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NASA, Alabama aerospace hub developing SLS, most powerful rocket for space

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – Airbus’ passenger jet production center will launch Alabama into the commercial jet manufacturing business in 2015. But an Alabama aerospace hub has long played a critical role in a different kind of flight – space travel.

More than four decades after going to the moon with the Alabama-designed Saturn V rocket, NASA is now developing a rocket in Alabama that could go to Mars.

The space agency is partnering with a number of the world’s most prominent aerospace companies to build the largest and most powerful rocket in history: the Space Launch System.

NASA selected Boeing Co. to design and develop the core stage of the rocket at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, a city with a rocket history going back to Dr. Wernher von Braun, father of the U.S. space program and chief architect of the Saturn V superbooster. Other companies also working on the SLS in various parts of the U.S. include ATK, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Lockheed Martin. United Launch Alliance, which assembles big rockets in nearby Decatur, also has an important role in SLS: it’s building the Delta IV rocket for the flight next year of Orion, the part of the Mars spacecraft that eventually will carry the crew.

Ginger Barnes, vice president and program manager for Boeing’s SLS program, said SLS is on schedule to launch in 2017 with an unmanned flight. The rocket, twice as large as anything currently in operation, will be large enough to carry out deep-space missions to asteroids, Mars and even unmanned missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa or Pluto’s moon Charon.

“Marshall Space Flight Center is kind of the golden bolt of the space industry,” Barnes said. “We enjoy a good partnership there and have been for a long time. They have an unparalleled expertise and a great relationship with the industry partners. Boeing’s not alone there.”

This is a busy week for NASA in Huntsville. The SLS program, which began a design phase in 2011, on Tuesday began its preliminary design review that comes before engineers can begin the critical design phase. On Friday, the director of the International Space Station will be in Huntsville to celebrate upgrades to Marshall Space Flight Center’s Payload Operations Integration Center.

The upgrades enhance the collaboration between the ground team and ISS crew and researchers. The renovated control room features a video wall for displaying information like live video, diagrams and photographs of experiments. (According to NASA, more than 200 experiments happen on the International Space Station at any given time.)

The first SLS flight will feature a configuration for a 77-ton lift capacity and carry an Orion spacecraft without a crew beyond the moon. Ultimately, the rocket will have a lift capacity of 143 tons, the necessary size for a mission to Mars.

Between 850 and 900 of Boeing’s 1,200 employees working on SLS are based in Huntsville, Barnes said. Others are in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Washington or California.

The SLS program was created through the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, signed into law by President Barack Obama. The act gave the agency a $19 billion budget for 2011 and moved objectives away from the moon and toward human exploration of an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. As part of the plan, Huntsville was designated to build a heavy-lift rocket.

“Today’s vote of confidence from the president ensures America’s space program will remain at the forefront of a bright future for our nation,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the time.

Barnes herself is a product of North Alabama. A graduate of Decatur High School and the University of Alabama in Huntsville, she left 20 years ago and moved to Houston to work on the International Space Station. Barnes then spent time with Boeing in St. Louis before returning to Houston in 2010 to run United Space Alliance, where she was responsible for the last five missions for the space shuttle program.

“I’ve gone from retiring NASA’s last big rocket to building their next one, so I’m doubly excited,” she said.

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