NASA Marshall Partners With Air Force on SLS Advanced Rocket Engine

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Systems Directorate in Los Angeles, Calif., are collaborating on the Space Launch System (SLS) Advanced Development NASA Research Announcement (NRA) to study an affordable, next-generation rocket engine.

Partnering on this effort will strengthen mutual organizational goals, including reduced development and total life cycle costs, cross agency collaboration for rocket propulsion system development and strengthen competitive growth in the nation’s rocket propulsion industrial base.

“This joint approach allows both parties to benefit from our entrusted resources and engage the top rocket propulsion experts and organizations to help solve these very complex propulsion challenges,” said Dale Thomas, Associate Director for Technical Issues at Marshall. “In recent years, it’s become apparent that the rocket propulsion industry is in a state of distress; collaborating — especially in a time of declining budgets — helps to grow and strengthen the knowledge base which is important for our nation’s technical preeminence.”

NASA and the Air Force are interested in the outcome of a requirements study of the Affordable Upper Stage Engine Program (AUSEP) liquid rocket engine for use on upper stages of medium- and heavy-class launch vehicles, including the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) family of launch vehicles.

The AUSEP study will identify the most cost effective and technically mature alternatives to the current Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle upper stage engines. NASA is interested in the study as the AUSE could be a candidate to power the SLS cryogenic propulsion stage for in-space applications to enable exploration to multiple destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.

As part of the NASA Research Announcement, the SLS Program is pursuing advanced developments for the evolved SLS vehicle in the areas of concept development, propulsion, structures, materials, manufacturing and avionics, and software.

Marshall is leading the design and development of the SLS on behalf of the agency. The new heavy-lift launch vehicle will expand human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and enable new missions of exploration across the solar system.

For more information about the SLS Advanced Development NRA, visit:

Editor’s Note: This is interesting news. I understand the purpose of developing an advanced stage for the Space Launch System. However, the connection to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), i.e., Atlas V and Delta IV, is a bit of a puzzle.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) is already developing a new engine for the Centaur upper stage in collaboration with XCOR to fly on the Atlas V and Delta IV. The new engine, coupled with upgrades that ULA is making in the Centaur, would reduce the costs of these launch vehicles. The Centaur would also be well suited for in-space propulsion duties. So, why exactly are they doing this AUSEP study?

The other problem is that nobody has ever associated NASA Marshall or the U.S. Air Force with the word “affordable.” This combination does not appear to be ideal for achieving the stated goal. But, that’s probably the way Congress likes it. The question is whether they will be able to recognize affordable options when they receive proposals from industry under the NRA?