NASA ponies up funds for more Artemis boosters from Northrop Grumman

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NASA Prepares To Send Artemis I Booster Segments to Kennedy for Stacking. - Northrop Grumman/NASA/TNS

NASA has contracted with Northrop Grumman to start gathering the materials it would need to supply booster rockets for as many as six more Artemis lunar missions.

The company is the main contractor on the two solid rocket boosters that are attached to the core stage of the Space Launch System rocket designed to take the Orion crew capsule to the moon and Mars.

It’s already shipped the segments to be used on Artemis I to Kennedy Space Center from its testing facility in Utah, and is under contract to construct two more for Artemis II and III. This new contract is for up to $49.5 million so Northrop Grumman can begin gathering materials for potentially six more missions, which would take NASA through the ninth Artemis flight.

NASA gives contractors the initial funding to order items to build out the hardware, and would execute an expanded contract for when the rockets would actually be built. NASA said details of a full contract would be finalized before the end of 2021. That contract would extend through Dec. 31, 2030, which gives NASA the wiggle room to do nearly one lunar mission a year from 2021-2030.

NASA is still aiming for Artemis I by next year, which will be an uncrewed mission to the moon. Artemis II will be crewed but not land on the moon. Artemis III will return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972, and plans are for that to include the first woman on the moon. NASA’s goal is to accomplish that by 2024.

“This initial step ensures that NASA can build the boosters needed for future Space Launch System rockets that will be needed for the Artemis missions to explore the moon,” said John Honeycutt, NASA’s SLS program manager in a press release. “The letter contract allows us to buy long-lead materials in time for manufacturing boosters for the fourth flight.”

The two boosters provide the majority of the SLS power at launch. The core stage, whose main contractor is Boeing, provides 2 million pounds of thrust using four RS-25 engines that have been refurbished from the space shuttle era. In its full configuration, the boosters combined with the core stage give SLS 8.8 million pounds of thrust, and would make it the biggest rocket to launch from Earth since the Saturn V rockets of the Apollo era.

While the Artemis I solid rocket boosters are being prepped for stacking at KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building, the core stage for the first mission remains at Stennis Space Center undergoing a series of tests that will culminate in a hot-fire of its four engines before also making its way to KSC. NASA just completed the second of eight tests on the core stage, signing off on its flight computers and avionics. The eighth test will be firing up of its engines on the 212-foot-tall core stage standing upright at the facility’s B-2 Test Stand. Before the COVID-19 shutdown of work earlier this year, officials had hoped to complete those tests and have the stage delivered to KSC as early as this month, but the arrival date is now in flux.

The core stage and solid rocket boosters will eventually be mated with the Orion capsule on the mobile launcher and rolled out to Launch Pad 39-B.

“We’re ready to process and stack the boosters for the Artemis I mission, and we are making great progress producing boosters for the Artemis II and III missions,” said Bruce Tiller, manager of the SLS Boosters office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “NASA is committed to establishing a sustainable presence at the Moon, and this action enables NASA to have boosters ready when needed for future missions.”

NASA said casting the motor segments for Artemis II are already complete, and in the works for Artemis III.

The smaller procurement contract approach to the SLS missions is nothing new for NASA. They did the same thing with Boeing and other contractors to get the materials needs to build out core stages and other SLS components for missions beyond Artemis III.

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Ben Smegelsky/NASA/TNS