Let There Be Fire

Prologue: An Ember Is Born
Alright! Hello! The following is the hyper-evolved headcanon for a replica shuttle program I started work on 4-5-ish years ago in KSP that I realized about 3 months ago I could turn into an objectively banger alternate history with a strangely low amount of effort. That being said, I have 3 disclaimers first and you could probably infer most of them from that opening sentence:

1. I have no experience whatsoever in writing stories, so except for some outside help, this may not be the most well written, so please bear with me a little bit. I’m not asking for complete excusal if I completely mess it up, this should be at least somewhat readable, just know there will most likely be a visible lack of experience.

2. I am also very much so using this as an excuse to learn more about spaceflight in general because, for some infernal reason, I can not bring myself to read a 171 page paper on what you can do with a shuttle external tank under normal circumstances. But, if I have even one minor practical reason to do so, it will be done in a week. So resultantly, there may be a few things that aren’t exactly feasible. I aim to improve as I go and learn, but especially at the start some things might be a bit sketchy.

3. At the end of the day, this is more about a story. I hope to write a story of what could be done with the extreme versatility of a space shuttle-like vehicle. And my specialty is more mission planning than number crunching, so reason may get thrown out a window every now and then, hopefully rarely though.

(Additional disclaimer for this prologue exclusively, I am not good at all with space politics so if it looks like I’m cutting corners this chapter (?), it’s because I absolutely am, but I think it’s important to explain the start of this story from here and not just go, “suddenly rockets!” and call it a weekend)

In summary, please excuse me somewhat if it’s not the best writing in history (alternate or not), or if some things aren't to the proverbial “T” on realism. Also, I hope to post on a semi-regular basis, under extremely ideal circumstances once a week, but most likely once every two weeks. This is one of a few hobbies I want to keep up with, so depending on my involvement in those, writing on this may happen faster or slower on some weeks. In any case, enjoy the prologue of “Let There Be Fire”:

Prologue: An Ember is Born

“Let's be blunt and get to it, the shuttle is not working nearly as well as any of us would have hoped. Unless anyone has another reason they wish to put on the record, I believe we’re all fairly confident that the principal issue is a blatant lack of purpose. Now, the question we want to ask in this hearing is not so much ‘What more can the STS program do?’, but ‘Where can we go from here?’” stated Representative Jack Harrison in his opening remarks for the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s hearing on the otherwise calm morning of March 7, 2005. This whole hearing burned, both for the other Representatives and the NASA personnel present. A program so long running, so promising, so expensive. A lot had come out of the program, to be certain. The ISS and Hubble, among other things, were no small advancements by any means, but the shuttle, as it stood, could not go much farther in its current, deteriorating state. It was becoming more and more expensive, with contractor after contractor going under. Even with all its potential and capability, it's time was drawing to an end.

Both parties showed up knowing this hearing would likely mark the beginning of the end for the STS program; this had, effectively, already been decided. To add a measure of certainty, the hearing opened with a discussion of prepared possible expansions of the existing program. This was done to ensure that all possible paths had been considered and subsequently proved impractical. After about one-and-a-half hours of debate, no viable solutions surfaced, as expected, and the hearing progressed to the next phase. “What now?” Harrison again spoke, “We, of course, do not intend to answer this question here and now. It is this committee’s intention to create a sub-committee to assist in the investigation of possible new programs. I’d like to specify, not just new programs with LEO access only, we shot ourselves in that foot before, we want Lunar access and a sustainable path forward. Ideally, these programs would be STS-derived or adjacent, but other proposals will be considered for due diligence. We believe that STS was, and still is, a solid platform and that the Congress in charge at the time of STS’s creation did not allow for its full potential to be reached. Resultantly, we would like to pursue STS derived alternatives to both take advantage of this unused potential and save unnecessary expense. We realize, of course, no matter what path forward is chosen, this will by no means be either “cheap” or “easy”. We learned what happens when we try to make it that way and we are prepared to do what should have been done back in the 70’s, but we feel derivatives will still dampen the cost as well as save time.”

The hearing went on to discuss the specifics of the sub-committee. It would be composed of members selected by the committee and would supervise groups formed by combined teams from various industry partners; NASA, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, etc. A deadline for proposals was also given, twenty months. The groups would effectively have free reign to design as they pleased, as there would be little (if any) hardware involved. The goal of the investigation period would be to study as many paths as possible, and hopefully converge into a few distinct proposals by the deadline. These last remaining proposals should be in depth plans as hardware was not yet necessary. With all relevant matters discussed, Harrison gave a summary to ensure understanding between both those present and the public and ended with the remark, “Our shadow has been absent from the Moon for over thirty years, it’s time we go back to do more than just put on a show. Let’s get to work.”

After almost a year of investigation, with everything from air-launched shuttles to resurrecting the Saturn V, two programs emerged on top, the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (eventually becoming Constellation and further reduced to CxP) and the Evolved Space Transportation System (E-STS). As hoped, the focus was now almost completely on these two programs. Constellation focused more on the immediate creation of MTV’s for Lunar use later expanding on to Mars. Meanwhile, E-STS focused on a rapid Lunar return with an immensely flexible design which would then be able to produce an MTV down the road with little alteration. The program’s principle launcher would involve a modernized and evolved, “Lunar capable” version of the “stretched orbiter” derivative of the Space Shuttle temporarily called “Spacehawk” (soon changed to Phoenix), a reusable powered external tank known to the program as the Universal Core Stage (UCS), and new recoverable Liquid Rocket Boosters (LRB’s).

The program would feature a new version of the RS-25, the RS-25E, incorporating lessons learned from the previous versions and adding in-flight relight capability. Phoenix would be designed to handle the rigors of Lunar sorties. Such as upgraded Environmental Control and Life Support (ECLS), such as a built in Extended Duration Orbiter (EDO) pallet to last the longer flight durations.Other upgrades included; new capability for cryogenic fueling in the payload bay through the orbiter, upgraded radiation protection, a solar-battery based power system instead of fuel cells, and so on. There would also be an added set of drop tanks that would keep the OMS pods fed for most of the Lunar flights, the tanks would be carried out of Lunar orbit when depleted and discarded on a reentry trajectory after the departure from the Moon. The new orbiter would also involve an even more modular payload bay than its predecessor for the ability to rapidly handle new missions previously unexpected as well as a highly flexible and rapid launch cadence. The heat tiles would change in shape to hexagonal to allow for one uniform model of tile to cover most of the orbiter’s underside, this would allow for easy servicing of the heat shield both between flights as well as potentially on orbit, if absolutely necessary. Additionally the previously used reinforced carbon-carbon, was to potentially be replaced by a new type of tile, TUFROC, if the technology could be sufficiently proven before the first orbital flight test. This looked to be doubtful and the E-STS team decided it would not be a good idea to rush such a critical tile for both the obvious reasons of safety and because the program’s selection was far from guaranteed at this stage. This in mind, the vehicle was designed instead with the old RCC, however, it would have a thin tile layer below the gap behind the RCC, the goal of this layer would hopefully buy the orbiter enough time to survive re-entry, albeit with extreme damage, should damage be present in the RCC.

