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Stennis Space Center Records Notable ‘First’ During Busy 2018

As NASA celebrated six decades of accomplishments during the anniversary celebration of its establishment this year, Stennis Space Center squarely focused on adding to its own lengthy achievement list.

Consider the number of “firsts” – as well as one very large milestone test complex achievement – recorded at the rocket engine test site during the past calendar year:

  • First-ever test of an RS-25 engine at 113 percent of its original thrust level, the highest power level ever achieved. Stennis is testing RS-25 engines on the A-1 Test Stand to help power NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The record thrust level was achieved during a Feb. 21 hot fire, assuring operators that the engine is capable of providing the power needed for SLS, in development as the largest rocket in history

NASA delivered a treat with a full-duration RS-25 rocket engine test Oct. 31. A team of NASA, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Syncom Space Services operators conducted the 500-second RS-25 test on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis Space Center.

  • First-ever Commercial Space Launch Act agreement signed by Stennis. The agreement grants Relativity Space exclusive use of the E-4 Test Complex at Stennis. Relativity is an innovative company focusing on a new approach to developing small launch vehicles. Stennis Director Rick Gilbrech explained that the new Space Launch Act agreement opens “yet another avenue for commercial customers to perform cost-efficient engine testing at Stennis.”

  • First-of-its-kind thrust vector control (TVC) system for rocket engine testing developed by Stennis engineers. A TVC system is used during testing to gimbal – or rotate – engines in any direction just as they must do during an actual flight in order to ensure a rocket’s proper trajectory. In the past, a TVC test system had to be designed and produced for each individual rocket. The Stennis system provides a more adaptable and cost-efficient means of conducting such tests with various engines.

  • First-ever string of 10 large rocket engine tests in a 240-hour period. During early summer, a combined team of NASA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing and Syncom Space Services engineers and operators performed the unprecedented run of tests with an AR-22 engine on the A-1 Test Stand. The test series was part of DARPA’s effort to develop a low-cost, reusable launch vehicle system for delivering small satellites into orbit.

An Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-22 engine is test fired on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis as part of a historic test series at the south Mississippi site in late June and early July. Following a pair of initial tests, a com­bined test team of NASA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Aerojet Rocke­dyne, Boeing and Syncom Space Services engineers and operators tested the AR-22 engine 10 times in a 10-day (240-hour) time period. It marked the first time a large liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen rocket engine had been fired so consecutively in such a short period of time.

  • First-ever Stennis engineer to receive the Women of Color Professional Achievement Award. The award bestowed on Dawn Davis is one of the most important honors in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field. Davis received the honor during the 23rd Women of Color STEM Conference in October.

  • First visit of new NASA Administrator Jim Birdenstine to the rocket engine test site. During the day, Birdenstine viewed the first hot fire in a new series of RS-25 engine tests. “What the power of this RS-25 engine represents is America’s ability to fly deeper into space than we ever did before,” he said after the hot fire. “This was a great test.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine visited Stennis Space Center on Aug. 14 to meet with various leaders and view an RS-25 rocket engine test on the A-1 Test Stand. Bridenstine spent a full day at Sten­nis, touring facilities, speaking live on NASA TV following the RS-25 test, addressing site employees, meeting with area media and speaking to guests during a post-test reception.

“It is difficult to sum up 2018 for Stennis Space Center with a single word or thought because we saw so much accomplished,” Gilbrech said. “It was a productive and gratifying year that saw Stennis continue to build on its expertise as the nation’s premier rocket engine test site.”

In addition to the list of firsts, Stennis also was involved in a record-setting commercial engine project. At the end of November, Stratolaunch Systems announced it had achieved the fastest preburner development in U.S. history, going from design to development to full-power testing in just 11 months. Stennis is partnered with Stratolaunch to test the preburner component for its new engine and helped the company achieve a full-power hot fire in less than a month of testing.

In addition, although it does not rank as a first, perhaps the most gratifying accomplishment of the year came late as all major activation work was completed on the B-2 Test Stand in preparation for testing SLS core and upper exploration stages.

Completion of final flow tests and a major “stress test” of the Stennis High-Pressure Gas Facility culminated six years of major restoration and renovation work and signaled the readiness of the stand and the Stennis supporting team for SLS testing.

As in any year, however, Stennis achievement and accomplishment was not limited to the test complex. For instance, the Advanced Technology and Technology Transfer Branch continued its efforts to introduce Stennis-developed technology into the wider market. As evidence of its success, a number of Stennis employees received agency wide innovation and exceptional achievement awards from the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate early in 2018.

The branch’s work also was highlighted by development of the NASA Platform for Autonomous Systems toolkit, an evolutionary approach to systems management. As designed, the unique software toolkit allows fully autonomous capabilities to be implemented into any sort of system.

The most recent year offered highlights in other areas of Stennis life as well, including a change in leadership with the retirement of Associate Director Ken Human and the naming of Stennis engineer John Bailey as his successor; a range of outreach events focused on sharing the NASA and Stennis stories; a live linkup between summer Astro Camp students and astronaut Ricky Arnold aboard the International Space Station; continued test partnerships with commercial space companies; and ongoing efforts to promote STEM awareness among students of all ages.

Participants in the NASA Astro Camp® program sponsored by Stennis Space Center enjoyed an “out of this world” treat July 19, speaking live from INFINITY Sci­ence Center with astronaut Ricky Arnold aboard the International Space Station.

Meanwhile, there is no time for rest. Testing already is scheduled across the Stennis test complexes headed into 2019, and the center will hit the new year ground running with NASA Day at the Capitol activities in mid-January. The upcoming year also should see arrival of the SLS “pathfinder,” a core stage replica that will be installed on the B-2 Test Stand as a final “fit” test to prove the facility modifications will match and handle the actual flight stage.


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