For NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center, 2009 marked a convergence of the past, present and future of American space exploration as the rocket engine testing facility celebrated a key anniversary, marked the end of a decades-long testing project and focused squarely on enabling humans to explore space objects beyond low-Earth orbit.
In July, Stennis Space Center employees joined the nation in marking the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission. The Stennis celebration carried special significance. The Apollo 11 astronauts traveled on their historic mission to the moon on engines proven flight worthy at the Mississippi facility.
Stennis Space Center was built in the early 1960s for the express purpose of testing the engines that would carry humans to the moon. Just three years after Stennis operators conducted their first rocket engine test, that goal was achieved as astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.
"The whole atmosphere was – we can do this," recalls Jeanne Kellar, a Stennis employee who was present in those early days of the facility. "Nothing was too big. There was nothing we could not fix. We just knew we were going to do this and show that America was first in space."
Enabling the present
Even as achievement of Apollo was celebrated, the Stennis community marked completion of another 34-year assignment – to test engines for the nation's Space Shuttle Program. The first space shuttle main engine was tested on May 19, 1975. On July 20, 2009, Stennis operators conducted the last planned main engine test on the facility's A-2 Test Stand.
During the program's 34 years, operators conducted more than 2,000 tests in development, certification, acceptance and anomaly resolution of the space shuttle main engine. Tested engines flew on 129 shuttle missions and counting – including five during 2009. Not a single mission has failed as a result of engine malfunction.
"It really is incredible what is accomplished here," says Ronnie Rigney, Stennis' acting project manager for space shuttle main engine testing. "For the past 34 years, this team has constantly faced new and unknown conditions with confidence and determination, ensuring that the space shuttle main engines perform safely for the astronauts who fly them."
The ability of the Stennis team was demonstrated early in 2009 when concerns with a shuttle control flow valve sidelined the STS-119 mission. Members of the E Test Complex team at Stennis responded quickly, assembling the test configuration needed to address the issue. Testing began within days.
Stennis operators subsequently conducted more than 200 tests on the control flow valve, providing critical data that allowed NASA to okay the STS-119 mission in early March. "Teams worked long hours, including nights and weekends, to help obtain data," recalls Kerry Klein, chief of operations in the Stennis Engineering & Test Directorate. "The dedication of the people at Stennis cannot be overstated."
Preparing for the future
Even as space shuttle main engine testing drew to a close, Stennis prepared for the future of human space exploration. At the E Test Complex, work was under way to prepare one stand for testing the AJ26 rocket engine for Orbital Sciences Corp. Orbital Sciences is working toward becoming a commercial access-to-space supplier for NASA, filling a need for the agency once the space shuttle is retired in 2010.
At the A-1 Test Stand, work proceeded in preparation for sea-level testing of the next-generation J-2X engine that will carry humans beyond low-Earth orbit once more as part of NASA's Constellation Program. Work also progressed on the new A-3 Test Stand at Stennis, being built to provide simulated high-altitude testing of the J-2X engine. In April 2009, workers completed erection of some 4 million pounds and 16 stages of structural steel that forms the stand tower. In July, construction of a pair of transfer docks was completed as well.
By year's end, large liquid oxygen, isopropyl alcohol and water tanks needed at the stand were delivered and installed, general contracting work continued and plans were set to install the test cell and diffuser on the stand in 2010. The stand is on schedule for completion in 2011. Then operators will be able to test at simulated altitudes of up to 100,000 feet, a key capability to ensure the J-2X engine will fire in deep space as needed.
"It's easy to view this construction as just an engineering project," explains Lonnie Dutreix, A-3 project manager. "But we're building something pretty important to the future of space exploration and pretty special in the field of rocket engine testing. That's exciting."
Maintaining the course
Recognized as a unique federal city hosting dozens of government, education and private enterprises, and as the nation's premier rocket engine testing facility, Stennis focused on maintaining its course in a number of other ways during 2009.
Work in the Applied Science and Technology Project Office continued in support of coastal protection and restoration efforts in Gulf Coast states. The office also closed the year having won eight competitive science research proposals.
In June, Stennis opened a state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center (EOC) that represents a giant leap forward in emergency operations and response capabilities. In the fall, NASA adopted the EOC's HazNet hazards network across the agency.
StenniSphere, the Stennis visitor center and museum, unveiled a new interactive Science on a Sphere exhibit in 2009. In doing so, the Mississippi facility became only the third NASA center to house the crowd-pleasing exhibit.
During the year, Stennis welcomed crew members of five shuttle missions and continued outreach to the community, such as hosting an interactive exhibit tent at the Zurich Classic golf tournament in the New Orleans area and the annual NASA Day at the Capitol in Jackson. The center continued its support of such innovative programs as FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics, FIRST LEGO League, Astro Camp, Explorer Schools and DEVELOP, as well as many more education initiatives. It also marked two leadership changes with the promotion of associate director Patrick Scheuermann to deputy director and the addition of Rick Gilbrech as the new associate director.
For information about Stennis Space Center, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis/
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