With the replacement of the fuel cells with batteries, as well as other modernization/minimizing upgrades, the spacecraft was able to support the addition of a small hydro-lox tank set, referred to as the “Abort Tank” which served as an intermediary buffer between the incoming fuel from the UCS and the orbiter’s main engines. This tank would allow all three main engines to remain firing for up to six seconds at typical flight throttle when separated from the UCS, however, most aborts would involve both a lower throttle setting and shutting down either the center engine or the lower two, depending on the center of mass’s location. The new abort method would allow not only safe and stable separations from the core stage during ascent, a substantial jump from the systems precursor, but it even allowed the potential for a pad abort and a drastically expanded abort-to-orbit (ATO) window in most flights.

The UCS would consist of a standard Shuttle external tank as a base with an engine section containing seven RS-25E’s (six in a ring with one in the center). An upgraded spray-on foam insulation (SOFI) would be utilized and covered with a protective layer of paint to minimize (if not eliminate) fracturing, even in vacuum. At this point, two versions had been explored, UCS Block 1 would be an “expendable” variant developed before reuse was considered possible, which would later be intended to be readily converted and used as a wet workshop or any other altered variant. The UCS Block 2 would feature a method of reuse involving a once-around orbit (with an initial adjustment burn in the case of higher energy trajectories). Then, utilizing four flaps which would unfold during the once-around return orbit, the vessel would execute a Shuttle-like forward-facing reentry, pitching up slowly until reaching a near-vertical attitude and a stall condition just east of the Kennedy Space Center. The UCS would then fall engine-first back toward its landing site using body lift to fly back from its overshoot. Upon reaching the landing site (a concrete pad located on the grounds of the LC-39 pads) the center with two outer ring engines, all in a line, would reignite to shed remaining speed. The center engine would then be shut down upon reaching a hover. The UCS would then translate, as needed, and extend its six landing legs (normally stowed inside the engine bay) to reach its landing pad and slowly set down. To facilitate these extra burns, a smaller set of cylindrical fuel tanks would be added. These tanks would be located at the top of the hydrogen tank up against the tank wall closest to the heatshield to preserve balance and add stability during reentry. The same tiles used on Phoenix would also be used to protect the windward side of the UCS.

The LRB’s were mostly a clean sheet design, while liquid boosters were considered for STS, these would instead use a proposed engine from Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne called Cobra, this engine ticked every box of the programs need for booster engines; rapidly reusable, strong, and reasonably efficient. Issues arose rapidly with the recovery plan, however, which was initially near-identical to the old SRB’s the Shuttle used, involving parachuting the whole booster into the water. The first problem was weight, the engine and tanks were too heavy to reasonably set down together in the ocean without substantial damage, especially to the fragile Cobra. The second was only slightly more pressing, even if the booster could be landed in one piece, the tail heavy configuration would cause the engine to become partially, if not completely, submerged. Both problems would cause immense damage to both the engines and their tankage. After exploring various options ranging everywhere from folded wings for fly back (similar to the Russian “Energia II” boosters) all the way to their own propulsive landings with secondary engines. Eventually, the relatively simple decision was made that, if the booster could not be landed in the ocean in one piece, land it in two. This led to a design involving an additional separation event after being released from the UCS on ascent where the tankage of the booster would jettison the engine unit (EU). The components would deploy their own droge and main chutes and the EU would then inflate a raft-like structure to keep the engine dry after splashing down, engine-up. Meanwhile, the tankage would splashdown horizontally, similar to the original plan, this time including valves to seal the tanks as well as secondary inflatable seals inside the fuel lines in case of a valve failure. Also protecting the tankage would be the same SOFI utilized by the UCS. Both tankage and EU would be fished out of the ocean with the assistance of two cranes aboard an ocean barge.

The program would also include other systems, such as a series of notional upper stages derived from the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS). These stages would involve a new engine also being heavily investigated by Constellation, the J2-X. In line with the naming of Phoenix, these stages would be named Firelight and be ordered by the stage’s hydrogen tank diameter; 4.2m, 6.3m, and 8.4m. Firelight 4 would use one J2-X, Firelight 6 would use two, and 8 would use four. Firelight 4 would typically be similar in operation to the Centaur-Shuttle of old. All of the Firelights could be used as upper stages of a modular launcher temporarily called the Universal Core Stage Launch Vehicle (UCS-LV) which would be comprised of a UCS, two to eight LRB’s, and the notional upper stages as needed.

For initial Lunar landings, a derivative of the Firelight 4 stage was studied as a single-stage, dual-axis lander design involving the modified upper stage with an alternative design of an Orion pressure vessel on top, reduced from Constellations proposal to fit in the orbiter’s payload bay and a cylindrical compartment located behind the pressure vessel for abort motors and various commodities. The lander would be fueled before launch from LC-39 and topped off by additional fuel stored in the abort tank fed through a strongback that cradles the lander stage during flight and deployment (normally the abort tank would be emptied after ascent). This version of Orion would not be capable of an Earth return, but would be capable of an abort to Lunar orbit where the crew would be recovered by the Phoenix that deployed the lander, or another Phoenix depending on the scenario. This, temporary, but direct approach would allow a rapid return to the Lunar surface until the program could shift to using transfer vehicles for practice before moving to farther destinations such as Mars.

