NASA’s Mission to Mars Goes Through Mississippi

By LAURA LOREK
Founder of Silicon Hills News

The historic B-1/B-2 Rocket Engine Test Stand at Stennis Space Center, photo by Laura Lorek

The historic B-1/B-2 Rocket Engine Test Stand at Stennis Space Center, photo by Laura Lorek

NASA doesn’t get to Mars without first testing its rocket engines in Mississippi.

About an hour bus ride from New Orleans, Stennis Space Center, near Bay St. Louis, is the nation’s largest rocket engine test facility comprising 13,800 acres with another 125,000 acres serving as a perimeter buffer zone. The government relocated 660 families to create the site back in the 1960s.

“Stennis has a rich history of testing, aside from the Apollo 8 rocket, every American built rocket or engine that has ever put humans into space has been tested here at Stennis Space Center,” said Richard Gilbrech, its director.

A giant hunk of metal and concrete almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty is getting a lot of attention at the site these days. The historic B-2 rocket engine test stand, built in 1966, has tested Saturn V and Space Shuttle main engines.

Now it’s being refurbished to play a huge role in NASA’s mission to deep space and eventually Mars.

The 264 foot tall stand will test NASA’s Space Launch System core stage by simultaneous firing four RS-25 engines, generating two million pounds of thrust. The test will last 550 seconds or just over nine minutes, the same time required for a regular launch, said Rick Rauch, manager of NASA’s B-2 Test Stand project. That testing is scheduled for 2016, he said.

The rocket testing has an Austin connection too. NASA is working with a team of industry and academic partners, including University of Texas Cockrell School of Engineering assistant professor Charles E. Tinney, to learn about the performance of the RS-25 engines upon launch.

The Stennis rocket engine testing area is vast and desolate. A series of canals snake throughout the land linking all of the stands, which are connected with underground tunnels, to the Pearl River. And a lock and dam system allows the transport of large rocket stages on barges. The Pegasus barge, which once carried external tanks and other hardware for the space shuttle, will ferry the SLS core stage from the Michoud Assembly Center in New Orleans to Stennis for testing.

Rick Gilbrech, Stennis Space Center Director, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot at Stennis, photo by Laura Lorek

Rick Gilbrech, Stennis Space Center Director, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot at Stennis, photo by Laura Lorek

Last Friday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s associate administrator and Gilbrech, held a press conference at Stennis for an update on the refurbishing of the B-2 test stand. That project is about 40 percent done, Gilbrech said.

In the last few years, NASA’s SLS and Orion spacecraft have made tremendous progress on NASA’s path to Mars, Lightfoot said.

“We’re going to go to Mars,” he said. “It won’t be next week. It won’t be next year. But we’re putting the capabilities in place to take folks to Mars and we’re pretty excited about it.”

“The overall goal for us is to get to a position where we are Mars ready, the other phrase I like to use is we’re earth independent,” Lightfoot said. “If you think about going to Mars, it’s a two to three year mission. The return time, because of the way orbital mechanics works, is months. We don’t get to come home in a day or two. We have to put all the technologies in place. We have to really understand our systems before we take off and go to Mars with humans. That’s our goal.”

The first stage is earth-reliant with a mission that lasts six to twelve months and returns to earth in hours. That’s the International Space Station missions. That has already been accomplished.

The B1/B2 Rocket Engine Test Stand at Stennis Space Center, photo by Laura Lorek

The B1/B2 Rocket Engine Test Stand at Stennis Space Center, photo by Laura Lorek

The ISS also lets NASA test technologies routinely, Lightfoot said. It gives NASA information on how humans will deal with microgravity. It has also allowed NASA to bring in commercial companies to provide services in the lower earth orbit area. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences provide cargo shuttle service now. And earlier this week, NASA awarded a $6.2 billion contract to Boeing and SpaceX to provide crew shuttle services.

“Jumping from earth reliant all the way to Mars ready is a pretty big step,” Lightfoot said.

So for NASA the next stage for human exploration is the proving ground. The missions can be one to twelve months and they can get back to earth in days, Lightfoot said.

“By the 2025 timeframe, we want to be actively in the proving ground, testing our technologies whether it’s going to the asteroid, whether it’s just proving out the technologies we need,” he said. “And, hopefully by the mid-2030s we’re Mars ready and we’re heading that way with humans.”

Editors note: I attended a #NASASocial at Stennis Space Center last Friday with a group of space enthusiasts and NASA staff. We traveled to Stennis after a tour of the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

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