When the United States retired its space shuttle program in 2011, it marked the end of a 30-year commitment to low earth orbital space travel. Since 1981, space shuttles had flown missions to launch satellites, conduct low-gravity experiments, and build the international space station, all 200 miles or so above the earth. Now, NASA said, it would no longer haul our astronauts or our experiments for those jobs, deferring instead to commercial carriers or other countries’ space programs.
Had America lost interest in the great beyond? Was the U.S. space agency abandoning manned space travel forever?
Not even close. In fact, NASA didn’t even scrap the space shuttle program entirely. Rather, it shifted focus to a new mission—one that aims to put astronauts on Mars within a couple decades.
The Orion and a New Space Launch System
Sometime in the 2030s, NASA wants to take us back into deep space, that is, beyond earth’s orbit. But instead of flying to the moon again, the current plan is to send astronauts on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle out to the fourth rock from the sun, Mars. The planet is 140 million miles away from earth, and by some estimates, the trip will take about 150 days, each way.
The mission also hopes to send bigger payloads than ever into space, carrying up to 130,000 kg (286,000 pounds) with each launch.
As you might guess, a mission of this scope requires some heavy lifting. So at the heart of NASA’s mission is a new space launch system (SLS). Already in testing, the 70-metric-ton design produces a whopping 8.4 million pounds of thrust at takeoff and stands taller than the Statue of Liberty.
The first test launch of the project took place December 5, 2014. We talked about it here recently, because the Orion was designed using PTC Creo.
Astronauts, rockets, Mars—everything about the SLS project seems fantastic. But ask around and you find out that NASA teams put on their space suits one leg at a time. By which I mean, they’re not unlike everyone else. They worry about deadlines, lost data, and tight budgets. They look for ways to design faster and with fewer errors. And they reuse data whenever they can.
So, like thousands of companies around the world, NASA teams use PTC Windchill to vault and manage designs. In NASA’s case, that data might include hardware models from the space shuttle program, which the agency leverages heavily for the SLS program. That way engineers don’t have to reinvent proven technology. Instead, they use PTC Windchill to find and load existing models, modify them as needed, and save them back into the vault, where they’re automatically versioned and saved. No data is ever lost or overwritten, and NASA saves time and money.
And when the teams work on support structures, like the new 355-foot Mobile Launch Tower, they use the same design software that companies building cranes and other massive structures work with, PTC Creo Parametric and PTC Creo Advanced Framework Extension (AFX).
PTC Creo AFX is ideal for engineers who need to model frameworks. They can use the extension to create frames, trusses, stairs, ladders, and guard rails. In fact, the software includes an extensive library of connections and joints as well as stairs, ladders, and safety cages. Plus, anyone can create unique components to add to the library.
With the tools in PTC Creo AFX, engineers can simply create a section or side of a model, and then use PTC Creo to copy or mirror the geometry over and over, so that even the largest structure comes together quickly. Leveraging parts from the Space Shuttle program, drawing from a library of parts, and using numerous copy and mirror commands—when you think about it, design reuse is what’s going to get us to Mars. Because building on what you already have is the best way to bring any project in on budget and on time.
Leveraging parts from the Space Shuttle program, drawing from a library of parts, and using numerous copy and mirror commands—when you think about it, design reuse is what’s going to get us to Mars. Because building on what you already have is the best way to bring any project in on budget and on time.
See a model of the SLS, including the Orion and launch tower, in the video below.
[Ed- at PTC, we’re proud to have been able to support NASA, from jet packs to robotic arms on the Space Shuttle, and we look forward to continue to support with our solutions.]