Building the future of a new space economy.
The stakes are high—at least four lives are on the line—and you only have one chance. Do you play it safe, or do you innovate? How much added risk to cost, schedule and human safety is acceptable to attain the future?
That’s engineering in the human spaceflight business every day. Everything is on the line for that one big event—launch—when engines, fueled by giant tanks and controlled by millions of lines of software, ignite to push tons of mass against Earth’s gravitational pull.
NASA encourages innovation across all their directorates, even as they demand the highest possible safety standards for new capabilities that make up America’s human spaceflight infrastructure and enable the next great adventure.
Again and again, we face the question of how—and where—to innovate safely, as we design, develop, test and manufacture propulsion systems and avionics for the world’s most powerful rocket, NASA’s Space Launch System. To keep flying in a challenging economic environment, we absolutely have to cut costs from the production and launch of big rocket systems.
We also need to fly sooner, rather than later, in order to maintain our launch pace and keep our supply chain engaged for future systems.
So we’re using a phased approach to manage the risks of innovation. Our first flight, in 2019, uses proven capabilities from our 60 years of human spaceflight experience, while introducing innovations in manufacturing and engineering. SLS is designed to be a family of rockets, allowing us to onboard new technologies in each consecutive configuration as both NASA and Boeing, along with our partners, test new spaceflight materials, capabilities and systems. Incorporating them as they become available, they move us ever forward on our journey back to deep space. We’re working with new technologies such as advanced composites and insulation, propulsion control systems, digital development solutions, determinate assembly, and so much more.
Leading through change Our technical lead engineers (TLE) are the key to managing the changes in design, development, test and production of this adaptive rocket design, so we’re innovating how we work together. By placing TLEs at important crossroads across the program, we’re better able to manage ongoing and incoming design and engineering changes of the integrated rocket. Additionally they leverage their extensive network of experienced engineers from across the company every day to ensure technical challenges are met.
Our technical review board makes decisions about one segment of the rocket, but all of the disciplines are in the room, contributing their broad expertise, so we capture impacts to the system as a whole. These very senior engineers bring expertise from across Boeing, so the diversity of thought is extraordinary. The same principle is applied to how we’re working with NASA and their independent review boards.
TLEs have delivered innovations for existing program challenges, and for onboarding new technologies as we design elements of the larger, even more powerful and capable rockets. And they carry lessons learned from one project to the next, because understanding how a problem occurred is equally as important as fixing it.
We want wisdom and continuous improvement, not just technical expertise and quick fixes. SLS will be transporting crew and cargo to deep space for decades to come, so development isn’t just about creating a single rocket; it’s about developing an evolvable, reliable, cost-effective system that will be capable of meeting new mission needs as they develop. To do that, we need wisdom that spans generations and geography, old and new, innovative and proven.
Together, we can do anything. And everything. And we are.
By Michael Wood, Space Launch System Chief Engineer