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Stennis Space Center gears up to test rockets that will take man to the moon and beyond

Artist concept of the Block 1 SLS configuration in flight. The SLS is an advanced, heavy-lift rocket that will provide an entirely new capability for science and human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit. The first SLS mission -- Exploration Mission 1 -- in 2018 will launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to demonstrate the inte­grated system performance of the SLS rocket and spacecraft prior to a crewed flight. (NASA/MSFC/Released)

Fifty years after the Saturn rockets that took astronauts to the moon were tested at Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center, the same towering test stand will be used to test-fire the largest and most powerful rocket ever made.

Test-firing of the core stage of the Space Launch System, NASA’s new heavy lift rocket, is expected in early 2020, according to Randy Galloway, deputy director of Stennis, who spoke during a presentation Monday at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration center.

The massive new rocket, known as the SLS, is being built for NASA’s long-term mission to return astronauts to the moon and eventually to Mars using the Orion Crew Exploration vehicle. Both the rocket and the exploration vehicle are being constructed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

The 212-foot rocket is taller than the Statue of Liberty’s copper figure, and when the 500-second test-firing occurs, the sound will be heard as far away as Slidell, a distance of more than 20 miles.

When the Saturn rockets were tested at Stennis in the 1970s, people living in a large part of the surrounding area could hear it, Galloway said. Back then, the population was much smaller, however.

NASA officials provided the overview of work at Stennis as part of the agency’s roll-out of President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget proposal. In a live telecast from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the agency’s $21 billion proposed budget has bipartisan support in both houses of Congress.

“For the first time in over 10 years, money is in the budget for a return to the moon with human-rated landers,” he said, addressing an audience of NASA employees in person at the Kennedy Space Center and via telecast at locations like Stennis.

Although Trump’s budget request calls for a 17 percent reduction in the budget for the SLS rocket, Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot, called it an exciting era for NASA in many areas.

But his speech focused mainly on NASA’s space mission, which includes what he called a “sustainable presence” on the moon and exploration of new areas such as the lunar poles, where water in the form of ice has been discovered.

“We don’t want to miss anything,” he said of lunar exploration.

For engineers and other workers at Stennis and Michoud, just getting the rocket from where it’s being built to where it will be test-fired is a monumental task. The SLS will be transported from Michoud to Stennis via the Pegasus barge, the same vessel used to move the Space Shuttle’s external fuel tanks to Florida.

It will be lifted into place by a crane that had to be lengthened by 50 feet and strengthened to lift 195 tons, the weight of 75 Ford F-150s, NASA officials said.

The crane wasn’t the only thing that required updating. Over the past six years, Stennis has modified every major system on the test stand to handle the SLS. The 12 million-pound structural frame of the test stand was repositioned by several feet, and another 1 million pounds of steel was added to the stand to strengthen it.

The industrial water system at Stennis had to be upgraded as well, to increase the flow capacity to 335,000 gallons a minute. The water is used to cool the super-hot engine test exhaust and also helps in noise suppression.

The B2 stand has not been completely idle since the Apollo era. It was used to test the common booster core for the Delta IV Launch Vehicle, according to Ryan Roberts, the B2 Stand manager and test conductor. But that was 19 years ago.

The SLS core stage has four engines and holds up to 537,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and up to 196,000 gallons of liquid oxygen, Roberts said.

Testing for the RS-25 engines is also being done at Stennis, at its A2 test stand, which was also refurbished for the new era of space flight. Testing of those components began in 2015.

The first four engines that will be used in the initial SLS launch have been tested and “are ready to go,” said Jeff Henderson, the test stand director. The final engine in the series for the second launch will be removed from the stand Thursday.

Stennis, which was established in 1961, is a key rocket testing facility for NASA and tested the main engines for the Space Shuttle as well as the Saturn rockets. Its campus houses a number of federal agencies.

The Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans, which began life as a division of Higgins Industries in the 1940s that built cargo planes, is a NASA-owned manufacturing complex where Saturn rockets and the Space Shuttle external tanks were manufactured.

While the first stop for the new launch system is a return to the moon, the equipment being built and tested in New Orleans and Mississippi has a far longer journey ahead.

“The moon is the proving ground,” Bridenstine said. “Mars is the horizon goal.”


© 2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

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