So far both programs were making great progress. E-STS was becoming the popular option among the general public, with its continuation of the shuttle design which had inspired the world for so many years and adding full reusability on top of it. This newfound popularity eventually gave the program its new name via one of the regular update press conferences. E-STS was jokingly given the name “Let There Be Fire” by the program’s lead, Chris Stryker, in reference to its now definitively chaotic booster jettison involving two separator motors per booster which were expected to effectively occlude the entire vehicle for a moment in their plumes. The name was later coined by the media, and eventually by NASA itself, as the program’s name outside of most official documents and abbreviated to LTBF.

In an effort to gain a head start, since both leading proposals included use of the J2-X, a contract was awarded to P&W Rocketdyne for the engine’s development on February 7, 2006, also tagged onto this contract was funding for a preliminary design study for the Cobra engine. Cobra had lagged behind a bit in its timeline, but this was to be expected as it was a clean-sheet design. The new booster engine was expected to take its first breaths within a year of the selection of a program by the Congressional committee. This, of course, would depend on LTBF winning out, becoming another reason for the post-decision estimate.

As both proposals began to close in on more realistic designs, the initiative gained a massive surge in popularity. Both programs focused on not only Lunar returns, but transfer vehicle designs were beginning to properly materialize (especially in CxP), which gave a grand image of hope to both the United States and the rest of the world. We weren’t just going back to the Moon, that would only be the beginning. We we’re gunning for Mars and this time it was real, no more overly-optimistic proposals, the funding was on the table and real progress was ready to be made. These Mars Transfer Vehicles (MTV’s) differed little in concept between programs. Constellation aimed to utilize a MTV comprised out of specialized modules and stages launched aboard Ares V. Meanwhile, LTBF believed it would be possible to assemble a MTV from more “off-the-shelf” components from elsewhere in the program, such as a propulsion stage made from a spent UCS at the back. Also involved would be an inflatable habitation module up front, and the modules would be separated by a drop tank and truss structure, though Stryker had gone on record in one press conference by saying the UCS might be more useful to the MTV’s construction than previously thought.

Twenty months finally came and went, and the deadline arrived. The committee reconvened along with NASA officials and members from both the Constellation and LTBF teams. The ensuing discussion was long and grueling. Both programs wound up being very similar, with the only real difference being launch vehicles and order of operations. Constellation would pursue MTV’s right out of the gate and used non-reusable Shuttle-derived launch vehicles. Meanwhile, LTBF would pursue Lunar surface access in the fastest and safest way possible by bypassing the MTV entirely for the initial series of landings, instead opting to use the program’s principle lifter, Phoenix. This approach also bought the MTV more development time, which included plenty of time to learn the in’s and out’s of the program’s various systems before committing to a design. This possibility was a major advantage for LTBF since its MTV’s was expecting to incorporate existing program components, meaning that this time to get familiar with said components would result in a much more “understood” (and, perhaps, better overall) MTV in the end. This is in contrast to the Constellation approach which would create a MTV with little experimental knowledge about its true limits/capabilities. The modular MTV proposal also rang bells for Congress, the reuse of already developed components would drop the price drastically during program operation and enable easy and sustainable exploration to boot. LTBF also allowed the launch of both crew and Lunar lander (as well as other cargo) on one reusable vehicle which beat out Constellation’s use of separate rockets for each purpose. In the end, both programs eventually landed close to each other as far as price was concerned, LTBF would be drastically more expensive in development, but would cost substantially less to operate and iterate on. Meanwhile, Constellation would do the opposite, with a more modest (relatively) start, but costly later development in expansion of its capability.

Days of back-and-forth later, on January 15, 2007, the decision was made, Let There Be Fire would be NASA’s next pursuit. The committee arrived at the decision stating that LTBF offered a more realistic schedule for returning human presence to the Moon, skipping the complications of an early designed MTV without removing it from the program’s sights. The program’s flexibility was also highly valued, the program could go any direction it wanted and already have the capability to do so. Also of interest was the system’s ability to simply “get up and go” with the program’s leaders firmly believing a full Phoenix stack could go from its “idle” configuration, to launch in under just 24 hours, vastly increasing the possibility to fly rescue missions without much disruption if they were ever needed. All things considered, LTBF was deemed better in both the long and short terms.

The next step for the program would be to acquire funding, which would be no small hurdle on its own. With the decision made though, a funding bill was drafted and put before Congress. In the meantime, the LTBF proposal team was re-assigned to handle the operation of the program moving forward and NASA was given the go ahead to start work on major hardware, such as the Cobra engine, preparations for orbiter construction in Palmdale, and some rearrangement of the Michaud facility in Louisiana. With the decision made, primary contracts started to become finalized; Boeing would provide both the orbiter and the UCS as well as LRB tankage. The new joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance (ULA), being the new operators of the Delta IV, would advance the DCSS into the Firelight stages. Zodiac, a company specializing in dinghies and inflatable life rafts would handle the reuse system for the Cobra engines, utilizing JPL for consultation, continuing from their own work with the inflatable landing hardware of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Finally, P&W Rocketdyne would handle most of the propulsion. With this last step, everything was finally coming together and with the program finally beginning to get traction, the dream was alive once more.
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Incredible stuff, really excited to see where it goes. I'm very glad I could be there to help with some writing and formulation, and I cannot wait to see what's next! Seems super duper exciting!
Incredible stuff, really excited to see where it goes. I'm very glad I could be there to help with some writing and formulation, and I cannot wait to see what's next! Seems super duper exciting!
I know I've said it 40 times elsewhere, but thanks again for the help in putting this together!
if the booster could not be landed in the ocean in one piece, land it in two.
One of my favorite lines from this opening chapter. I love to see this kind of open-ended creativity in mission and vehicle design - the "Abort Tank" in particular caught my eye, but the whole setup promises no shortage of interesting and unusual ideas. Looking forward to see what you have planned! :)
One of my favorite lines from this opening chapter. I love to see this kind of open-ended creativity in mission and vehicle design - the "Abort Tank" in particular caught my eye, but the whole setup promises no shortage of interesting and unusual ideas. Looking forward to see what you have planne
I'm glad! I've got a lot planned in terms of utilizing those funky details and I hope they are as enjoyable as I think they are.
Chapter 1: The Gauntlet
Happy Friday! With the prologue out the door, I’m back and ready to get rolling with Chapter 1 of this chaos, which may accidentally feel like “Prologue, Part 2”, sorry about that, there’s just a lot of setup to do before the first orbital flight, so bear with these first three-ish chapters, Chapter 2 should be a break from the more monotonous testing, though, so stick around for that, hopefully next week. Two things I want to mention beforehand that I should have specified last week: First, I am not very familiar, at all, with people in history and do not wish to spend hours digging for the perfect astronaut for a given mission or whatever other occasion I may need someone for, also the timeline repercussions for certain people, etc. So names for the most part are (A) randomly generated because I am bad at coming up with people names or (B) I actually did manage to come up with a name, so if I somehow stubble into a real person, whoops, it’s not intentional (unless I mention otherwise, of course). Second, I wanted to clarify on timings for these chapters, I am currently 3-4 chapters ahead in writing and I intend to stay there if I can, those chapters are partially backlog, incase I get busy with something like college at the end of the summer or something, but I also go back and fix things as I’m writing future chapters and 3-4 seems to be the sweet-spot for getting it right enough that I don’t need to go back and correct anymore. In your case all that will mean is that, if I can finish a future chapter/big interlude every week, I will post every week. Or two weeks if a new chapter takes me that long, but I’ll try to start digging into the backlog if it’s the third week and I haven’t posted. Anywho, a lot of thanks to defconh3ck for a lot of guidance with this chapter, as with the prologue, and everything really, I should have said that last week, and I still feel bad about forgetting that, I got ahead of myself trying to get this going. Anywho again, time to get this chapter going:

