NASA Turns to Past to Help Develop the Engines of the Future

Rising from the south Mississippi land once inhabited by explorers of the past, the monolithic giant known as the A-1 test stand has a storied past at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. The test stand is continuing that legacy into the future of exploration as it transitions to test the rockets that will return NASA astronauts to the moon.

On Nov. 9, the center held a ceremony marking the official beginning of new work at the center’s rocket engine test complex.

NASA’s Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Scott Horowitz called the test stand “a great example of NASA’s enduring legacy of exploration. This test stand is a testimony to the pioneering spirit that landed us on the moon in the 1960s, and will enable us to return to the moon and go on to Mars and beyond.”

Under the direction of NASA’s Constellation Program, the A-1 test stand begins a new chapter in its operational history. It’s being temporarily decommissioned to convert it for testing the J-2X engine, which will power the upper stage of NASA’s new crew launch vehicle, the Ares I. The J-2X will also power the Earth departure stage of the Ares V new cargo launch vehicle. The Ares I and V vehicles will provide the thrust, while the Orion crew capsule will be future astronauts’ home in space.

The A-1 test stand, site of the first space shuttle main engine test in 1975, held its last test for that program Sept. 29.

“This is truly a testament to the designers and builders of the test stands,” said NASA’s Don Beckmeyer, space shuttle main engine project manager in the Test Projects Office of SSC’s Project Directorate. “They were built to last, and their longevity and flexibility are key assets to the agency.”

Born of President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 charge to the nation “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” the test site’s unprecedented pace of construction and activation symbolized the pride and vitality of the surrounding communities.

The 158-foot-tall A-1 and A-2 test stands became more than just the concrete and steel that comprised them. They became the launch pad for the visions of America’s future. When the center test-fired the first S-II stage for the Apollo program’s Saturn V rocket on Sept. 19, 1967, the resulting roar was more than the rumble of the J-2 engines on the A-1 stand. It was the sound of the nation’s space exploration dreams becoming reality.

Stennis Space Center’s mission of testing the first and second stages of the Saturn V moon rocket for the Apollo program continued until the early 1970s when the A-1 and A-2 test stands were modified to test the space shuttle’s main engines. (A-2 will continue testing space shuttle main engines through the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2010.)

In 1998, the A-1 was called upon once again to test the engines for another futuristic spacecraft – the X-33, an experimental, half-scale, sub-orbital flight demonstrator. The XRS-2200 Linear Aerospike engine, projected to power the X-33, was successfully tested on the A-1 stand until the X-33 Program was canceled in 2001.

As NASA began preparations for testing components of the J-2X, engineers turned to StenniSphere, SSC’s visitor center, as a rare source for the needed technology. In April, SSC engineers removed the XRS-2200 Linear Aerospike engine on display in the visitor center to reuse some of its pumps and valves, identical to those on the J-2 engines. The engineers used the parts to build a “powerpack” for the new engine.

“The X-33 used heritage from the J-2, and it worked fine,” said Brian Sproles, SSC’s J-2X assembly & test program manager for Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. “That’s the beauty of it. Constellation will be the third program to reuse similar technology. A good design just keeps on living.”

Drawing on the past, NASA has merged Apollo-era visionaries with today’s engineering minds to forge the exploration missions that will take us further into the solar system. Forty years after their beginnings, SSC’s test stands will once again be part of the adventure.


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