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New engines to be tested at Stennis

Stennis Space Center in Hancock county will play a big role in the future of space exploration by testing tomorrow’s engines that are to take man beyond the confines of Earth to the Moon.

The new engines, called the J2-X, actually pay homage to technology used in the Apollo Saturn V rockets from the 1960s. Modifications need to be made to the current test stands in order to make them ready for the J2-X engines, said A-Complex Facility Manager Michael Nichols. Those new engines will be the workhorse for future space exploration.

“We’re headed back to the Moon then on to Mars and beyond,” said Scott Harrowitz, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems. “The first step starts right here.”

Stennis is slated to be the first site to test the new engines using the 200-foot, 10-story A-1 test stand, but the stand will first need minor maintenance such as a new coat of paint, Nichols said. Other modifications include lowering the test deck area on the fifth floor, which is the engine housing area during testing, to accommodate the new engine since the way it will bolt to the test stand will have it sitting lower than the space shuttle main engine does. Also, piping that carries fuel to the engine will need to be replaced, Nichols said.

After all modifications are complete, Nichols expects to begin testing with the new engine by mid-2007. Test stand reconfiguration for the engine could be complete in about four to six months, but the minor maintenance needs to be completed first.

“It’s certainly great to be able to reuse the test stand that we have,” Nichols said.

The new engines are expected to burn less of the same type of fuel that the current space shuttle engines burn, which is liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, Nichols said. Rocket fuel is the most environmentally safe fuel since it turns to water vapor when it is burned, but storage requirements of minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit keep the fuel from being used for everyday transportation, Nichols said.

Most of the same crew has been working on the shuttle engines for the past 20 years, so they know those engines inside and out.

“They’re looking forward to the change,” Nichols said.

When the stands were constructed, they were physically the largest construction project in Mississippi and the second largest in the nation, said NASA News Chief Paul Foerman. The test stand was built between December 1964 and February 1967, said Stennis Director Rick Gilbrech. Stennis has conducted 1,007 tests for the main engine for the shuttle since 1975 to September of 2006, Gilbrech said.

“It’s seen a lot of rocket engine testing,” Gilbrech said. “Now we’re turning our eyes to space exploration in the future.”