Chapter 1: The Gauntlet

The dawn of a new era had arrived, Let There Be Fire had achieved selection and subsequent funding, the stage had been set. Now came the hardest part, to take the so far conceptual foundation and get hardware on the pad. Fortunately for the LTBF, most of its hardware existed or had already been studied extensively during the STS program, specifically, in the case of the stretched orbiter, which Phoenix was an advanced version of. Most changes to the orbiter were small and, overall, relatively straight forward. Resultantly, the Phoenix would inherit most of the stretched orbiter’s components, which subsequently inherited the Space Shuttle’s components. This included identical components such as the speedbrakes, landing gear, hydraulics for the elevons (as well as the elevons themselves), etc. This came as a massive cost saving point for the program, however it wasn’t so straight forward. The alterations to the stretched orbiter came with added weight, on top of this the orbiter was projected to have a higher down-mass limit than the Shuttle from its greater lift. Both added weight issues led to internal concern that the old Shuttle’s aft gear might not be good enough, after plenty of analysis, the team placed over the gear came to the conclusion the gear should work, though the safety margin was thinner than it had been for the Shuttle. Pressing to save money where reasonably possible, the decision was made to start working with the old gear for the ALT’s and start making parts, though a few in the program’s management were somewhat skeptical of the decision. After the ALT’s, NASA would see the results and determine whether or not a change was necessary prior to orbital flight.

The design had effectively been finalized during the concept phase and Boeing had no delay in getting their end rolling, eager to build their first orbiters since their acquisition of the Shuttle from Rockwell International. Construction started on the first test article, Kite, rather quickly in March of 2007. The first orbital Phoenix, Voyager, was intent on starting about one to two months later. Meanwhile, parts would begin to show up for the second flight orbiter, Drifter. Over in Louisiana, Boeing was also prepping Michoud for some new business, the UCS and its companion LRB’s, which would start production not long after the orbiters in Palmdale. With LTBF, things would be a little different for the facility. The program’s main launcher was, ideally, fully reusable and consequently, Michoud would not need to manufacture tankage at the rate of ET’s for the STS program. Instead, Michoud would serve a myriad of purposes to the program. Of course, it would still produce the UCS, but it would also oversee Firelight production and operate as a “service station” of sorts for any modifications or repairs for the UCS and LRB’s too large to undergo at the KSC. Additionally, since the facility had ample space to store large sections of tankage, ground testing for a “wet workshop” capability expansion of the Block 1 UCS would be performed there as well.
Over in Florida, the STS program was finally staring its retirement in the face. The date had not been officially set yet, but in June, 2007 the program had been given approval to fly until LTBF was ready to take over the reins. A portion of the remaining missions would involve various tests in preparation for the new program, the most important of which was the new avionics. The new orbiter would need to be autonomous to facilitate evolution without fear of injuring crews, or worse. The flight computers for Phoenix would be placed on the orbiter in parallel to the normal ones so the orbiter could operate on either. Testing would still see crews on the orbiters, but would include autonomous orbital maneuvering and docking/proximity operations with the ISS. This testing would not extend to atmospheric flight as the two vehicles, while similar, would be too different aerodynamically to gain any useful data for entry, descent, and landing (EDL). There also existed safety concerns over using the new system in such a critical situation with crew onboard. The STS program would also see small usage of the new spray-on foam insulation (SOFI) developed for the UCS, patches of the new foam would be applied on the far side of the tank from the orbiter and on the aft of the ET to minimize risk of impact damage should the foam fail.

Kennedy was also seeing new infrastructure work in preparation for LTBF, such as land clearing for what would eventually be the Final Processing Facilities (FPF’s), a structure in which the full Phoenix stack would be stored horizontally in an “idle” state and payload could be integrated on a strongback which would be picked up by one of two initial rail-based transporters. This system would resemble the transporters used by the USSR for the Energia-Buran during the Cold War. The Crawlerway was also in the process of having its centerline gap filled with gravel in preparation to lay track to LC-39 to support the new transporters. Meanwhile, back at the VAB, a Shuttle mobile launcher platform (MLP) was being converted to handle the vertical configuration of the stack in order to accommodate vertical payload integration and the UCS-LV. Highbay 2 was also being converted to handle the new vehicles.

Meanwhile back west, Stennis was preparing for a flurry of its own activity. The combined B-1 and B-2 test stands were preparing to handle static firings of various lengths. B-1 would handle both the orbiter and LRB’s which would be attached to a central truss structure that would have each components’ respective UCS attachment points in the correct location. B-2 on the other hand, would prepare for the inverse, with mounting points for the UCS. This set up would allow static fire conditions almost, if not completely, up to full throttle in as similar to flight conditions as possible without overloading the test structure and creating a premature “first flight”. Construction was also underway for a new vacuum test stand for the J-2X, test stand A-3, which started construction back in May of 2006 and was expected to be ready for firings in 2011.

