Stennis Space Center Engineer Has Dream Job as Green Run Test Conductor
STENNIS SPACE CENTER – When Mandeville resident Ryan McKibben interviewed with a Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (now Aerojet Rocketdyne) representative at an Atlanta job fair 13 years ago, he had no experience in rocket engine work or testing, obvious areas of interest for the space propulsion company.
As it turned out, though, McKibben’s background in automotive air induction and powertrain systems was deemed a good fit to qualify him to transition into the world of rocket engine testing. Add to that his strong interest in turbopumps and some experience in design and testing, and it is not surprising that McKibben now finds himself living a propulsion testing dream.
McKibben currently serves as the NASA test conductor for the Green Run test series on the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) core stage, underway at the B-2 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay. St. Louis, Miss. As far as he is concerned, the role represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“We are all learning and adapting together as a team to check out the largest most powerful rocket built,” explained McKibben, a native of Alpharetta, Ga. “We are the first ones to get the opportunity to hot fire the vehicle and have a chance to work together with our contractors to ‘test drive’ the integrated systems.”
McKibben has come a long way from the fourth grade student who watched the first space shuttle flights following the Challenger tragedy in 1986. “It was clear that traveling to space was difficult, but the vehicles and engines that can take man to space were truly amazing,” McKibben recalled of those experiences.
Following his job fair interview, McKibben was offered a position with Aerojet Roceketdyne at Stennis. He worked as a test engineer for the company before migrating to the NASA team as a mechanical operations engineer and as deputy chief of mechanical operations.
Then came the chance to work on the SLS core stage front line. NASA has designed SLS as the largest rocket ever built by humans. It will serve as the backbone for the agency’s Artemis program, which focuses on returning humans, including the first woman, to the Moon by 2024, and preparing for eventual missions to Mars.
NASA is testing the RS-25 engines, which will help power the launch of SLS, on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis. In addition, before the rocket flies its maiden mission, the agency is testing the first flight core stage at the site. The Green Run series features eight integrated tests of the stage’s sophisticated systems, culminating with a hot fire of its four RS-25 engines, just as during an actual launch.
“This project has taken an extraordinary amount of flexibility and a larger test crew then what we typically see on a test program at Stennis,” McKibben said of the Green Run series “Despite a pandemic and challenges from the weather, the test team has stayed laser focused on achieving our mission and properly testing the vehicle on an aggressive schedule.”
For McKibben and others at the site, the dream-come-true opportunity will not end with the core stage activity. Stennis also has been charged with testing the SLS exploration upper stage, and a new series of RS-25 tests is set to begin this fall.
“We cannot wait to see this powerful rocket take flight, expanding our capabilities in space,” McKibben said. “This vehicle and its missions are truly something that we can be proud of as a nation.”
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