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For release: 07/22/04
Release #: 04-192  

NASA celebrates official opening of Propulsion Research Laboratory

Propulsion Research Laboratory at NASA's Marshall Center

NASA will officially open its Propulsion Research Laboratory July 29 at the Marshall Center with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The facility is a state-of-the-art laboratory for cutting-edge research into advanced propulsion systems — systems that could enable more ambitious exploration of our Solar System. The 108,000-square-foot facility has 26 labs for large- and small-scale experiments.

Photo: Propulsion Research Laboratory at NASA's Marshall Center (NASA/MSFC)

Next week, NASA will open a new state-of-the-art laboratory for cutting-edge research into advanced propulsion systems -- technologies that one day could power space vehicles to Mars, to Jupiter or to destinations never before imagined.

The July 29 ribbon-cutting ceremony officially opens NASA's Propulsion Research Laboratory for business. Part of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, the facility is housed on a 21-acre site on Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.

In April, the new laboratory became home to scientists and engineers of the Marshall Center's Propulsion Research Center, a key NASA organization that conducts advanced space propulsion technology research and testing. The move consolidated work previously scattered among seven buildings at Marshall, providing a centralized location for advanced propulsion research, promoting better communication between researchers and enabling an environment for breakthroughs in technology.

The lab also will accommodate researchers from across the United States, providing engineers and scientists from NASA, government agencies -- such as the Department of Defense -- universities and industry with the resources and space needed for short-term and long-term experiments. These researchers are provided the opportunity to work at the facility through partnerships or Space Act agreements.

"This facility is intended to be a national resource for the entire propulsion research community -- a place where NASA engineers, scientists, and our industry partners and academia can come together and share ideas," said David King, director of the Marshall Center. "As NASA moves forward to realize the goals of the Vision for Space Exploration, the lab will play a key role in development of advanced propulsion technologies to accomplish our mission in space."

The 108,000-square-foot facility is 600 feet long -- the size of two football fields. Its contemporary design, by Jacobs Facilities, Inc. in Orlando, Fla., reflects not only its surrounding environment but also the unique, evolving needs of the Marshall Center's Propulsion Research Center. The laboratory complements nearby buildings -- with its NASA colors of white, blue and gray -- and its façade, with swooping curves, is intended to visually represent the state-of-the-art work being done inside. The design also allows for easy expansion, housing offices in a central location at the front of the building and the facility's labs in the back. This feature allows the building to grow to meet future research demands without disrupting work currently being conducted at the facility.

"The central and guiding design theme we continuously focused on was blending an appropriate mix of flexibility, capability and potential for additional growth," said Harold Gerrish, who was responsible for development of researcher requirements for the lab. "This facility will be able to support the rapid changing demands of advanced propulsion research while also facilitating synergism among researchers, scientists and engineers."

The Propulsion Research Laboratory, constructed by Baggette Construction Company in Decatur, Ala., encompasses 26 labs and several support areas -- more than 66,000 square feet of usable space for large-scale and small-scale advanced propulsion research experiments. Individual labs range in size from 360 square feet to 10,000 square feet. The facility's 12-foot-wide corridors and oversized doors allow large equipment and experiments to be moved easily from one room to another. High-bay areas reaching as high as 55 feet and equipped with 5 to 15-ton bridge cranes also provide the necessary space for large experiments. A separate 7.5 to 10 megawatt electrical substation allows the laboratory to conduct high-power experiments without disrupting service to other parts of the Marshall Center.

"The Propulsion Research Laboratory is at the forefront of new ideas and capabilities in advanced propulsion research," says Steve Rodgers, manager of the Propulsion Research Center. "The work we're doing here could revolutionize space travel and pave the way for a new era of exploration throughout the Solar System."

The versatility of the new laboratory allows for a broad range of study in fields -- some of which may seem like science fiction today, but could become a reality a few decades from now. Technologies now under review include solar energy, advanced chemical propulsion, and high power plasma propulsion technologies that don't rely on conventional propellant.

Other scientists at the facility will study high-energy propulsion systems based on fission, fusion and antimatter technologies. Fission is the release of a large amount of energy by splitting atomic nuclei. The energy density of fission is 10 million times that of state-of-art chemical reactions, such as the liquid oxygen/hydrogen combustion system used to power the Space Shuttle. Fusion releases energy by fusing nuclei together -- a process similar to what takes place continuously in the Sun and other stars. Antimatter energy is obtained when equal but opposite particles -- such as protons and antiprotons -- collide. This collision releases tremendous amounts of energy -- more than any known reaction in physics.

The Propulsion Research Laboratory also will provide an invaluable educational tool to university and K-12 students and teachers to inspire the next generation of space explorers -- as only NASA can. The facility includes a visitor's gallery that will capture the imagination with interactive propulsion research displays and exhibit kiosks that showcase the work of the laboratory. Closed-circuit plasma screens will give visitors a look inside the facility's labs and chambers to see firsthand the experiments being done, and a 20-by-20 projection screen will show video clips and educational films about propulsion and future missions into our Solar System.

The Marshall Center is a key leader in NASA's development of space transportation systems, including future-generation launch vehicles and in-space propulsion systems. The Propulsion Research Center is a member of the National Space Science and Technology Center, or NSSTC, which provides an additional resource for propulsion study by NASA and its academic partners. The NSSTC, a Huntsville-based clearinghouse for cutting-edge space science and propulsion research in operation since 2001, was founded by the Marshall Center and local, state and national university partners and other federal agencies.

For more information about the new Propulsion Research Laboratory, visit:

For more information about NASA space transportation and propulsion research, visit:

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Kim Newton
Public Affairs Office
(256) 544-0034

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