Stennis counts down on shuttle testing

Summer temps and threats of lightning failed to keep crowds of space buffs from gathering July 29 at the John C. Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis to witness the end of a historic era at the NASA facility.

The Center’s A-2 Test Stand roared to life just after 2 p.m. as a development engine designed to carry NASA’s three space shuttles into outer space underwent its last scheduled test fire. The run simulates the 37-million horsepower propulsion and firing time it takes the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) to power the shuttle from launch to orbit. It is a scientific tradition that is proud to call Mississippi home. 

“It would be difficult to overstate the role Stennis has played in our nation’s space program for the last 34 years,” says Stennis director Gene Goldman. “Its workers have created an unparalleled legacy of engine testing excellence.” Goldman called the final test exhilarating and the highlight of his professional career.

Spectators lining the field just a few hundred yards away pushed in their complimentary ear plugs for 520 seconds as the thundering Rocketdyne liquid hydrogen/oxygen engine filled the surrounding buffer zone of pine trees with a churning whirlwind of steam. 

“The primary objectives of the test were the evaluation of six major flight components,” says Greg Byrd, space shuttle main engine assembly and test manager for Stennis. Those components range from high- and low-pressure fuel turbopump to fuel preburner and oxidizer valve actuators. 

NASA is retiring the $3.2-billion Space Shuttle Program next year to make way for its upcoming Constellation Program, including two new rockets that will carry the United States back to the Moon and eventually to Mars.

Stennis has been a NASA test facility since 1965 and held the first static test-fire of the Apollo Program’s S-II-T engine at the A-2 stand in April 1966. Stennis engineers conducted their first test of a space shuttle main engine in 1975 and have tested every engine used in the program since. Throughout 126 STS missions, including the tragedies of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, no NASA shuttle has ever faced engine failure.

“The excellent flight record of the space shuttle main engines can be largely attributed to the test team at Stennis Space Center,” says Ronnie Rigney, acting space shuttle main engine test project manager for Stennis. “We have performed over 2,000 tests, totaling more than one million seconds of accumulated hot-fire time in support and development, certification, acceptance and anomaly resolution for the space shuttle main engine.”

Work will continue at Stennis long after Space Shuttles Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour are carted away to the museum. Stennis public affairs spokesman Christopher McGee says the facility’s 300-foot A-3 test stand is under construction and is scheduled for completion in 2011. It’s the center’s first major test stand to be built since the Apollo program and will be able to simulate altitudes as high as 100,000 feet on Constellation’s J2-X engines. A pair of transfer docks completed in July will allow barges on the Pearl River to deliver propellants to the stand through Stennis’ canal system.

J-2X engine test project manager Gary Benton says that a new water-cooled clamshell device will be installed on the A-2 stand that will adapt it for the J-2X’s short nozzle extension. He adds that modifications will be added to the A-2 propellant feed lines and thrust measurement system and that a vehicle simulated helium spin start system will also be installed. Testing at Stennis for the J-2X is scheduled to begin in July 2011.

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