As the new year begins, seven of Stennis’ nine test rigs are being used for testing. Four stands are operated directly by NASA, one is under a Reimbursable Space Act agreement with Aerojet Rocketdyne, and two have been turned over to Relativity Space Inc. for operation under a Commercial Space Launch Act.
“We look forward to a year of active testing,” said Joe Schuyler, director of engineering and testing management at Stennis. “Stennis is already at the forefront of testing to help fuel the nation’s deep space exploration program. Additionally, more and more commercial enterprises are realizing the value of our unparalleled facilities, infrastructure and testing team, and bringing their test projects to the site.
The business outlook for 2022 is a carry-over from the most recent year. In 2021, rocket engine testing at Stennis featured 11 test campaigns, including seven NASA-led projects, on eight testbeds. The activity of the year totaled 434 tests and 7,341 seconds of cumulative firing time.
Commercially, Stennis has partnered with seven companies on rocket engine and component test projects in the recent year – Aerojet Rocketdyne, Relativity Space, Virgin Orbit, Blue Origin, Ursa Major, Launcher and Firehawk. Aerojet Rocketdyne conducted the last planned RS-68 hot-fire acceptance test on the B-1 test bed in April. However, several of the other companies continue to test projects through 2022. There is also the possibility of participating in partnerships with other companies in the new year.
Meanwhile, in the most high-profile project of the year, NASA completed Green Run testing of the Space Launch System (SLS) core stage on the B-2 test bed in March. It followed the year-long testing of the core stage and its integrated systems by beginning preparations for similar Green Run tests of the new exploration upper stage (EUS), under development for use on future SLS assignments.
EUS testing will also be performed on the B-2 test bed. To help prepare for the future campaign, NASA began modification work on the B-2 testbed and also conducted a series of small-scale diffuser tests on the E-3 testbed in 2021. EUS preparations will continue throughout 2022.
NASA also continued testing of the RS-25 engines to help power the SLS on the A-1 testbed throughout 2021. In addition to another round of developmental testing, NASA will conduct fires an RS-25 certification engine in the coming year. The series of certifications will mark a major step towards the production of new RS-25 engines for future SLS missions.
Stennis is conducting both flight testing and development testing for the RS-25 engines that will power SLS, which is being developed for deep space exploration with the Orion spacecraft. Development testing at Stennis provides critical data to Aerojet Rocketdyne, the RS-25 engine prime contractor, as it produces new RS-25 engines using advanced materials, processes and manufacturing technology.
The SLS is vital for NASA’s Artemis program missions to return humans, including the first woman and first person of color, to the Moon and eventual missions to Mars. In its evolved design, it will be the most powerful rocket in the world and will take astronauts further into deep space than ever before.
Under the Artemis program, NASA is designing and building a Lunar Orbital Platform (Gateway), space infrastructure necessary to enable long-term exploration and development of the Moon, as well as travel deeper into the Earth. space. Gateway is designed to give NASA a strategic presence in lunar space that will drive activity with commercial and international partners to help advance lunar exploration.
In addition to its propulsion business, the Stennis Autonomous Systems Laboratory (ASL) team is developing autonomous software capabilities that can be used on Gateway or other deep space habitation modules to help monitor and control critical systems. This capability is vital to mission success as communication and ground control functions take longer as exploration vehicles venture farther from Earth.
The ASL team will mark its own major milestone later in 2022. A project proposed by the team was one of 10 selected by NASA as part of an effort to enable new technological capabilities for human exploration from deep space. Through Project Polaris, a small satellite with NASA’s Platform for Autonomous Systems (NPAS) developed at Stennis will be deployed from the International Space Station later this year. The project will assess and validate the performance of the NPAS in a space environment.
Stennis is America’s largest rocket propulsion test site, with test facilities valued at over $2 billion. Due to its surrounding acoustic buffer of 125,000 acres, Stennis has the ability to perform rocket engine and stage testing 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without disturbing neighbors. As a result, Stennis is at the start of the critical path for the future of space exploration.