In 2008, NASA celebrated a half-century of achievement and excellence in space exploration. Halfway through a new year, NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center is building on that track record.
Just six months into 2009, Stennis engineers have marked a milestone in construction of a new rocket engine test stand, have performed critical tests on a faulty space shuttle part and are proceeding with major modifications for testing an engine that is central to the nation's future space program.
In the meantime, Stennis workers also have dedicated an Emergency Operations Center that provides state-of-the-art capabilities, continued partnering with community entities to address important coastal management issues and unveiled a dynamic new visitor center exhibit.
"Shuttle tests continue; new engine and stage testing are in planning; science work is growing; we're making continual and steady progress in many areas," Stennis Director Gene Goldman emphasized.
For instance, on April 9, Stennis engineers celebrated as a final structural steel beam was hoisted more than 235 feet into the air and fastened into place. The moment signified completion of structural steel work on the A-3 Test Stand being built for testing the J-2X engine. The rocket engine now in development will help power the Ares I and Ares V rockets that will take humans back to the moon and possibly beyond as part of NASA's Constellation Program.
Contract workers assembled 4 million pounds and 16 stages of fabricated steel that form the frame of the A-3 stand. The stand is designed to allow engineers to test engines at simulated altitudes of up to 100,000 feet. The testing is critical because the J-2X engine must be able to fire in the thin atmosphere above Earth's surface.
The structural steel work involved a trio of companies – IKBI Inc. of Choctaw, Miss., as prime contractor; Prospect Steel Co. of Little Rock, Ark., for steel fabrication; and Lafayette (La.) Steel Erector Inc. for steel assembly. During an April 9 ceremony, the companies were praised for completing the work on time and without incident.
"We're now 235 feet closer to going back to the moon," A-3 Project Manager Lonnie Dutreix said.
Even as engineers focused on the future, Stennis continued to prove its critical role in the nation's ongoing space program. When a faulty gaseous hydrogen flow valve delayed the launch of space shuttle Discovery on the STS-119 mission in February, Stennis engineers teamed with others across NASA to provide testing that allowed the mission to proceed.
Working 16-hour stretches, Stennis engineers responded within days to reconfigure the E-1 site and begin testing to determine if the valve could pose a threat to the shuttle astronauts during the mission. Engineers conducted dozens of tests that provided the data NASA needed to clear the shuttle for flight.
"The talents and dedication of the Stennis team were invaluable in clearing the way for the safe and successful launch of STS-119," said Bartt Hebert, chief engineer in the Stennis Engineering and Test Directorate. "This was no easy task, but the Stennis team quickly responded to the challenge."
On another front, Stennis engineers broke ground April 14 to begin construction of a flame deflector trench that will enable testing of the AJ26 rocket engine expected to play a key role in future space exploration. The engine will be used by Orbital Sciences Corp. to power the Taurus II space vehicle. NASA has contracted with Orbital to provide at least eight supply missions to the International Space Station once the shuttle is retired in 2010.
In addition to enabling flight-worthy testing of the AJ26 engine, construction of the flame deflector trench will be an ongoing asset to Stennis. It will allow the center to provide a greater range of test capabilities for future customers.
Although rocket engine testing is the prime focus at Stennis, activity is not limited to that area. For instance, on June 2, Stennis personnel dedicated a 78,688-square-foot facility that represents a giant leap forward in emergency operations and response capabilities.
The new Emergency Operations Center consolidates Stennis' medical clinic, fire department, security services, energy management control system and incident command post. The new center features a state-of-the-art HazNet Emergency Management System and is one of only nine federal facilities certified as StormReady, a U.S. National Weather Service designation given to communities and sites that demonstrate severe weather readiness.
"With the new center, we can more effectively account for employees, preserve our communications with the outside world, respond more rapidly to sitewide emergencies and more comprehensively manage all of our emergency response personnel," Goldman said.
Recent history makes that capability important. After Hurricane Katrina struck the coastal region in 2005, Stennis served as a staging point for search-and-rescue teams and as a base of operations for federal and state relief efforts, provided hepatitis and tetanus shots to area residents, and supplied temporary housing for thousands of relief workers. The new center will allow Stennis to play an even more effective community role following another such disaster.
Stennis' active community presence remained strong in the first half of 2009, as site personnel supported the annual FIRST Robotics competition that involves high school students from across Mississippi and Louisiana, as well as the area Special Olympics competition. The center also provided exhibits at various events, including the Zurich Classic golf tournament in metro New Orleans and the annual NASA at the Capitol event in Jackson, Miss.
Through its involvement in the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, Stennis also continues to play a vital role in improving coastal management. Formed in 2004, the alliance is a partnership of five states to focus on coastal management issues.
Stennis provides the alliance with critical satellite-gathered data officials need to make informed decisions about managing, preserving and restoring fragile coastal systems. That is exactly what the center did in supplying land-use data to the Mobile Bay (Ala.) National Estuary Program. The data allows Mobile officials to make decisions affecting the fourth-largest freshwater inflow system in the United States.
"Our goal is to customize NASA data for the decision maker so it is usable," said Jean Ellis, who spent 18 months at Stennis and helped lead the Mobile Bay project. "That's critical because the agencies in question usually do not have the capabilities to do the research on their own. So, we do the research for them. They use it to make policy."
Meanwhile, Stennis is using a new permanent exhibit to make data and research interactive and engaging. In April, the StenniSphere visitor center unveiled Science on a Sphere, an aptly named computer system that uses four projectors to show dynamic, revolving, animated views of Earth's – and other planets' – atmosphere, geography and more.
For example, one program shows the fluctuation of airplane departures around the world as darkness enshrouds portions of the globe to represent day changing to night. Another offers near-real-time weather and earthquake data sets acquired through National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites and U.S. Geological Survey seismometers.
Viewers can view and study one month's worth of past weather pattern data. There is even a module that models the effects of global warming through the end of this century, as well as documentaries created specifically for Science on a Sphere, such as an overview of NASA's plans to return to the moon.
"It's an effort to enhance informal education," said Dr. Nathan Sovik, NASA's university affairs officer at Stennis. "It's ideal for NASA because it allows us to display planets, moons and earth science data."
Science on a Sphere was developed about five years ago. Stennis is only the 36th overall and third NASA center to acquire the exhibit.
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