Much deserved attention is given to the feats of innovation that allow humans to live in space and robotic explorers to beam never-before- seen images back to Earth. In the background of these accomplishments is a technology that makes it all possible—the rockets that propel NASA’s space exploration efforts skyward.
Marshall Space Flight Center has been at the heart of the Agency’s rocketry and spacecraft propulsion efforts since its founding in 1960. Located at the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama, the Center has a legacy of success stretching back to the Saturn rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts into space. Even before Marshall was established, Redstone was the site of significant advances in American rocketry under the guidance of famous rocket engineer Werner Von Braun; these included the Juno I rocket that successfully carried the United States’ first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit in 1958. And from the first orbital test flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia through the final flights of the shuttle program this year, these vehicles have been enabled by the solid rocket boosters, external tank, and orbiter main engines created at Marshall.
Today, Marshall continues to host innovation in rocket and spacecraft propulsion at state-of-the-art facilities such as the Propulsion Research Laboratory. Like many of its past successes, some of the Center’s current advancements are being made with the help of private industry partners. The efforts have led not only to new propulsion technologies, but to terrestrial benefits in a seemingly unrelated field—in this case, firefighting.
Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) of Madison, Wisconsin has been a longtime NASA partner, working with the Agency on numerous projects—many through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program—on a range of space exploration needs, from growing crops in space (Spinoff 2010) to advancing rocket engines.
Through the SBIR program, ORBITEC has collaborated with several NASA Centers, including Marshall, to develop products such as a cool-wall vortex combustion chamber that represents a new way in rocket engine design. By feeding liquid or gas oxidizer into the combustion chamber in a manner that generates a swirling vortex flow, the design confines the mixing and burning of the propellant to the core of the chamber, keeping the walls free from volatile thermal stresses. This process increases the durability and lifespan of the engine while allowing for smaller, cost-effective, and even reusable engine designs. Through further SBIR contracts with Marshall, ORBITEC applied this innovation to an advanced vortex hybrid rocket engine that combines solid and liquid fuel to power a low-cost, highly reliable, and versatile propulsion option. The company is planning an initial test flight of the engine on a commercial rocket system for 2011.
Rory Groonwald, chief engineer for ORBITEC subsidiary HMA Fire, saw potential in much of ORBITEC’s propulsion technologies beyond space exploration. Through extensive work with the U.S. Air Force Fire Rescue Research Group to develop means for more effectively extinguishing hydrocarbon-based fuel fires, HMA developed fire suppression systems that utilized ultra-high pressure (UHP) for firefighting. Groonwald was exploring ways to improve the efficiency of fire suppression systems by reducing the time and amount of water needed to extinguish a fire.