After a few years of construction, design, and component testing, testing began to finally warm up. The booster and core stage tankage had undergone pressure testing, and STS had validated many components, but now it was time for the program to start living up to its namesake. Leading the pack was the J-2X, its development was progressing nicely with the only snag being the test stand. This didn’t stop the engine, however, it proceeded with a gas generator hot-fire test in May of 2010. This test went fantastically well and would be followed by more tests as P&W Rocketdyne eagerly awaited the completion of the A-3 test stand.

While STS proved systems in flight, the workhorse RS-25D also powered onward to the upcoming version, the RS-25E, gaining the intermediary notation RS-25DE for the campaign. The new version would feature various modest improvements, better thrust, faster start-up, better reusability, and more. The A-1 test stand hosted the esteemed engine in its program to test components for its successor. Over the course of the upgrade program the engine was expected to reach up to 50,000 seconds of combined firing time totalling for almost 100 firings in the runup to the new engine. This goal was beginning to look realistic too, with the engine averaging a static firing about every other week. Testing was going very well, with the only major failure occurring in early July, when a new injector head had been installed for review. The engine made it 236 seconds before the injector broke free and was ejected from the chamber, taking the throat and nozzle with it. Combustion rapidly made its way upstream causing what was left of the powerhead to shatter, throwing components in every direction. Fortunately, with how shredded the components were they posed little damage to the A-1 test stand and testing would resume two weeks later, albeit with a few new scorch marks. The injector went back to the drawing board while other components progressed.

Down the river, Michoud was beginning to hit its stride, producing the first set of ground test article boosters for pressure testing and static firings once the engines became ready. The first boosters belonged to the Earthbound group and were named after earthly seas, much like their successors would be named after celestial "bodies of water"; Bering, Weddell, Flores, and Cooperation. The last LRB’s name was assigned after many other agencies abroad expressed an interest in the new program, such as ESA, who had played a large role throughout STS. Post construction, the new boosters were rolled out into the open for the first time, a short parade accompanied the boosters to one of the two barges NASA had procured for ocean recovery and transport of the new components. From there it took the short trip upstream to Stennis where they were offloaded and immediately began preparations for their testing campaign. For the boosters, this process would be a bit dragged out. Not only were they entirely new systems, which never had any involvement with the STS program, with exception of tooling, their engines were also still a while out in their own development.

That wasn’t all Michoud had in the works, though. Just a few months after the LRB’s made their debut, the first UCS, Ursa. While she was only a Block 1 core stage, with no reuse hardware, she was met with no shortage of enthusiasm. Ursa had already been outfitted with her seven RS-25D’s for testing while she awaited her new engines. The massive core would follow the trail of the LRB’s loading onto the Pegasus barge from the STS program and traveling to Stennis. From there, Ursa was then hoisted up and into place on the B-2 test stand. From there, it would undergo a series of pressure tests alongside the LRB’s, which had gotten a head start. When testing proceeded as hoped, Ursa was expected to fire up the center of her seven main engines for the first time in January. While this would be using the older engines, it would be a critical test of the stage’s plumbing and, more importantly, the structural capability of the engine bay. This bay had been designed to redirect thrust forces into the hydrogen tank walls, avoiding the bulkhead and minimizing compression of the tank. The static fire proceeded wonderfully and was soon followed by two, three, five, then seven engine static fires. Once the stage had proved her worth, the next milestone was lined up for March, involving more single engine firings and ramping up to seven again. This time, however, there would be fuel entering and/or leaving the UCS as it fired to simulate flight conditions as fuel would enter from the LRB’s and depart to the orbiter. As Ursa continued to perform as hoped, the tests would become more and more ambitious and aimed to culminate in a full duration static fire in December. But Ursa would have to wait for another milestone to pass. Kite was nearing completion and slated to spread her wings for her first captive and free flight tests with the aid of a modified C-5 Galaxy in White Sands, New Mexico in the coming months.
Anywho, a lot of thanks to defconh3ck for a lot of guidance with this chapter, as with the prologue, and everything really, I should have said that last week, and I still feel bad about forgetting that, I got ahead of myself trying to get this going. Anywho again, time to get this chapter going:
Dont worry yourself at all, I'm more than happy to be here supporting this project! Go at whatever pace you need to make sure that your work meets everything you'd like to see!

The first boosters belonged to the Earthbound group and were named after earthly seas, much like their successors would be named after celestial "bodies of water"; Bering, Weddell, Flores, and Cooperation.
I love your naming schemes thus far, I think they're really solid. It's so important in spaceflight to ensure that we have constant reflection on our own planet when undertaking such massive challenges, I really think this was an excellent choice! Great work as always, can't wait to see more!
Did STS-107 still happen? You didn’t mention it in the first chapter.
Ah yeah, it did, definitely should have mentioned that. I think it had slipped my mind as I was diverging the timeline in 2005-ish.
Dont worry yourself at all, I'm more than happy to be here supporting this project! Go at whatever pace you need to make sure that your work meets everything you'd like to see!

I love your naming schemes thus far, I think they're really solid. It's so important in spaceflight to ensure that we have constant reflection on our own planet when undertaking such massive challenges, I really think this was an excellent choice! Great work as always, can't wait to see more!
Thanks! I firmly believe in giving things names that almost give the vessel (or whatever it may be) a spirit of its own and I intend to keep giving things names instead of acronyms where sensible.
Ooh, loving this! The early development and testing of a program is always interesting, and I appreciate details like injector failures (oof) that help you picture the regular struggles of the process. And I agree with @defconh3ck, the naming scheme is lovely so far :)
Chapter 2: A Reckoning
Not a whole lot to mention before this week's chapter, other than I'll hopefully be posting a couple sketches I did for this chapter. As always, thanks to defconh3ck for the help, enjoy the chapter and good luck:

Let There Be Fire, Chapter 2: A Reckoning

Spring had finally arrived in April of 2011 and with it came the first of a new era. After four years of work Kite was finally ready to roll out into the California sun. The doors of the hangar Kite and her orbital sister, Voyager, had been sheltered in opened and Kite was rolled out to meet an eager crowd. The sight of the new test article was awe-inspiring on its own, but the crowd was just as excited for the small glimpses of Voyager, still shrouded by various work platforms. Kite was rolled behind a temporary stage that had been erected for the ceremony. Among the attendees were representatives from Boeing, NASA, and Congress all eager to see the fruits of their labor. Other prospective international partners were present as well, looking on in awe of what the future might hold for them and a possible partnership with such a system. In addition to the massive stretched orbiter, a test fired RS-25DE and a fit check Cobra made an appearance next to Kite. The orbiter towered over the stage and the crowd gathered around. Once everyone had settled down, Representative Harrison approached the podium and thanked all parties involved with Kite’s construction, complimenting them on the vessel’s timely completion. Kite was still only a flight test article, but she was far different from the Enterprise of old. Kite was much closer to an orbit-capable vessel. She was eventually intended to have everything short of a heat shield, though she was a little more bare internally at the moment. The ceremony was relatively short and the attendees were allowed to walk around Kite and see the monstrous vessel up close. After a few hours the crowd had left and the orbiter was rolled back inside to await her ride to Edwards the next day.

