Stennis to begin commercial engine testing

Published 3:10 pm Thursday, February 25, 2010

Commercial space flight looks to be the future of Stennis Space Center and NASA.

Stennis is well on its way to establishing working relations with commercial companies to begin testing space flight engines.

OnWednesday afternoon, the engine testing facility held a press conference to announce some modifications that are being made to an existing engine test stand, the E-1. Those modifications will enable the stand to test an engine that is more than 30 years-old, an engine that will find new work bringing supplies to the International Space Station via the Taurus II space craft.

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Rosa Obregon, NASA Lead Mechanical Engineer for the E-1 Test Stand, said the engine to be tested is the NK-33, which is an old Russian space flight engine. To conduct the testing, the stand had to be converted to test an engine in a vertical position to simulate launch conditions. The work will be a collaboration of three agencies, Stennis, Aerojet and Orbital.

Orbital President and COO, J.R. Thompson, said he has worked with three generations of space flight, Apollo, Space Shuttle and now the upcoming commercial era. This program will involve bringing supplies to the space station, but not astronauts. Thompson said he expects the work to last for at least the next decade, since President Barack Obama recently extended the life span of the International Space Station until 2020.

As for transport of astronauts, Thompson said he expects NASA to use the private sector to handle that aspect as well.

The old Russian engine will see some modifications in order to carry those supplies to the Space Station, and those modifications will be made by Aerojet, Thompson said. Three countries will be involved in constructing the entire craft. Not only will there be a Russian engine, but the first stage of the craft will be made in the Ukraine and other components will come from the United States. The completed space craft will be called the Taurus II.

Thompson said the program is funded by a $2 billion contract.

Once the modifications to the test stand have been completed, Thompson expects to have engines delivered to Stennis in April and expects testing to begin sometime in June. The stand will be capable of testing one engine at a time, for 50 seconds at a time.

Local employees are still going to be used, along with six people from Orbital and about 12 people from Aerojet. There will be tthree to four times as many Stennis employees on theproject as there are from Orbital, Thompson said.

“I think this is a good chunk of work for the local economy,” Thompson said.