HANCOCK COUNTY — Stennis Space Center traces its beginnings back in the 1960s and the Apollo manned lunar missions. Now the Hancock County propulsion facility is on the verge of testing rocket engine technology to propel humans to other planets through a new partnership between NASA and SpaceX.
SpaceX announced in 2013 that it would bring the initial testing of its Raptor methane rocket engine components to Stennis, where NASA, the Department of Defense and others in the private sector test rocket propulsion systems on a variety of structures. SpaceX is developing the Raptor as a reusable engine for a heavy-lift launch vehicle.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday, Stennis director Rick Gilbrech said, “This is a great partnership between NASA and SpaceX. These types of activities are opening new doors of commercial space exploration for companies. SpaceX is another example of the outstanding progress America’s commercial space industry is making, and we are happy to welcome them as our newest commercial test customer.”
Under an agreement with NASA, SpaceX upgraded the E-2 test stand with methane capability under an engine testing agreement. E-2 will be available for future testing by the government and commercial ventures.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company was ready to put the sophisticated high pressure test stand to work. “SpaceX is proud to bring the Raptor testing program to NASA’s Stennis Space Center and the great state of Mississippi,” she said. “In partnership with NASA, SpaceX has helped create one of the most advanced engine testing facilities in the world, and we look forward to putting the stand to good use.”
SpaceX’s head engineer at Stennis said testing would get under way within a month of Monday’s invitation-only event.
Gov. Phil Bryant was among the dignitaries who spoke as part of the ceremonial ribbon cutting and called Stennis “one of Mississippi’s greatest assets.”
The Mississippi Development Authority and the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission provided assistance for improvements to the test stand. MDA Executive Director Brent Christensen said in a release that SpaceX “strengthens the state’s position as an industry leader in the global aerospace sector and demonstrates to the world that Stennis is an ideal location for aerospace companies with sophisticated research and development needs.”
Following the ceremony, Ashley Edwards, executive director of the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission, said, “SpaceX is leading a paradigm shift in the space industry. As the home of Stennis Space Center, Hancock County is an important marker on the path of human space exploration. We are honored to partner with a company like SpaceX, which is revolutionizing our approach to the frontier of space.”
Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX was founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2002 with the aim of revolutionizing space transportation so that people can ultimately live on other planets. Musk co-founded PayPal and is CEO of Tesla Motors.
The Hawthorne, Calk., company designs, manufactures and launches what it calls the world’s most advance rockets and spacecraft. In 2012 SpaceX won a $440 million agreement with NASA to develop the Dragon spacecraft to transport humans into space. The company’s goal is to reach Mars in the next 15 or so years.
SpaceX has compiled an impressive list of milestones since its incorporation. In 2008, its Falcon 1 prototype rocket became the first privately developed liquid fueled rocket to orbit the Earth. In 2009 Falcon 1 became the first privately developed rocket to deliver a commercial satellite into orbit.
In May 2012 SpaceX’s Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to attach to the International Space Station, deliver cargo and return to Earth. That was followed in October 2012 by the first cargo resupply mission to the station. The company’s third cargo trip to the Space Station arrived Easter Sunday when SpaceX 3 Dragon delivered tons of supplies to the crew.