3-2-1 BOOM! Firing up an Engine Bound for Space

August 17, 2015 | Author: Ed Tribble

Just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico, there’s an old saying: "The road to space goes through southern Mississippi." Situated about 60 miles outside New Orleans, the Stennis Space Center is a sprawling property that takes up 125,000 acres. NASA bought out 700 homeowners and turned 5 small towns in ghost towns when it built the center in the 60s. It’s remote for good reason: the center tests massive, loud, window-rattling rocket engines. Stennis has a rich history. Every engine that has gone into space has logged time at Stennis: starting with Saturn V rockets, then space shuttle engines and soon engines for the Space Launch System (SLS).

The new engines are actually old ones—leftovers from the shuttle program. NASA has 16 of the RS-25 engines in storage. (Cost and development time were major decision factors). While the space shuttle only carried three RS-25 engines, the SLS will have four. Each engines packs a strong punch. With more than 500,000 pounds of thrust, the SLS will clearly be the most powerful rocket ever built. Honeywell builds the engine controller for the RS-25—the brains of the engine.

NASA has not-so-quietly been testing the engines over the past few months, but in mid-August, invited me to witness one of the test fires. When you show up and NASA gives you hearing protection, you know it’s going to be a good day. As part of the tour they showed me a canal for barges to transport some of the big components from the Gulf of Mexico. When it comes to space, some things are too big for trains and highways.

They also showed me one of the massive engine test stands. So much steam comes off the engine, they have a concrete-lined channel to divert the flash flood. And on days the dew point is right, rain clouds will form during a test.

A few hours later, it was go-time. I had been warned that even though we were several football fields away from the engine, the sound and vibration would be like nothing I’ve ever experienced. They were right. The engine ran for about 9 minutes. Several times I wondered, “How much longer can this engine keep going at this rate?” The engine produced a massive plume of steam. I’m sure the sound reverberated through all of those houses abandoned so long ago. I rhetorically wondered how the RS-25 could stay on its engine stand, when it so desperately wanted to soar towards outer space. One of the engineers told me he has seen hundreds of these tests, and each time is just as excited as when he saw it for the first time. Comforting to know that if I ever get the chance to see one of these tests again, it will be just as exciting as this time. Watch raw video from the test:

Ed Tribble

Ed Tribble

Ed Tribble is a Marketing/Communications professional for Honeywell Aerospace. Before coming to Honeywell in 2013, he spent a decade working as a local television news reporter in several markets.

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