As a child in Albuquerque, N.M., Dale Sewell never dreamed he would one day help NASA reach its goals for space exploration. However, as NASA's test complex construction manager at John C. Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, he has a vital role in the space shuttle missions and is already working within NASA's Constellation Program, which is building the spacecraft and systems to return humans to the moon by 2020.
In 1981, Sewell, a graduate of Valley High School in Las Vegas, was undecided on a career path and joined the Navy, where he became a machinist mate working on propulsion systems for submarines. He spent six years on active duty and served in the reserves until retiring in 2002. During that time, he attained a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M.
During his last year of college in 1991, Sewell received the unique opportunity to head for the sunny shores of Florida to work for NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
"I always liked NASA, but it wasn't my ambition to work for NASA," Sewell said. "But it turned out to be the luck of the draw when I was able to co-op two terms at Kennedy Center in Florida."
After graduating, Sewell stayed at Kennedy, doing fluid processing on air and water cooling systems for NASA's space lab missions. It was there that he realized one of his biggest accomplishments – contributing extensively to a space shuttle experiment that flew not just once but twice. Sewell worked on Combustion Module-1, a combustion experiment that was an integral part of space shuttle STS-83 mission.
"It was a very complex experiment, and I spent about two years learning it and getting it integrated into the space lab," Sewell said. "Once we got the shuttle up in orbit they had a problem with the fuel cells and had to come back to Earth. NASA got the funding and decided to fly that exact same experiment again on STS-94."
In 1996, when the space lab program was closing at Kennedy, Sewell transferred to Stennis Space Center and moved to nearby Picayune, Miss. He joined in the construction project for the E-1 Test Stand, one of three stands built to develop propulsion systems by testing them with high-pressure gases and cryogenic fluids. He said meeting the completion deadline for E-1 and being the first test conductor on that stand gave him a great sense of accomplishment.
Sewell's other achievements at Stennis include getting the E-1 Test Stand ready for various combustion test chamber programs and serving as a technical assistant on the shuttle main engine project. It was the latter that led him toward management and the position he holds today of overseeing construction on test complexes.
All in all, Sewell said he enjoys the hands-on aspects of his job to create a key test facility for the Constellation Program.
Sewell also said he gets job satisfaction from meeting deadlines, but adds that doing so with limited manpower is no simple task. Currently, Sewell's focus is on the A Test Stand Complex, where there are two stands that have been used to test and prove flight-worthy various stages of rocket propulsion.
The stands originally were built for flight-certifying all first and second stages of the Saturn V rocket used during the Apollo program to send humans to land on the moon. The stands were later modified to test and prove flight-worthy the space shuttle main engines and will be modified once again to test the engines that will be used in rockets for the Constellation program. Construction is also underway on a third stand, the A-3, which will be used to test the operating parameters of the new J-2X engine. The J-2X will power the upper stage of the Ares I rocket and the upper stage of the Ares V cargo launch vehicle, commonly referred to as the Earth departure stage.
Construction on the A-3 stand, which started in August 2007, is scheduled for completion in 2010, when NASA will begin testing the engines to be used in the Ares rockets. Modifications to A-1 also have a deadline of early 2010, and Sewell said he expects modifications on A-2 will be required as well.
"That's a big challenge," Sewell said. "There's a lot of work to be done to make these stands ready to test engines. The stands are 40 years old, and it's going to be challenging to ensure we can continue to make them productive for the next 20 or 30 years. NASA has a tight schedule, and we are working very hard to meet this timeline and be ready to test."
Despite the pressures, Sewell is confident he and his team are up to challenge of meeting these deadlines in a safe and productive environment.
For information about Stennis Space Center, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis/
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