The next morning, Kite rolled out into the rising sun sat atop a special heavy transport trailer, much like the one Enterprise rode on a near-identical trip, and was accompanied by a police escort to facilitate the “rolling roadblock” that Kite would create. Kite arrived at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in the afternoon and was immediately swarmed with activity. Edwards had been waiting intently for the new orbiter for weeks, a maintenance bay had been prepared and two modified C-5 Galaxy Shuttle Carrier Aircrafts had already undergone solo flight tests of their own. The first C-5 SCA, NASA 944, was now being readied for her first integration with Kite. The new SCA’s had been pulled from a boneyard and repaired on site by Lockheed, then flown back to the factory in Marietta, Georgia to undergo retrofitting. 944 alone, among other improvements, received a new dual tail design, similar in appearance to that of the An-225, to remove the vertical stabilizer from behind the orbiter to both improve clearance during release of Kite for free flight tests and improve control during flight while carrying the orbiter. Now in California, 944 was ready to assist the Phoenix fleet’s first flight. 988 was retrofitted in a similar manner to 944, except for the dual tail. 988’s design remained similar in appearance to the previously studied C-5 SCA for the Space Shuttle. The intent was for the dual tail to be the final design, but NASA did not wish to incur any delays to Kite’s flight test campaign should the new tail design have its own issues.

The flight test campaign schedule was set to start fast with the taxi test happening less than a week after arrival. 944, crowned with a Phoenix for the first time, rolled out from under the mate-demate device and made her way to Edwards AFB’s runway 22L and flared her engines. The two giants rolled down the runway for the first run, only getting up to 64 knots before slowing back down and returning to the start of the runway. After crews had verified that both vehicles had behaved as expected, the pair once again moved onto the runway. This time the speed would reach almost 80 knots before once again slowing back down. Satisfied with their results, the crews brought the vehicles back to Armstrong and de-integrated the duo to inspect the aircrafts further before for the next step, captive flight tests .

A week later, Kite and 944 rolled back to the mate-demate device and were joined and rolled to the runway again. Kite would remain uncrewed for this first captive flight test, with her telemetry being recorded both on the orbiter itself and through a set of cables to 944 as well as broadcast to ground crews. After loitering beside the runway to tend to a minor communication fault between Kite and ground links, 944 entered the runway, Kite resting eagerly on her shoulders. With a final approval, 944 ramped up her engines and released the brakes. The vessels once again raced down the runway, this time with no intention to stop. 944 left the runway and began her steady climb to the specified altitude for the test. Kite seemed unbothered by the rigors of flight and the orbiter appeared to be in perfect health. While in the air, numerous sensors poured data into the various destinations and Houston attempted to communicate with the vessel via TDRS. The communication testing was successful and Kite performed a variety of internal tasks at Houston’s command. Reaching the end of the first captive test, Kite remained in very good condition and 944 began the descent back to Edwards. 944 touched down and rolled down to a slow departure from the runway. Returning safely to Armstrong, Kite was again removed for inspection and to allow crew onboard for the next captive flight in a couple days.

The next test would soon arrive and Kite would again sit atop 944 with Shuttle veterans Steve Morris and Sharon Kelly onboard to monitor the new vessel during the test flight. Ready at the runway, both 944 and Kite’s crews sounded off and soon began hurtling down the runway. 944 climbed to the testing altitude again and prepared to fly straight lines back and forth across the desert. This flight, Kite would begin to stretch her feathers a little. Kite, slowly at first, moved her flaps up and down while crews aboard both aircraft observed the effects. After a thorough checkout of Kite’s various control surfaces, including flaring the speedbrake, all reports were good. Flight commander, Steve Morris, would happily remark during one of the health checks, “She's doing just fine, I think we’d be ready to take off right now if Houston’d let us.” With all objectives met, 944 set back down and rolled back to Armstrong. The captive tests had all gone well, in some cases even exceeding expectations. Given this marvelous track record, NASA felt confident in continuing on to free flight tests. These tests would be uncrewed and would instead take place at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, unlike her forebearer Enterprise, in order to utilize the more wide open desert to test Kite’s ability to autonomously guide herself. Additionally, the drogue chute would be unused in order to test the orbiter’s capability without it while the extra landing space was available.

Twelve days later, 944 and Kite stacked and readied for their trek to New Mexico. Crowds had already begun to gather off to the side of the runway marked into the salt flat. The departure of the vessels would be a televised event which would follow Kite from Edwards to wheel stop at White Sands. The flight was relatively uneventful, Kite's autonomous systems were already active and gathering data, TDRS was getting good feedback from the orbiter as she awaited her first flight out on her own. Teams at Houston would monitor the flight as it progressed and the air in the control room was somewhere between confident and anxious. While the new orbiter had performed well in captive flights, the worrisome landing gear remained unproven in flight. A design carried over from the old orbiters, analysis had shown the gear should hold up fine. However, in a pre-flight press conference for the test, program lead, Stryker, had expressed concern over the legs and their significantly narrowed safety margin from the added weight of the Lunar-capable orbiters. Stryker also noted components of a larger set of gear were being tested incase replacement was necessary, but were not yet ready to be placed on any orbiters.

