STENNIS SPACE CENTER — What happened in Ohio a decade ago shows why Stennis Space Center guards its massive wooded buffer zone. In 2003, a multimillion-dollar, historic NASA rocket-engine test site was razed to make way for a Cleveland airport runway expansion.
That couldn’t happen at SSC, where facilities are buffered from encroachment.
“I think that is what really distinguishes SSC,” said Roger Simpson, rocket propulsion test program manager at Stennis.
Stennis is the most capable of the NASA sites where rocket engines are tested. It’s the last place in the country where NASA can test large, full-scale engines or whole rocket stages, and it’s involved in both federal and commercial programs.
Though much of SSC’s growth has been outside the realm of propulsion, engine-testing activities have increased recently. So have calls from companies interested in Stennis, the center’s director said. Now SSC is offering an intriguing new carrot: the E-4 facility.
“This is a great opportunity for a commercial company to explore partnership possibilities with NASA,” said John Stealey, Stennis engineering and test directorate associate director. “The test facilities at Stennis are among the finest in the nation, and the federal city shared-cost concept at the site allows a company to make the best use of its resources while accomplishing its mission.”
With the commercial space-flight industry playing a growing role, under-utilized NASA assets offer an opportunity at a time when resources are limited for both the federal government and companies. SSC is in the thick of it, and where it could lead is anybody’s guess.
SSC is part of a Gulf Coast aerospace region that runs between New Orleans and Northwest Florida. NASA’s Michoud assembly plant is just 40 miles from SSC, and both are involved in NASA’s Space Launch System. And SSC isn’t the only space activity in Mississippi. ATK in Iuka builds parts for Delta rockets, Mississippi State University trains aerospace engineers and the University of Mississippi has a center for space law.
“I think Mississippi is uniquely positioned to be incredibly important to the nation and the world because of all the complementary things it brings to the table with space flight,” said David Shaw, MSU vice president for research and development.
The new reality
It was big news in Florida in late 2011 when a NASA facility at Kennedy Space Center, facing an uncertain future with the end of the space shuttle program, got a new lease on life. Boeing decided to use it to build its CST-100 spacecraft. It will create 500 jobs.
NASA agreed to let Space Florida, an aerospace economic-development agency, take over the Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility and Processing Control Center and lease it to Boeing for 15 years. Boeing will build its Crew Space Transportation spacecraft there, and move the program’s headquarters there as well.
A November story in Time magazine likened the lease to an aristocrat selling off parts of the family estate. But with the shuttle program over and aerospace workers idled, Florida officials saw the buildings as a chance to attract the commercial space-flight industry.
That industry uses everything from rocket engines to launch pads, the infrastructure NASA has built up for 60 years. For many companies, it makes sense to tap into those resources.
SSC’s forte is propulsion test capabilities, a very exclusive club.
Stennis is one of just four NASA facilities that can test large rocket engines. The Department of Defense also has four sites, and a handful of commercial sites can test rocket engines.
The government’s rocket-testing sites work together through two groups. The SSC-based Rocket Propulsion Test Program Office manages all of NASA’s propulsion test assets and decides what testing is needed and where. The National Rocket Propulsion Test Alliance, formed by NASA and DoD, coordinates testing across all the federal sites. SSC’s Simpson is the RPT program manager and the NASA co-chair of the NRPTA.
Even in this select group, SSC and its $2 billion in test facilities stands out.
“There’s really not any places in the United States anymore where the government or commercial companies can come test 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year without having any fear of encroachment on surrounding communities,” said SSC Director Patrick Scheuermann.
SSC tests two engines that will be used in NASA’s Space Launch System: the J-2X, which will power the upper stage, and at some point the lower stage’s RS-25, which was the main engine in the space shuttle program.
But SSC is also involved in commercial test programs. The Rocketdyne RS-68 is tested on the B-1/B-2 stand for United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV, and the Aerojet AJ26 is tested on the E-1 stand for Orbital Science Corp. Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine-thrust chamber assembly, the engine’s combustion chamber and nozzle, will be tested soon on the E-1 test stand.
The Stennis DNA
Finding alternative uses for Stennis seems to be part of the center’s DNA. The test site was created in the early 1960s to test rocket engines for NASA. The location was chosen because it was rural, had water access and could be enveloped within a large buffer zone. It made a name for itself testing the Saturn moon rockets.