The trusses are those awkward parts jutting from the bottom of the plane to its wings.
Early airplanes were a mess. Human flight was new, and as technology moved from “a barely functioning jumble of cloth, wire, and engines” to “deadly war machines” in less than a decade, all sorts of wacky configurations were attempted along the way. One of these early innovations was the truss, a support structure connecting the wing to the body of the plane, which can still be seen in small, prop-driven planes to this day. Jet planes mostly moved away from the design, but now NASA wants to … brace yourself … bring it back.
These new trusses brace the wing so that it can be longer, thinner, and lighter, while still supporting a plane. From NASA:
Researchers expect the lighter weight, lower drag truss-braced wing to reduce both fuel burn and carbon emissions by at least 50% over current technology transport aircraft, and by 4 to 8% compared to equivalent advanced technology conventional configurations with unbraced wings.
Using computational results showing how air would flow around the model, they modify the dimensions and shape of the wing and truss to improve areas that may generate undesirable air flow that would increase drag and reduce lift. Then engineers test models in a wind tunnel using multiple experimental techniques to validate the computations and aircraft performance predictions.
Trusses allow for bigger wings, which means more lift. But there are still some truss issues: the truss itself adds drag, but if well designed, that should be more than offset by the improved wings the plane offers. Besides the fuel efficiency and reduced emissions, there’s a hidden, silent benefit: the wings should be quieter, which is great for anyone who doesn’t love the sound of roaring jets overhead.
A giant metal frame standing several yards wide rises up nearly 200 feet inside the Michoud Assembly Facility, NASA’s massive 832-acre space park outside New Orleans.
“What you’re looking at is the largest welding system in the world,” said Jackie Nesselroad. She is leading a team from Boeing (BA) that’s welding together the world’s most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System. “It’s about the coolest job on earth.”
SLS is not a rocket that will be reusable, like the one Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin just landed for the second time in a row.
It is not a system like the one that Elon Musk’s SpaceX contracts out to NASA for ferrying supplies to the International Space Station.
Instead, the SLS has one customer and one mission: to take Americans into deep space.
The goal is Mars. The program will cost billions.
“It is designed for beyond low-Earth orbit exploration with humans,” said Frank McCall, the deputy program manager from Boeing who called SLS “a mission that is long overdue.” The first unmanned test flight is slated for late 2018. By 2021, the rocket is supposed to carry astronauts aboard the Orion space capsule built by Lockheed Martin (LMT).
“The first crewed mission … will be a mission that goes to the far side of the moon, literally farther than we’ve ever gone before in manned spacecraft,” said NASA SLS manager Patrick Whipps.
This year alone, Congress is giving NASA $2 billion for SLS, and much of that funding is going to the core rocket built by Boeing. That core includes powerful liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel tanks, which will give the first version of the rocket 8.5 million tons of thrust.
“That’s 31 747s at full power,” said Boeing engineer Tony Castilleja. That thrust will be even greater in later versions. It also makes SLS the most powerful rocket in history. “This is the only rocket that can cut the time in half and double the science and double the exploration.”
Why does NASA have to pay so much, and why does it need to own the rocket? Musk has plans to get to Mars on his own, so why not just ride along with SpaceX? NASA management believes deep space exploration is so big, so expensive, so fraught with risk, that it needs to own the mission. “Mars is a million times further away than the space station,” said Paul Wright senior manager for test and evaluation at Boeing. “It’s all about discovery. There isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so to speak.”
At least not yet.
The good news for Boeing and NASA is that Americans are once again infatuated with space. The credit goes to everything from the bold visions of billionaires like Musk and Bezos to films like “The Martian.” Congress voted to give NASA a raise in 2016 to $19.3 billion — more than the agency requested. The SLS program is hoping for continued funding to pay for more trips, because beyond the first two missions, the way to Mars isn’t clear. Perhaps the rocket system could take astronauts back to the moon, or to an asteroid. It all depends on how the first two missions go, how much it costs, and what other competing priorities there are through 2035.
Boeing is trying to keep costs down (relatively speaking) by reusing technologies from the space shuttle programs, such as the engines and solid-fuel rocket boosters. McCall doesn’t see that as looking backward. “Why reinvent the wheel if the wheel works?”
NASA is also exploring new technologies for the program down the road, such as using nuclear energy to take the Orion capsule all the way to Mars. NASA’s Whipps said astronauts will also need new spacesuits. Instead of wearing suits for a few hours a day on spacewalks outside the space station, “we’ll be using the spacesuit literally every day, sometimes many hours every day, on the surface of Mars or an asteroid.” The suits will have to be stronger, and astronauts will need the tools to repair them on site. “When you’re 40 or 60 million miles away from your home planet, there is not a depot to take parts back to,” Whipps said.
For now, however, the focus is building the rocket, making it lighter, and keeping the SLS program on budget and on time. The core rocket will be unpainted to save on hundreds of pounds of white paint that was only for cosmetic purposes. Boeing has revamped the welding facility at Michoud to create welds that weigh less, and it’s reduced the number of tools needed from two dozen during the Shuttle program to only six or seven for SLS.
