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Computer hardware delivered for NASA's next big rocket

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Jun 7, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—NASA has taken delivery of the computer hardware that will be used to host the flight software for its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket being developed by NASA for missions beyond low Earth orbit.

The three computers were delivered to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center by The Boeing Company. 

The hardware has the most powerful processing power for flight computation, and each of the three computers has triple redundant processors to ensure resilience.

The SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built, capable of lifting up to 130 metric tons. 

Dane Richardson, manager for the Boeing SLS Avionics and Software Team, said "These are the most capable flight computers ever developed for human spaceflight. They have the highest processing capability available in a flight computer and triple modular redundant processors. The technology is proven from years of satellite applications, and it's reliable enough to take SLS beyond Earth's orbit."

NASA will now proceed to develop the flight software that will be used to launch and control the large rocket in space.

The Space Launch System is being designed for both cargo and manned missions beyond Earth's orbit, to the Moon, asteroids and eventually to Mars. Astronauts would fly in the Orion spacecraft that would be launched atop of the SLS rocket.

New computers ready for the SLS software
Markeeva Morgan, left, and Walter Robinson integrate the software test beds into the laboratory at the Marshall Center. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given

The SLS is being designed with two configurations, one that can lift 70 metric tons and a larger configuration with a second stage that will be capable of lifting 130 metric tons.

The heavy-lift rocket will be powered by RS-25 engines, whilst the second stage will be powered by J-2X engines.

The first test flight of SLS is scheduled for 2017.

"We are moving out very quickly on SLS," said Todd May, Space Launch System Program manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, "SLS will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever built, and it requires the most capable flight software in the history of human spaceflight. Having this avionics hardware in place early will allow the NASA SLS team and Boeing to accelerate the flight software development."

The SLS will stand 384 feet tall and be capable of lifting 130 metric tons beyond orbit, taller and more powerful than the Saturn V moon rocket.

NASA's spaceflight strategy is to use space companies such as SpaceX for low Earth orbit missions including carrying crew and cargo to the space station.

NASA's outsourcing programme to the commercial sector is managed by the Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office - dubbed 'C3PO'

Cargo is covered by the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program which began in 2006

Human spaceflight development is organised by the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. Companies awarded contracts under the Commercial Crew Development programme are: Blue Origin, Boeing, Paragon Space Development Corporation, Sierra Nevada Corporation and United Launch Alliance.

Last week SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft became the first private space vehicle to berth with the International Space Station. The mission, which was the second demonstration flight by SpaceX under the COTS program, paves the way for SpaceX to begin fulfilling a commercial supply agreement it has with NASA for 12 missions to the ISS.

Also appointed by NASA's COTS Program is Orbital Sciences Corporation which is scheduled to have its first demonstration flight of its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft, followed by a demonstration flight to the space station by the end of the year. Whilst outsourcing space station transportation to the likes of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, NASA is focussing development on the SLS for longer and deeper space missions.