Stennis Space Center Puts South Mississippi On Path To Mars

BAY ST. LOUIS, MS (AP) — Every rocket that ever propelled U.S. astronauts into space was tested at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, and the NASA test center now is focused on testing rockets that will take astronauts into "deep space" — beyond the moon to an asteroid and then to Mars.

         A NASA timetable that has this happening in 15 to 20 years — and the technology that will have astronauts 3-D printing the equipment they need in space — is putting the "gee-whiz" back in the NASA program not seen since the Apollo age in the 1960s and 1970s.

         U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., the House space subcommittee chairman, said in a committee meeting in December children in his district were bused to Stennis Space Center to watch a live feed of the first test flight of the Orion capsule. The Orion is similar to the three-person Apollo capsule but roomier. It can handle up to six people if it goes to the International Space Station and up to four people for exploration missions deeper into space.

         "The successful test launch of Orion demonstrates that we are on the right track for sending humans back to the moon and Mars within our lifetimes," Palazzo said. "Across the nation, people we are watching with the same hope and pride that all Americans had in the early days of our space program."

         At Stennis, a red-letter day came Jan. 9, when an RS-25 engine — saved from the U.S. Space Shuttle program and repurposed for the Space Launch System designed to take astronauts to Mars — had its first hot test fire since 2009. That was when the last space shuttle engine was tested at Stennis.

         Instead of putting the flight-worthy engines in museums at the end of the shuttle program, NASA decided to keep them in test-ready condition, said Jerry Cook, deputy director at Stennis.

         The engines were moved from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to South Mississippi and Cook said, "All of those are stored on site here at Stennis."

         NASA has 16 of the flight engines, enough for the first four missions, and two for test programs, he said. All but two of the engines have been tested and 14 flew on the space shuttles.

         The milestone this month was the first test of the RS-25 with a new controller — the brains of the engine. This controller produces slightly different engine conditions of colder temperatures and higher pressure. The engine was tested on the same A-1 stand at Stennis designed to test the Apollo Saturn V second-stage rocket.

         Engine testing is on hold while pipes are replaced for the high-pressure industrial water system used to cool the test stand during a hot-fire test. Cook said the original lines in use since the early 1960s are being replaced with pipes 8 feet in diameter. Testing will resume in April, and he said 10 tests on the RS-25 are planned this year.

         Meanwhile, Stennis continues testing commercial rockets and is readying the B-1 test stand to be used in late 2016 or early 2017 — as the timetable now stands — to simultaneously test the four engines for the first or "core" stage of the SLS.

         "It will be the largest rocket we've built," said Cook, and therefore the most powerful rocket ever tested at Stennis.

         The core stage is more than 200 feet tall and additional rocket power will be needed to propel the astronauts back to Earth.

         "It will not be a one-way trip," Cook said.

         Palazzo said at the meeting of the House space subcommittee in December, "It is no secret that this committee is concerned that the support within NASA for the SLS and Orion is not matched" by President Barack Obama.

         NASA operates on a one-year budget with a five-year plan, and the funding needed to test the SLS and complete the other projects for the Mission to Mars are not part of the current five-year plan.

         "Let me be very clear — on my watch, Congress will not agree to gutting the SLS program, not now and not any time in the foreseeable future," Palazzo said.

         In November, astronauts aboard the International Space Station manufactured the first 3-D printed object in space. The first objects built in space will be returned and compared with identical samples made on Earth to see if this new technology will work for future space missions to build parts more quickly and at lower cost.

         NASA Administrator Charles Bolden talked about the possibilities of 3-D printing when he visited Stennis in September. The technology may allow astronauts to take carbon with them to Mars, rather than cargo, and "print" the materials they need.

         NASA has always been on the cutting edge of technology, Cook said, and he said the staff at Stennis is excited to play a part in the Mission to Mars.

         "As the mission evolves we will evolve with it," he said. "We have been and will continue to be a vital part of human exploration."

         – by AP/ Reporter Mary Perez with The Sun Herald

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