Mission team members say the Boeing rocket motor set to boost NASA's New Horizons spacecraft toward Pluto will be delivered safely and within the rigorous engineering standards demanded in the assembly and testing of such hardware.
New Horizons is the first mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the region of ancient, icy, rocky bodies on the solar system's outer frontier. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., during a 35-day window that opens this Jan. 11 and fly through the Pluto system as early as summer 2015. New Horizons will be powered by a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), provided by the Department of Energy, which will be installed shortly before launch.
Several hundred people around the U.S. are preparing New Horizons for launch. When the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers went on strike in early November, five of its striking workers were involved in final assembly of New Horizons' third stage, a Boeing STAR 48 solid-propellant kick motor.
Boeing replaced the five striking workers with six non-striking workers; the extra assembly worker was added to provide additional oversight. Each of the six current workers has at least eight years of experience with Boeing upper stage motors and is fully qualified to work on the project.
"Safety and mission success are of utmost importance to us," says Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Md., which manages the mission for NASA and built the New Horizons spacecraft. "We expect this experienced team to finish processing the rocket motor on schedule, so New Horizons can meet its prime launch opportunity in January."
NASA rocket experts from Kennedy Space Center, who have significant experience with Boeing third stage motors, are providing safety and quality assurance support. The U.S. Air Force has direct oversight of all processing work on the motor at Cape Canaveral.
"We're more than satisfied that Boeing is addressing safety, mission assurance and schedule," says APL's Jim Stratton, New Horizons deputy mission systems engineer, who also serves as the mission's lead for the third-stage motor.
Like any NASA mission designed to use an RTG, New Horizons has undergone extensive, multi-agency safety and risk reviews throughout its development. Final approval to launch must come from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.