Meanwhile, at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, NASA is paying Boeing $76 million this year to build two new towers for testing the fuel tanks. The liquid hydrogen tank alone will stand 130 feet, and testing could begin later this year. “The biggest challenge for us is we are going to be doing all these tests — the engine test, the liquid hydrogen tank, the inner tank and the liquid oxygen tank, almost all at the same time,” said Boeing’s Wright.
Those tests ultimately will determine the rocket’s limits. “We’re going to qualify those by testing all the way to failure,” said NASA’s Tim Flores. For him, knowing the rocket’s limits, and making sure SLS is safe, has gotten personal. His 11-year-old son recently decided he wants to be an astronaut when he grows up, and Flores believes someone his son’s age will be the first human on Mars.
“Now I think, ‘Am I making the right decisions with the things that I’m doing?'” he said, standing atop a test tower in Alabama. “My son might actually be on one of those flights.”
(Bloomberg) — Less than a decade after its first rocket launch, Elon Musk’s SpaceX finds itself in an unfamiliar position.
The upstart venture is the incumbent vying to win the bulk of a $3.5 billion U.S. contract renewal while facing rivals that include Boeing Co., whose spaceflight roots date to the 1950s. At stake: a seven-year agreement to haul supplies and experiments to the International Space Station.
SpaceX is pushing the only made-in-the-USA entry in a four- way derby with Boeing, Orbital ATK Inc. and Sierra Nevada Corp., each of which relies to some extent on rockets with Russian engines. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will award the work as soon as Thursday as it juggles support for commercial missions while Congress clamors to end U.S. dependence on the imported motors.
“This bodes well for SpaceX because they’re the only company I can see that’s completely independent of Russia,” said Marco Caceres, director for space studies at consultant Teal Group.
NASA split the initial $3.6 billion cargo-flight contract between SpaceX and Orbital in 2008, two years after Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. sent its first rocket aloft. The win helped establish SpaceX as a competitor to United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin Corp. rocket venture whose work includes military missions.
“If NASA wants to maintain or expand the work done on the space station, they need supplies, people and a way to support all the research work up there,” said Mark Sirangelo, who leads Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems business.
SpaceX and Orbital each have a setback on their commercial- cargo records. An October 2014 explosion just after liftoff destroyed an Orbital Antares rocket laden with space station cargo. In June, a SpaceX Falcon 9 blew up en route to the orbiting lab.
The station’s reliance on Russian and Japanese spacecraft while the U.S. craft have been grounded highlights the “immediate and urgent need for appropriate oversight and corrective action,” Republican Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and David Vitter of Louisiana said in a Sept. 1 letter urging the Government Accountability Office to review NASA’s contracted launch services and capsules.
Increased political scrutiny may provide an incentive to NASA to add more contractors to provide “back-up options” and avoid protests by losing bidders, said Nick Taborek, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence.
Unless NASA can gain additional funding from Congress, bringing in new entrants would probably mean less money for the current cargo haulers. “There’s certainly a good chance the pool of bidders will be expanding, which means less revenue for Orbital and SpaceX,” Taborek said by phone.
Expanding the pool of contractors is critical, Sierra Nevada’s Sirangelo said, because Japan is preparing to wind down its cargo missions to the station after European ended its flights. NASA would “have to do more flights, or add more participants or choose a vehicle like ours that would take more cargo up,” he said.
Boeing’s entrant is a reusable cargo version of the Starliner capsule being developed for manned NASA orbital missions later this decade. It would be carried by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. “NASA can take advantage of all the work and taxpayer dollars spent for the Commercial Crew program and re-use it for cargo,” Boeing spokeswoman Kelly Kaplan said by e-mail.
Sierra Nevada proposes a freighter variant of its Dream Chaser, a reusable orbiter that looks like a miniature cousin of the space shuttle and is designed to land on airport runways. It would have folding wings to ride inside the launch fairing atop an Atlas V or a rocket from Europe’s Arianespace SA.
SpaceX and Orbital declined to discuss their cargo proposals. NASA had no comment this week about details of the next commercial-resupply contract.
Caceres, the space consultant, isn’t convinced that adding more contractors will solve NASA’s reliability qualms because the Atlas V is powered by Russian-made RD-180 engines — a focal point of congressional debate over import limits.
“I don’t know that three companies is better than two, if two out of the three are reliant on the same vehicle,” Caceres said. Like Boeing and Sierra Nevada, Orbital also depends on Russian engines. It used them in the Antares rocket that blew up, plans to deploy a different Russian model on a new Antares, and will put its Cygnus capsule on an Atlas V next month to resume space-station flights.
The initial supply contract proved a boon for SpaceX, which was founded in 2002 by Musk — a PayPal Inc. co-founder — a year before he created his signature automaker, Tesla Motors Inc. SpaceX has completed six missions under the NASA award to Orbital’s two, and also plans to restart commercial flights in December.
Gauging the full effect of NASA’s privatization of cargo trips may take years, because follow-on offerings like space tourism aren’t quite ready yet, said Micah Walter-Range, director of research and analysis with the Space Foundation.
“It has been good to keep a lot of that money in the country rather than sending it off to Russia,” Walter-Range said. Without NASA’s resupply program, “that is what we would be doing.”