Now approaching White Sands, 944 readied to make a practice pass over the runway to check that everything was looking good for a real separation. The crowds cheered as the still gray 944 passed overhead with a roar from her engines. 944 came back around with plenty of distance between her and the runway, the angle was off on purpose so Kite could have the chance to demonstrate banking maneuvers. Two NASA T-38’s now flanked the vessels in addition to the Gulfstream jet, who had been following the journey, which now backed away to make room for the newcomer T-38’s. The time was soon approaching and Kite’s onboard systems declared the orbiter was ready. With additional approval from 944 and Houston, as well as a declaration of calm winds, safety locks were released from the harness holding Kite to 944 and the cockpit crew of 944 checked alignment once more. Moments later the final hold-downs were released, Kite gently pulled up and away as 944 entered a slow dive. The words from the flight engineer of 944 echoed across the waiting crowd, “Release, release, release. Kite is away, thank you for flying NASA 944.” The vessels separated and 944 banked off to the left. Kite and her escorts flew straight and true towards the final approach waypoint. The orbiter glided fantastically through the desert air with all systems still holding a good report. The group crossed the waypoint for final approach and Kite banked right to make the final approach. To those watching from home and in the desert, the views were incredible, the stretched orbiter had managed to captivate the world in its few moments of free flight. Now approaching the runway, Kite pulled up and extended her landing gear. As she crossed 20 feet off the ground, a rogue burst of wind blasted the orbiter from her left. Kite leaned right and impacted hard on her aft-right landing gear. The added force of the hard touchdown shattered the gear and Kite continued to fall. The explosion of metal erupting from the gear caused the T-38’s and the Gulfstream to jump away from the collapsing vessel. Kite next slammed her right wing into the ground and the outer half of the wing instantly sheared off. The orbiter now rested on her aft-left and nose gear as well as what was left of the right wing. With the added friction of the metal frame grinding off into the sand, Kite rotated to slide left-wing-first down the runway. The orbiter screamed sideways down the runway leaving a scar in her wake. The aft-left gear raised off the ground as the orbiter leaned more and more on the fractured wing and air built up against the underside of her left wing. The nose gear’s steering bearing had broken free and the gear turned sideways to face the oncoming runway, eventually it caught the ground and was ripped out, damaging the gear bay door in the process. Now nearing a halt, the aft-left gear re-contacted the ground and snapped as the orbiter scraped to a halt. Detecting “wheel-stop” the now smoking Kite retracted her speedbrake and what was left of her flaps. With an eerie silence, the crowd which had scattered at the first sign of failure now stood in silence, as the future lay shattered in the sand.
This was a wonderful chapter to follow, every step of the test campaign felt measured and reasonable - I'm not as familiar with Enterprise's campaign, but I was reminded of Stratolaunch's Roc as 944 and Kite made their repeated starts down the runway. The turn near the end caught me by surprise - no program is without hiccups, but it will certainly take some time to recover from today's events... I'm looking forward to the next one :)
Love these! And yikes, having seen it rendered I'm now somewhat more concerned for Kite's crew...
KITE! NOOOOOO,,,,, I knew it was coming, but god does it hurt. Great great stuff as always, your images really sell it. Really excited to see what comes next!
Chapter 3: Restoration
Sorry I'm late (?). I've spent a good part of this week planning for stuff later down the road, so unfortunately I haven't written as much as I probably should (yet). I've got enough written for next week's not-a-chapter-but-chapter-length post, but just as a heads up incase I can't do as much in the next week as I'd like, there may be a skip or some smaller fill-in in a couple weeks. Hopefully not, it should be fine, but just wanted to give a warning. As for this week, we've got more testing today and the aftermath of a botched ALT. As is tradition, thanks to defconh3ck for the help and on with the show:

Let There Be Fire Chapter 3: Restoration

Waiting emergency vehicles had already begun to rush to Kite’s side, firefighters immediately worked to determine the source of the smoke rising from what remained of the right wing and extinguish it. After some tense moments, the smoke stopped, the source appeared to be an electrical spark of some kind that caught hold of flammable material in the base of the wing. Soon after the fire was out, crews were allowed to approach the vehicle to inspect the damage. The crews began to pick through the debris trail littering the runway. Strips of metal and a scar carved into the runway lead all the way up to the battered orbiter. The damage on Kite was a bit more difficult to see, sand had been piled up against the fuselage as it slid down the runway. After some digging, crews managed to unearth the mangled edge of the wing’s base. Hydraulic lines were leaking, wires lay frayed and cut, the metal frame had been crushed and ground down, the first signs were not good. The source of the failure did not take long to determine as video had captured Kite suddenly lean with no apparent movement of her flaps. Sensors around the start of the runway also picked up the burst of wind, which lined up to be at the correct time. After the orbiter had been somewhat pulled out of the ground, deeper inspections of the fuselage would give immense relief to the crews as it appeared the main fuselage remained “high and dry”. The base of the shattered wing had held the main airframe away from the ground for most of the vehicle’s path. At the front, the nose gear and outer skin had held on long enough to spare the airframe from the fastest part of the slide. Intent on honoring a promise to allow crowds to see Kite up close after landing, Stryker gave the go ahead for observers to approach the shattered orbiter once emergency responders gave the all clear stating “Failure is nothing to hide. I made a promise and I’m not backing out of it now, even if that’s probably a better idea.” and later reassured the crowd saying, “This is a test campaign, if we haven’t broken anything, we aren’t doing it right. If that gear was ever going to break, I’m glad it was here and now while no one’s onboard and we can fix it without too many problems.” Inevitably, though, doubts arose rapidly over the program. If Kite, the relatively simple orbiter modification, had such a problem, what about the brand new vehicles at Stennis? A component of the RS-25DE shredded an engine and turned the A-1 test stand into an impromptu cannon, would Cobra even work?
Over the next few days, Kite was picked up and debris was cleaned up and cataloged. Crews worked to remove what was left of both of Kite’s wings and cover the now exposed internals. Brief tests of the main fuselage’s integrity were conducted using the cranes present to load Kite back onto 944. After deeming Kite to still be in surprisingly good shape, the battered vessel was loaded back onto 944 for transport directly back to Palmdale for more in-depth inspection. The flight, while strange in nature, was uneventful. Kite and 944 reached their destination and parted ways for a while. 944 would return to Edwards for more testing of the new tailfins while Kite was inspected. Within a week and a half, NASA publicly announced a change of plans, Kite’s frame was thankfully still in good shape and the orbiter would be shipped to Stennis to join Ursa and the Earthbound boosters for joint testing instead of continuing ALT’s. The new plan would pick back up on the ALT’s once Kite was able to get new wings with the upgraded gear. Currently, Kite was planned to take to the sky again in mid-2012.
In November of 2011, just a couple months after her brush with White Sands, Kite rolled back out to be joined with 944 with her wings still missing. Some temporary flight covers had been crafted and installed for the flight to the Kennedy Space Center where Kite would then be inspected again and loaded onto one of the waiting booster recovery barges and towed behind the freshly remodeled MV Freedom Star to Stennis. Kite would arrive to a bustling campus, the engines of LTBF were beginning to get on their feet with static firing tests beginning on Ursa in December and the Cobra engine was taking its first breaths, with a gas generator hot fire test in January of 2012. Meanwhile the RS-25E had “wrapped up” its development campaign and begun its dedicated static firing campaign which aimed to be just as rigorous as its development. The test campaign hit the floor running, now that the design had settled down engines would be fired more than once with no alterations, testing could progress much more frequently than before. With the new engines operable, Ursa and Kite ran parallel static fire campaigns with them on B-1 and B-2, respectively. Kite had been mounted to the same truss structure the LRB’s had been attached to in order to simulate the arrangement without the full thrust of the entire stack ripping the structure apart. Kite would fire first and as with all of the other major tests, the firing was televised and as the RS-25E’s roared to life, the commentator followed by saying, “Kite will not live in silence, let her voice be heard!”
While the action at B-1 and B-2 was underway, the A-3 test stand had finished construction after a mountain of minor delays had pushed its completion back a year. The J-2X finally got its chance to fire in its entirety, roaring for 20 seconds in its first test in the new vacuum chamber. With this success, the tests would steadily increase to the same 500 second durations as the RS-25DE’s. Bringing up the rear of the static fire train was the Cobra, with its development finally reaching a soft end. The first test fire engine arrived in October and got to breath for the first time in November. The engine held up wonderfully for its inaugural run, some sensor irregularities arose but were easily sorted out as false data. After a review and replacement of faulty sensors testing proceeded and confidence in the new engine began to grow rapidly.
It wouldn’t be long before Cobra was deemed ready for testing with the LRB’s. The B-1 test stand would host a wet dress rehearsal for the boosters going all the way up to just before engine start before proceeding to a short static fire in the next test in March of 2013. Afterwards, the boosters would fire several times for various durations, some tests included fuel drain tests to simulate the accompanying UCS. Finally, the decision was made to progress to joint firings involving Kite, Ursa, and the Earthbounds. A few more wet dress rehearsals and an automatic ignition abort originating from a RS-25E aboard Ursa with a limit set too conservatively went by, but eventually, in May, the B-1 and B-2 test stand showed the heart of Let There Be Fire alive and beating for the first time. The separated stack flared up to the lower bound of its expected flight throttle and progressed toward the maximum. After maintaining maximum expected thrust for 20 seconds, the behemoths wound down leaving a monsoon in their wake. All looked well and three weeks later, the engines were fired up again, this time for a full duration test involving simulated fill and drain operations for both systems. The test went without any major issue with the LRB’s shutting down right on cue and lighting up indicators to signal the electrical systems associated with the LRBs’ various separation events were operating. Kite-Ursa fired to their own cutoffs minutes later again giving green indicators in the control room signaling a good core separation command. The vehicles, now hissing as they detanked, had completed their static fire qualification campaign.
Next up, Kite would take the reverse of her journey, barging back to the KSC, this time with the assistance of MV Liberty Star, and flying back to Palmdale. The California facility welcomed the orbiter and quickly got to work removing the protective covers over her wing connections and began attaching the new wings. The wings had not changed much in design, only adding new locking mechanisms for the new joint in the upgraded gear. The new gear would utilize similar components to the old gear, but would strengthen the main strut as well as add a second axle with necessary bracing and folding mechanisms. Voyager, now complete with the new landing gear and associated locking mechanisms, had been rolled into an adjacent hanger and was preparing to catch her flight to KSC aboard the second SCA, NASA 988, now back from Georgia with the new tail assembly installed, in the coming weeks. Drifter had taken up residence in Kite’s old spot in the assembly hangar and the frame had already taken shape. Kite’s new wings were installed at a truly rapid pace having been prepositioned on their assembly platforms ready to be installed as soon as Kite could be placed in the bay between them.
With her new wings attached, Kite rolled out into the California sun again, in July of 2013, to join 944 once more. This test would be different, there would be a brief captive test circling around the Palmdale facility before heading off towards White Sands once more after the integrity of the wings had been confirmed. The greenlight was given and the pair broke their pattern and headed east. Once again a crowd had gathered, seeming no less adamant from Kite’s previous run. Again, the duo made their practice run over the marked stretch of the salt flat. Confidence seemed higher this time, both with NASA officials and the public. Over the course of development for the new gear, NASA had made sure to show plenty of footage of the gear tests. NASA even showed the new gear surviving an impact of near-equivalent magnitude to the one that had destroyed Kite’s gear last time. The transparency seemed to have worked, the public once more looked to Kite, flying aboard 944, over the desert in wonder. 944 circled back around, once again flanked by two T-38’s and the Gulfstream. As the time approached, the go ahead was given for safety lock release and soon, with a good report from Houston, 944, and the weather crew, Kite was released and rose once more from the falling C-5. 944 banked left and cleared the pack of aircraft now racing towards the runway. Kite once again soared beautifly, exceeding expectations just as she had before. On final approach, Kite once again nosed up and let go of her gear locks. The new gear fell into place and locked, just as hoped. Moments later, Kite softly touched down and ejected a cloud of dust as her wheels got up to speed. Again, foregoing the drogue chute, Kite steadily lowered her nose gear and made contact. Now resting safely on all gear the crowd erupted and Houston breathed a sigh of relief. The orbiter cruised to a halt about three-quarters of the way down the runway. Emergency vehicles again rushed to the side of the vessel still standing tall and proud. The automated system had done its job wonderfully and Kite was in remarkable shape, even with the standard laying on the floor. Remarks were again given to the crowds next to Kite, program lead Stryker announced that NASA now believed the program was finally almost ready, testing on all non-orbital fronts was almost complete with only one exception. The last step would be at Kennedy Space Center, where Voyager would arrive to join UCS Polaris and the Seabound boosters only days later to begin pre-flight testing. The last leg of testing was about to begin and Let There Be Fire would soon be ready to reach for the stars.
Glad to see Kite once again getting her wings, and can't wait for the program to begin for real. This is such amazing progress, and I can't wait to see how the program picks up the pace. Knowing you, we're in for quite the ride :cool: