Tag: #NASASocial

NASA’s Mission to Mars Goes Through Mississippi

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.

NASA’s On Track to Build the Most Powerful Rocket Ever

Founder of Silicon Hills News

Inside the Michoud Assembly Facility, photo by Laura Lorek

Inside the Michoud Assembly Facility, photo by Laura Lorek

NEW ORLEANS – In a former sugar plantation on the eastern outskirts of New Orleans sits one of the city’s hidden gems.

NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility is known as the gateway to space.

Although most people know New Orleans for Mardi Gras, great Jazz music, art, Bourbon Street, gumbo, hurricanes, beignets and chicory coffee, it’s also a hub for rocket scientists. Yet tourists rarely get to see this site. Some of the best and brightest in the space program work at Michoud. But even some of the locals don’t realize the important role this place has played throughout the nation’s space history.

“Every rocket that has taken humans to space since the ‘60s has come through Michoud,” said Malcolm Wood, the facility’s deputy chief operating officer.

“During the Apollo program in the 1960s, Michoud built the first stages of the Saturn 1, 1B and Saturn V rockets,” according to NASA. Later, Michoud designed and built the 15-story tall external tanks for the space shuttles. One of the last tanks, a bright rust colored mammoth sits behind a building onsite, a monument to its past.

But Michoud is preparing for the future.

Major components of the Space Launch System (SLS) NASA’s most powerful rockets that will send astronauts into deep space and eventually Mars, are being built at Michoud, said Roy Malone Jr., director of the facility. Michoud is building the core propulsion stage for the SLS, and they are also building the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, he said.

BxXc_fdCcAAQvCSThe 832-acre campus, which houses one of the nation’s largest manufacturing plants, is about 20 minutes from the French Quarter. The plant has more than 43 acres under one roof. It’s so vast that workers use bicycles to get around.

And it’s evolving, Malone said.

Michoud escaped major damage from Hurricane Katrina thanks to its employees working around the clock to pump water from the grounds, which like most of New Orleans sits below sea level.

At Michoud, Malone is like the mayor of a small city with 3,500 employees based at the facility, only 300 of them belong to NASA. The rest are contractors, employees of other federal agencies or private companies.

“We’re really changing the way we do business with a NASA facility,” he said.

NASA has nearly one million square feet for lease on the site. Its tenants include military contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, but also Big Easy Studios, a film company. Big Easy has 250,000 square feet of studios and has filmed the sci-fi flick Ender’s Game, and Planet of the Apes and plans to film the upcoming Jurassic World here.

The site includes the Port of Michoud, which connects to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. NASA recently gave the U.S. Coast Guard half of the port. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture with more than 2,600 employees is one of the largest tenants on site.

Despite its transformation into a multi-purpose facility, Michoud still plays a major role in the space program. And all eyes last Friday were on the site for the dedication of a new facility.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, photo courtesy of NASA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, photo courtesy of NASA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana Senator David Vitter and Mississippi Congressman Steven Palazzo and other dignitaries gathered to cut the ribbon on the brand new Vertical Assembly Center, the largest spacecraft welding tool in the world.

“Right here we begin the next great march to the next great exploration to space,” Mayor Landrieu said. It’s a symbol and concrete example of New Orleans’ innovative future, he said.

“This is the beginning of the trip to Mars,” Bolden said. “This is not for any of us sitting here today. What we’re doing and what we’re about is for the young people of this nation. We are on our way to Mars and I really mean that. The state of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans along with neighboring states are key parts of building the core stage of the SLS.”

The Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud, photo courtesy of NASA

The Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud, photo courtesy of NASA

The Vertical Assembly Center is 170 feet tall and 78 feet wide and will be used to build the core stage of the SLS.

“The SLS Program continues to make significant progress,” said Todd May, the SLS program manager.

The NASA SLS rocket is expected to launch in 2018.

“At a fundamental level, space exploration, the mission of NASA, is about inspiration,” Congressman Palazzo said. “This inspiration fuels our desire to push the boundaries of the possible and reach beyond our own pale blue dot. The Space Launch System will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will carry humanity into the next phase of the exploration of our solar system.”

Inside the VAC, photo by Laura Lorek

Inside the VAC, photo by Laura Lorek

The SLS isn’t just drawings on a sketchpad, it’s real, Palazzo said.

“You can see the hardware being built and the components being assembled,” he said.

This is all progress on NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars, he said.

Editor’s Note: This is a field trip outside of the Silicon Hills. Occasionally I will visit another pocket of innovation that relates to all the work being done in Central Texas. I attended a NASA Social last Friday for the ribbon cutting on the Vehicle Assembly Center at the Michoud Assembly Facility. We also travelled to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. I will be writing another story from that trip.

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