By Jeremy Pittari, Item Staff Writer
The Picayune Item
Heads of several major agencies and departments at John C. Stennis Space Center met with local leaders and media to discuss the future of the rocket engine testing facility.
Stennis Director Rick Gilbrech spoke about the center as a whole and the future of rocket engine testing. While he admits the budget year is not par for the course, NASA has been given $17.7 billion in funding for this fiscal year. However the next fiscal year is still uncertain.
With the uncertainty comes a lack of information on any potential personnel or budget cuts for the next fiscal year. Gilbrech, when asked if personnel cuts were expected as a result of the recent sequestration, said information is unknown at present.
“I don’t want to get ahead of the president,” Gilbrech said.
Closing of the tower at Stennis Airport will not have an affect on Stennis or the other agencies that occupy the federal city, Gilbrech said. Special Boat Team 22 Commanding Officer Tristan Rizzi said if his unit needs the airport, it can bring in personnel to man the tower. Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School Executive Officer Michael Yohnke said most of the air transport is provided commercially, so the closure will not impact his school either.
Gilbrech said plenty of work is ahead for the center. Testing of commercial application engines is continuing, such as for Orbital Science’s engine that helps bring payloads to the International Space Station, and there are plans to test the rockets that will be integral to the Space Launch System, which is the replacement for the Space Shuttle Program. Gilbrech also is comfortable in saying that the SLS program will see continued funding.
Unmanned test flights of the system are planned in the next year or two and the tests will use the historic Orion capsule. In 2017 Gilbrech said NASA plans to conduct initial exploration missions to the moon, and by 2021 put men back in orbit around the celestial body.
Gilbrech said there are plans to begin to use commercial space vehicles to transport not only cargo, but also astronauts to the ISS and back, though a time frame was not provided.
Still on the agenda are flights to an asteroid and eventually to Mars. While a trip to the moon takes only three days, a trip to Mars will be much more difficult and time consuming. Gilbrech said not only will a trip to Mars involve extensive knowledge of planet conditions, which are being investigated by the rovers on the surface, but a round trip takes more than two years.
Gilbrech said it takes six months to travel to the red planet, and once there astronauts will have to reside on the surface for 18 months until Earth and Mars are close enough for a return trip. That puts the entire mission at 30 months.
“You better know what you’re doing on your way to Mars,” Gilbrech said.
Until then, testing is set for the SLS engine at Stennis beginning in 2017, and tests of the upper stage J2X engine will continue until 2014, Gilbrech said. He said the SLS engine will be the largest ever tested at Stennis.
Other agencies at Stennis also gave brief information on their future work at the center.
Bill Burnett, Deputy Commander of Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, said work to create weather and ocean models will continue at Stennis. The agency currently has six ships traveling the world to gather data used to generate those models. The collected data is fed to a super computer capable of performing 866 teraflops of computations per second. A series of unmanned vehicles are used to help gather the data, Burnett said.
Rizzi said his boat unit’s work at the site involves combating piracy on the ocean and responding to global events using unique water craft capable of taking an IED attack and returning to service after some repairs. He said the operators of those machines suffer G forces so severe that most lose between a half inch to an inch in height.
Yohnke said his school trains personnel from other countries in the use of small water craft, operations, communications, weapons maintenance and instructor development in addition to showing those students the true nature of American culture. Students pay for their training, and when training is complete, Yohnke hopes they head home with a different perspective of this country.
“We want the world to know there’s more to America than Bay Watch,” Yohnke said.
As for the new NASA visitor center called INFINITY, Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise said there is a large marketing campaign underway to help visitation and use of the center grow. Those efforts will include more outdoor advertising, website advertising and exterior signs for the building.
Efforts also will be made to cater to the younger crowd with games and a playground, Haise said. Rolls Royce plans to install a display at the center of its T-1000 engine sometime this year. A seven-mile trail in the wilderness surrounding the center is also planned. Haise said the trail will take hikers to the nearby Pearl River and allow them to enjoy native wildlife.