s the way it’s always been done.

  • Jason Lewis

    I thought that they had already rolled back to the VAB, but apparently not. Did they need to be at the launch site to fix the hydrogen leak? Seems like a slam dunk to REQUIRE changing/checking the batteries when launching such an enormous bomb for the first time. Also, seems like they could have used part of that billion dollar tower budget to include a system to change/check those batteries without requiring a return to the VAB.

  • Col Beausabre

    Folks, the 20 day rule has nothing to do with NASA. It is a rule put in place by Range Safety of the Eastern Test Range, part of space force, entirely separate organization. The rule applied to everybody. It is NOT negotiated on a case by case basis. There’s something called Range Regulations, which puts down in writing the procedures that MUST be followed. That SLS got a waiver is unprecedented. From my experience as a Range Officer in the Army, those regulations are like “The Law of the Medes and Persians”” (The phrase “The law of the Medes and Persians” denotes something which cannot be altered. It is a reference to the Book of Daniel, Chapter 6. Even the king had to obey the law and could not alter it at his whim) – “arbitrary, capricious and final

  • pzatchok

    Thanks Col.

    Knowing this why not place them in locations that can be accessed from screw on panels? Or at least have a test port easy to get to.

    And if they are Li-ion batteries why no recharge ability that draws off of the common ground power lines?
    Or even a blue tooth transceiver with a hand held pick up to just hold close to the battery to see its power level?
    The tech and the parts are cheaper than a 20 buck flip phone.

    This is a billion dollar project whats a few thousand more for a better system?

  • Richard M

    I think the problem is that the FTS precedent was set by the Space Shuttle – the FTS systems are basically the same, and are located in similar places to where they were on Shuttle – but the rotating service structure that enabled ready access to the FTS at the launch pad for Shuttle is gone now. System capabilities that made at least a modest modicum of sense with Shuttle have been retained for Shuttle’s replacement system despite making less sense on it.

    So as a result, it seems we see yet another aspect in which a finicky-to-service and launch Shuttle has been replaced by a Shuttle-derived launch vehicle that’s even more finicky to service and launch.

  • Edward

    Ray Van Dune’s daughter asked “Why put a battery in something in a way that you cannot test or replace it easily?

    Adding test hardware adds weight to the entire rocket. If you add this to all of the equipment then the rocket has less payload capacity. Test hardware would only be included for items that need it, not for items that are not foreseen as likely problems.

    Access to the rocket on the pad is limited. Anything that is expected to be a rare problem or a serious problem may be better handled back at the VAB.

    For the Saturn V, there had been a large structure (which was rolled away well before launch) that helped access more at the pad than could be reached from the gantry tower, but it seems NASA chose to not have a similar monstrous structure for SLS.

  • George C

    Seems nasty and low living for NASA to enable the possibility of an impression that further delay will be the fault of Range Safety. Batteries don’t like cold temperatures and hot temperatures and fluctuations either. The SRB stack, seems less stark. If they had immediately rolled back and then worked 3 shifts with an early completion bonus they might be done by now.

  • pzatchok

    Edward
    How much weight is added to your laptop by the sensors inside it?

    A DC meter for each battery including a blue tooth transceiver would be about an ounce. Including wires needed. Now just move the batteries to the outside edge of the rocket for easy access. Maybe a pound per battery total.
    How many batteries are needed for the safety systems? Two three maybe four?

    Every single assembly on the rocket has a whole set of sensors all accessed in launch control. But nothing on the emergency batteries?

    That is like putting an air filter on a car and making it only accessible by cutting a new hole in the side of your car.
    And these are supposed to be our greatest engineers.

  • All the data, but no information.

  • Edward

    pzatchok asked: “How much weight is added to your laptop by the sensors inside it?

    Not much, but there aren’t as many sensors in my laptop, and the computer for these sensors is right there, not 50 to 300 feet away, depending on the sensor. The sensors, of course, would need wiring to their respective computers, and that starts to add weight quickly.

    On the first launch or two, the rocket wants to be instrumented to within a pound of its capacity (paraphrase of “within an inch of its life” — well, I thought it was funny), but for normal operations there should only be the necessary sensors plus any backups for critical items.

    A DC meter for each battery including a blue tooth transceiver would be about an ounce. Including wires needed. Now just move the batteries to the outside edge of the rocket for easy access. Maybe a pound per battery total.
    How many batteries are needed for the safety systems? Two three maybe four?

    Blue tooth may be the boy’s favorite toy, but to blue tooth everything would be another FCC nightmare. Blue tooth may be fun, but it isn’t designed for rockets or spacecraft, so it is fun right up until if fails, then you have the same problem, except now everyone is asking why you used cheap blue tooth hardware in that critical location. Kind of like everyone asking why the batteries aren’t more robust, or better instrumented, or in a better location with a panel that can be accessed at the pad, or whatever people are asking.

    Keep in mind that SLS was designed a decade ago with the philosophy that it used as much existing hardware as possible so that time and money did not have to be spent certifying much new flight hardware. Blue tooth was not standard flight hardware, back then.

    It may seem simple to move everything to the outside edge of the rocket for easy access, but by the time you have finished, the center of gravity is off and the mass moment of inertia is off, and the rocket no longer rotates cleanly but wobbles. Rockets and spacecraft are a mass properties nightmare. Also, there is a lot of stuff in a rocket or spacecraft, and not everything can fit in an easily accessed location. Tradeoffs have to be made.

    Every single assembly on the rocket has a whole set of sensors all accessed in launch control. But nothing on the emergency batteries?

    Obviously, not every single assembly has all the sensors that they would want. Otherwise the batteries would be wired up, too.

    That is like putting an air filter on a car and making it only accessible by cutting a new hole in the side of your car.
    And these are supposed to be our greatest engineers.

    What is that box on the Orion that has a problem that they didn’t fix, because it would take most of a year? Why isn’t it easily accessible? It’s that mass properties nightmare problem all over again. Sometimes the parts that you put inboard fail, too.

    The greatest engineers analyze what is most likely to fail and what is unlikely to fail. On a reusable craft, they work extra hard to get everything as accessible as possible, but that isn’t as necessary for an expendable rocket or spacecraft. Tradeoffs are made, and the engineers are going to lose their educated gamble on some problem. It always happens. Hopefully they only lose that gamble on the test unit. Sometimes engineering is frustrating, but the overall career can be much fun and personally rewarding.

    So, if the car were expendable after its first drive, would the engineers bother making the air filter easily accessible? Probably not, as it isn’t supposed to get clogged up until after many thousands of miles down the road, most likely after the first drive is over.

  • wayne

    Edward-
    (good stuff)
    referencing trade-off’s–
    As much as everyone wants this Thing to be ultra maga accessible (including me): correct me if I’m wrong, it only needs to be reliable for 5 minutes, and then were dumping it all in the ocean.

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