In the 1960s, NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center, all but hidden away in the piney woods of south Mississippi, built a reputation of excellence in testing the massive first and second stages of the Saturn rocket for the nation’s Apollo Program.
Beginning in 1975, the center firmly positioned itself as the nation’s premier rocket engine test facility with its testing of the highly sophisticated space shuttle main engine. With the end of the Space Shuttle Program, Stennis now is focused on maintaining and extending its record of engine testing excellence. The facility is partnering with commercial companies in their spaceflight projects, as well as providing testing for the next-generation J-2X rocket engine that will power humans beyond low-Earth orbit into deep space once more.
Sealevel testing of the engine is under way on Stennis’ A-2 Test Stand. The A-1 Test Stand is being modified to test the J-2X power pack, and center employees are continuing construction of a new A-3 Test Stand that will allow simulated high-altitude testing of the new engine. Testing of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne’s RS-68 engine continues on Stennis’ B-1/B-2 Test Stand. In another commercial partnership, testing of the Aerojet AJ26 engine for Orbital Sciences Corporation is ongoing on the E-1 Test Stand. At the same time, engineers at the E-2 and E-3 test stands are actively involved in testing related to the construction of the A-3 Test Stand. E-3 engineers have focused on sub-scale diffuser testing, providing critical data on design issues for the full-scale diffuser needed on the A-3 stand. Employees at the E-2 stand are testing chemical steam generators (CSGs) that will be used on the new stand to create a vacuum that allows for testing at simulated altitudes up to 100,000 feet.
CSGs have been used in such a way elsewhere, but the A-3 Test Stand configuration is unparalleled. A network of 27 CSGs will be used on the new stand, which is set for activation in 2013. When complete, the stand will feature technologies and capabilities found nowhere else in the country – the ability to perform full-duration test firings on full-scale engines at such simulated high altitudes.
Excelling in rocket engine test technology and work is a pattern at Stennis. When concerns about a space shuttle flow control valve threatened to delay the launch of Discovery on the STS-119 mission in February 2009, Stennis engineers quickly assembled a configuration to perform almost 200 velocity and damage tests that provided critical data and set the mission on course for launch. The same year, they tested a new glass bubble insulation to reduce boil-off in liquid hydrogen tanks, paving the way to increase the efficiency of new cryogenic tanks and to allow the retrofit of old tanks. Likewise, in April 2010, engineers at Stennis’ E-3 Test Stand conducted 32 launch acoustics tests, providing valuable data on liftoff acoustics that will be used on future space vehicles.
Engineers and researchers also continue work on an Integrated System Health Management concept that will provide decidedly high-tech systems monitoring for the American space program. The concept is designed to offer engineers a highly integrative means of monitoring various systems that can detect anomalies, diagnose causes, predict future anomalies, and provide advice for improved operations.