Photo credit: NASA
By Ahmad A. Malik
The largest and most powerful spacecraft-welding tool in the world, the Vertical Assembly Center, has officially opened at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
The 170 foot-tall, 78 foot-wide welder will be used to build the core stages of the Space Launch System (SLS), an innovative rocket that will allow NASA to undertake orbital and deep space missions.
“The SLS Program continues to make significant progress,” said Todd May, the Space Launch System program manager. “The core stage and boosters have both completed critical design review, and NASA recently approved the SLS Program’s progression from formulation to development. This is a major milestone for the program and proof the first new design for SLS is mature enough for production.”
Considered the United States’ next great rocket, it’s 200-foot tall frame will be capable of lifting 130 metric tons into space. The $7 billion rocket will take up to four years to make, and is planned for its first launch in 2018.
“This rocket is a game changer in terms of deep space exploration and will launch NASA astronauts to investigate asteroids and explore the surface of Mars while opening new possibilities for science missions, as well,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the welder last Friday.
The Vertical Assembly Center is integral in creating the Space Launch System, as it will its parts to complete the ship’s tanks and dry structure assemblies. Created by using a friction-stir-wield process, the rings connect and provide increased stiffness between domes (the head of the ship), and barrels (which will hold cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to feed the launch rocket’s four giant engines). These elements make up the core stages, which constitute the five major structures: the forward skirt, a liquid oxygen tank, an intertank, liquid hydrogen tank and the stage’s engine section.
Boeing recently won a bid along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to create NASA’s space taxis for astronauts traveling to the International Space Station. It is the prime contractor of the core stages for the Space Launch System.
Engineers have already completed welding the rings for the first Space Launch System flight since the Vertical Assembly Centrer was commissioned before its public announcement last week. Ten barrels have also been welded for the rocket’s core stage using the device.
For its first test flight, the rocket is expected to deliver an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit. The Orion capsule is designed to take a crew of astronauts to deep space destinations like Mars or an asteroid towed into orbit around the moon. Orion will launch on its first test flight aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket in December. The capsule is currently being assembled in Florida.