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‘Where the smoke and fire happens’

That earth-shaking, rumbling sound that’s come from the John C. Stennis Space Center the last 45 years is not going away, even though the space shuttle program is all but over and the Constellation deep space exploration project died in infancy.

A space shuttle main engine (left) and J-2 engine are displayed in front of NASA’s Roy S. Estess Building at John C. Stennis Space Center, a testament to several decades of rocket engine testing at the south Mississippi facility. Since creation of the center was announced in 1961, Stennis Space Center has grown into the nation’s largest rocket engine test facility while also becoming a unique federal city home to more than 30 resident agencies and numerous technology-based companies.

“No matter what the architecture is going to be after the shuttle,” the rockets for the new mission will be tested at Stennis, said Patrick Scheuermann, center director, in a late May interview.

The key to the 50-year-old Stennis Center’s longevity, Scheuermann said, is a decision made decades ago to design the center’s rocket testing stands to be modified as space missions change.

“It’s kind of a testament to the infrastructure that was laid out… with the vision NASA had with Apollo,” the program that followed Mercury and Gemini and led to the moon landing, he said.

Originally built to test the massive Saturn V J-2X rocket engines for Apollo and later converted to test the shuttle rocket system, the stands have been retrofitted to test a new generation of J-2X rockets. If America’s new deep-space frontier requires a rocket other than the J-2X, the stands can be modified to do the testing, Scheuermann noted.

The Stennis Center should get its testing orders in a few weeks, according to a NASA spokesman.

The space agency announced May 24 that it would develop a new spacecraft known as the Multiple Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to carry astronauts into deep space. The MPCV will be based on a design originally created for the now-cancelled Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and is expected to be 10 times safer for ascent into space and re-entry from space than its shuttle predecessor, NASA says.

Developer Lockheed Martin is to design the craft to carry four astronauts for 21-day missions and be able to land in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

An announcement on the type of rocket that will take the MPCV into orbit could come by the end of June, said J.D. Harrington, NASA spokesman in Washington, D.C.

“It will either be a J-2X engine or some other engine” developed from scratch, Scheuermann said.

Stennis is all but assured a role in the new program, he said. “Once we get our decision I am very confident this place will be here for many years. We’re the only place left in the U.S. that can test the rocket engines.”

Crucial minutes

Modifications to the Stennis Center’s A-2 Stand got the “A-OK” from NASA testers in March. Center officials said they expect an early June installation of a J-2X engine in preparation for a new round of testing.

Stennis got to this point after workers spent 10 months converting the A-2 Stand from space shuttle main engine parameters to those needed for the new engine test series, the center says.

Ultimately, Stennis’ job is to give NASA confidence the first 520 seconds after liftoff will go as planned, Scheuermann said.

When the engines light on the launch pad, Stennis will have certified they will get the spacecraft into space and shut off after orbit is reached.

With the shuttle, for instance, testing involved three engines for each of the 134 missions. “We’ve tested that same engine system well over a million seconds,” Scheuermann said. “We really ring out the outer edge of that engine performance.”

And in the end, “We really understand what the operational limits are.”

A ‘tangible’ frontier

Stennis recruits engineers who can push the center’s limits, Scheuermann said.

“The simple thing we do is rocket science. This is the place where we test new ideas and rocket technology,” not only for NASA but for commercial cargo movement, as well.

Apollo’s moon missions inspired Scheuermann to pursue an aerospace career. But he said he doubts today’s engineering students are drawing similar inspiration from the nation’s current space efforts.

“I have a lot of concern” about the dearth of today’s students investing time in engineering and technology majors, he said. “I’m hoping that once we make a decision on what the next wave of space launch vehicles will be, we’ll see a whole new generation of students inspired to go into space technology.”

He said he hopes students find they have “something in their gut” that tells them as Americans they want to be “part of something special.”

Stennis Space Center draws many of its new engineers from a region that stretches east from Mississippi to Florida and west through Louisiana, according to Scheuermann.

Joe Whitehead, dean of Southern Mississippi’s College of Science and Technology, grew up within earshot of the giant Saturn rockets undergoing testing at Stennis. He recalls how the rocket engines made the earth shake beneath his feet.

Something that engages the senses in that way helps to draw engineering students into aerospace. At the moment, the tangible things in aerospace are seen mostly in the military’s use of high-tech, precision weapons, said Whitehead, who is in his 21st year at the university. “When they see that they become excited.”

And with visibility being the key, the sight of the shuttle lifting off and heading into space is a strong aerospace recruiting tool as well, the dean added.

“The interest is there,” he said. “Now we have to show how these programs are tangible to society.”

Whitehead said Southern Miss gives its aerospace students grounding in fundamentals as well as applied knowledge. “We emphasize undergraduate research. We want them to get firsthand experience in the field they are working in. We couple the fundamentals with the applied side.”

The “applied side” is also emphasized at Mississippi State University’s Bagley College of Engineering. Many of the students interested in aerospace receive internships with such companies as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, said Rita Burrell, manager for graduate and distance education at the MSU engineering college. “Many of them will be employed by the companies they had their internships with.”

Burrell recently encountered a Bagley College aerospace student who had recently returned form a rocket building competition. “She was so excited,” Bagley said. “All the rockets they built worked. They prepared the manuals — everything.”

Meanwhile, Stennis’ Scheuermann hopes the excitement among the nation’s engineering students builds as NASA sets its new goals. He wants to see them join the ranks of rocket scientists, and perhaps find their way to Stennis, “where the smoke and fire happens.”

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