Stennis Space Center Partners with Firehawk Aerospace

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STENNIS SPACE CENTER, Miss. — From NASA:

NASA’s Stennis Space Center has partnered with companies on propulsion test projects in support of the commercialization of space for more than 20 years. In the last half of 2021, however, the NASA site and startup company Firehawk Aerospace participated in a partnership arrangement that provides a new model for future collaborations.

In the typical “service-based” partnership model, Stennis conducts a test campaign for, or in conjunction with, a partner company. With the new approach, Firehawk Aerospace led and managed its own test project at the NASA center, located near Bay St. Louis, Miss.

Stennis provided facilities, a dedicated test area and support resources for the company to test its Armstrong 1K rocket engine, using a patented, 3D-printed hybrid fuel and a unique mobile test platform. The company also was able to draw on the experience and expertise of the Stennis propulsion team during the project.

“This partner-managed facility concept was the first of its kind for Stennis,” said Paul Rydeen, NASA Stennis project manager. “We are trying to extend our activities to reach markets that are requesting such accommodations. Some companies want the proximity to propulsion infrastructure and support resources but wish to operate their test campaigns by themselves.”

The partnership with Firehawk Aerospace provided Stennis a perfect opportunity to demonstrate just how such a “partner-managed facility” arrangement could work, said Kevin Power, NASA Stennis chief of the Propulsion Test Project Management Office. It also provided an example of how companies can benefit from even a short-term partnership with the site as they scale up their own operations.

The arrangement offered several benefits for Firehawk Aerospace. It provided the company a temporary proving ground to move forward as it prepares its own operational facilities elsewhere, to further development of its patented fuel technology, to activate and use its newly built “roadable test stand,” and to complete its first-ever rocket engine test campaign. In pursuing these goals, the company was able to draw on lessons learned from the Stennis team, particularly on technical testing questions and for review of operational and safety procedures.

“Every day of activating and testing a new system is a challenge,” said Kevin Lapp, propulsion engineering manager for Firehawk Aerospace. “As a propulsion engineer, though, working at Stennis was a fantastic career opportunity.”

Working with the Stennis Strategic Business Development Office, Firehawk Aerospace arrived on site in mid-May 2021 and began testing in July. By December, the startup team had completed a successful series of about 100 cold flow and hot fire tests, all using what it calls a “roadable test stand.”

Firehawk Aerospace built the fully outfitted and instrumented stand out of a 28-foot enclosed hauler trailer, capable of handling the nitrous oxide, helium, and nitrogen needed for testing the company’s hybrid engine. Hybrid rocket engines use a combination of solid and liquid propellants to fire and produce thrust, in this case a liquid oxidizer with a solid fuel. The hybrid concept date back to the 1930s, though it has yet to establish a solid foothold in modern rocket propulsion.

Firehawk Aerospace is seeking to demonstrate that hybrid engines have technological advantages compared to traditional liquid rocket engines and solid rocket motors. Using the company’s 3D-printed fuel, Firehawk Aerospace hopes to bring hybrid propulsion technology to the forefront of the industry.

Stennis is America’s largest rocket propulsion test site and is equipped to support a range of government and commercial propulsion test projects, from engine components to full-scale rocket stages. Since it began operation in the 1960s, Stennis has helped power the nation’s space exploration efforts. It currently is testing rocket stages and engines for NASA’s new Space Launch System that will launch Artemis missions to the Moon in preparation for eventual journeys to Mars.

In recent years, Stennis also has supported – or is now supporting – commercial test projects for companies such as Aerojet Rocketdyne, Launcher, Blue Origin, SpaceX, Relativity Space, and Virgin Orbit.

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