On a Thursday afternoon in June, a 17-foot-tall rocket motor—looking like something a dedicated amateur might fire off—stood fire-side-up on the salty desert of Promontory, Utah. Over the loudspeakers, an announcer counted down. And with the command to fire, quad cones of flame flew from the four inverted nozzles and grew toward the sky. As the smoke rose, it cast a four-leaf clover of shadow across the ground.
This was a test of the launch abort motor, a gadget built to carry NASA astronauts away from a rocket gone wrong. Made in Utah by a company called Orbital ATK, it’s part of the Space Launch System: the agency’s next generation space vehicle, meant to ferry humans and cargo into deep space. NASA has tasked Orbital ATK—and other contractors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Aerojet Rocketdyne—with building SLS and its crew capsule for the kinds of missions NASA hasn’t undertaken since the Apollo days. But for much of the program’s six years, NASA didn’t know exactly where SLS would go. The agency spent billions of dollars on what critics called a rocket to nowhere.
In June, hundreds of spectators—rocket scientists, astronauts, locals who line the highway for every scheduled test—came to watch the fireworks of the launch abort motor test. Charley Bown, a program manager, had warned it would be very short, very powerful, and very loud. Despite his prep talk, the crowd jumped at “fire.” During tests like this one, Bown actually turns from the rocketry and watches the watchers, taking pictures of their faces. “Some people just smile,” he says. “Some have a look of amazement.”
Bown has been to a lot of these shows in his decades here. And Orbital ATK has done other test fires, lighting up the boosters that will launch the SLS. But this one was different. Because back in late March, Bill Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate gave a flashy presentation detailing the agency’s “Deep Space Gateway and Transport Plan”—with proposed missions through the 2030s. Finally, the builders and testers could envision not just that their creations would go but that they would go to lunar orbit.
The tapestry of SLS’s fate was always tangled. In 2010, before the shuttle was even in its grave, Congress told NASA to build the rocket using reappropriated shuttle parts. First, they thought the system might take astronauts to an asteroid—you know, practice for Mars. But maybe SLS could send a robot to tug an asteroid from its natural orbit and into the moon’s orbit? Also practice for Mars, of course.
With the 2016 transition of presidential power, NASA abandoned what little agenda it had. Which isn’t unusual. The agency’s mandates are always subject to the US’s four-year flip-flop, despite the fact that decades-long mission plans require, believe it or not, decades. Since Trump took office, officials have debated whether to scrap missions to asteroids, whether to favor the moon over Mars, and whether to put humans aboard the very, very first mission, called EM-1 (it was a bad idea, and they won’t).
Through all this, the contractors kept constructing and testing, keeping their focus simply on finishing. Until Gerstenmeier’s March presentation. Finally, here was a roadmap. The first mission, according to this plan, will go to the moon’s orbit in 2018.
Four years later, the rocket will launch a mission to Europa, that mystery moon on which moviemakers imagine oceanic aliens. Then, crews will shuttle to lunar orbit to build a deep-space habitat and staging area for longer-distance travel. Trips there will continue through 2029, building up the outer-space infrastructure. Four lucky people will spend a year hanging out in the ether around the moon, to see how they and the hab fare. And eventually, other astronauts will undock part of the space town and swivel it on a path toward Mars.
Stick a Pin in Orion
With those goalposts in place, NASA’s contractors finally have somewhere to aim. Orbital ATK is currently proving that its hardware meets NASA’s previously-established specs for safety and performance. And contractor Lockheed Martin continues to test the human capsule for NASA’s deep-space forays: Orion.
As of late July, the Lockheed crew was in the throes of testing a full-size mockup of Orion. Off a road called Titan Loop in Colorado, Lockheed engineers test how the capsule fares in all kinds of weather, blasting it with sound waves to see how it handles vibration, shocking it to see if its components come out OK, putting pressure on it to see if its structure survives. “It tests all the systems in various kinds of badness,” says Christopher Aiken, an integration and test engineer.
The mockup isn’t just a shell: Its electronics and controls are silicon copies of final product. “When we fly this, it doesn’t know it’s sitting on the ground,” says Paul Sannes, manager of the test lab. The idea is that this model will feel and behave like the real thing under those same conditions, a voodoo doll of space travel. Last week, four Lockheed interns did an AMA on reddit. “Getting to see a full mock-up of the capsule every day is pretty awesome,” wrote Bailey Sikorski. “Plus I get to touch it, which is even cooler.”
Six hundred miles northwest, back at Orbital ATK, the biggest task is bureaucratic: a design certification review of the company’s solid rocket boosters, which will power 80 percent of SLS’s first few minutes of flight. Cast inside space-shuttle casings, the propellant’s final form has the consistency of a pencil eraser. Technicians mix the solution in 600-gallon KitchenAids—209 of them per booster—and pour that liquid into the five segments that make up each booster. Then they’ll cure, trim, and X-ray them to make sure they’re defect-free.
When SLS goes up, it will eat through 1,385,000 pounds of that artisanal propellant in two minutes. And although the first flight won’t happen till 2019, Orbital ATK has all the booster segments finished. The design certification will stretch through the end of this year. “We provide to NASA all of the certification paperwork, all the drawings, all the test data,” says Bown. And then? Assuming all’s well? “Ship, assemble, and fly,” he says.
All that prep work means more now that SLS has real, concrete plans for launching astronauts to the moon’s orbit. When the space shuttle Challenger broke apart in 1986, Bown worked at this Utah site. Engineers there, then as now, built NASA’s rocket boosters. And it was a booster that failed, that cold Florida morning, 73 seconds after launch, when it was just higher than a commercial airliner. Seven astronauts died.
Bown kept working here, through decades and acquisitions and mergers and a whole lot of propellant work. “I got to go from feeling horrible to feeling good about it again,” he says.
Today, for major tests like that of the launch abort motor, NASA always sends at least one astronaut to observe. That presence means a lot: The astronauts get to meet the people they’ve trusted to make the 177-foot-tall erasers that will fire them to space. And those engineers get to meet the people that propel their work.
The two types stand side by side at the tests—both jumping involuntarily, both perhaps in the frame of one of Bown’s photos.