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Spinoff 1997

John C. Stennis Space Center
NASA Headquarters and Centers

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NASA's premier center for testing large rocket propulsion systems for the Space Shuttle and future generations of launch vehicles is the John C. Stennis Space Center. Close to 14,000 acres make up the operations complex, placed near the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Stennis is NASA's lead center for rocket propulsion testing and for commercial remote sensing.

Formerly named the Mississippi Test Facility (MTF), the center was tasked from 1966 to 1970 to test fire all first and second stages of the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo manned lunar landing and Skylab programs. The Saturn first stage contained five F-1 engines that together yielded a ground-shaking wallop of 7.5 million pounds of thrust.

The end of the Saturn series also meant an end to the Mississippi Test Facility's primary support role. But in March 1970, then President Richard Nixon approved development of a reusable shuttle vehicle that could be launched vertically like the Saturn V, but would return to Earth and land on a runway like an airplane. The Space Shuttle was tagged as the world's first and only reusable launch vehicle.

It was declared in April 1972 that MTF would take on the role of testing the main engines for the Space Shuttle. As the center's new roles and missions gained momentum, the MTF became a hub of activity by 1973 in support of the Space Shuttle.

The first stage of the powerful Saturn V rocket is hoisted by crane for inspection at the Mississippi Test Facility, now John C. Stennis Space Center. The facility was responsible for testing all first and second stages of the rocket during the Apollo program.


In June 1974, MTF became the National Space Technology Laboratories. From 1975 onward, flight acceptance testing of the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) has been an ongoing assignment. The data accumulated from these ground tests, which simulate flight profiles, are analyzed to ensure that engine performance is acceptable and that the required thrust will be delivered in the critical moments of Shuttle ascent.

Every SSME must undergo certification and acceptance testing at Stennis prior to flight. The engines sit vertically in one of the three large test stands where they undergo a series of test firings. Once proven flight worthy, Stennis ships the engines to Kennedy Space Center, Florida, for installation on a Shuttle orbiter. A new phase of SSME testing recently began, focused on Block I and Block II engines. It is anticipated these will be more reliable and less expensive to operate.

Propulsion systems research and development at Stennis has an "applied research" orientation. Some facilities of particular importance are the Diagnostics Testbed Facility used for exhaust plume diagnostic sensor development and evaluation; the E-1 Facility used for the development and testing of individual engine components; and the E-2 Facility used for thermal testing of materials, such as cryogenic fuel tanks for hypersonic aircraft of the future.

Now under the name of John C. Stennis Space Center, the work ahead builds on a 30 year past of rocket engine testing. Granted its new lead center chores for rocket propulsion testing in May 1996, Stennis is currently responsible for managing all of NASA rocket propulsion test assets, activities and resources. Other responsibilities include developing testing and facility investments, consolidating strategies, as well as deter mining where tests will be performed across NASA centers.

Two programs that will pave the way for future space travel are the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) and the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) programs.

The RLV program is a joint NASA-industry partnership with the goal of developing a new generation of rockets expected to radically cut the cost of placing payloads into space. Stennis will conduct or manage most RLV propulsion testing. NASA's selection of Lockheed Martin Skunk Works to build and fly the X-33 test vehicle means development testing of its engine has been earmarked for Stennis. Specifically, the X-33 cryogenic fuel tanks and components for a new half-scale Rocketdyne aerospike engine are being prepared for Stennis testing and evaluation. That smaller-scale aerospike engine will ultimately lead to a full-scale version on Lockheed Martin's commercial space plane, the VentureStar.

The Space Shuttle was originally designed as a manned reusable space vehicle which would carry out various space missions in Earth orbit. Stennis will conduct or manage most propulsion testing.


A top priority for the Air Force is establishment of an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). Modern rocket technology is called for to design and build a family of expendable, or non-reusable, rockets to replace the aging Delta, Atlas and Titan boosters.

Stennis has played important roles in demonstration tasks, engine and system testing for the program. The EELV will deploy payloads weighing from about 2,500 pounds to 45,000 pounds into a low-Earth orbit. The goal is to reduce the cost of launch vehicles from 25 percent to 50 percent. Stennis Space Center's test capabilities will allow the Air Force and its industrial contractors to use existing test facilities.

The goal of NASA's Commercial Remote Sensing Program (CRSP) is to enhance U.S. competitiveness through the use of remote sensing, Geographic Information Systems and related technologies. The CRSP Office at Stennis administers several partnership programs designed to share NASA's technology and expertise with U.S. industry.

Stennis provides the bridge between NASA's Small Satellite Technology Program and the private sector for developing commercial remote sensing applications. Projects include preserving the tropical rain forest in Central America, studying sea surface temperatures to determine conditions for red tide outbreak, analyzing plant stress and monitoring cultural and historical archaeological sites.

Designs in the early 1970s for Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) depict plans to use liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen for both the orbiter and booster engines. Every SSME must undergo certification and acceptance testing at Stennis prior to flight.


The purpose of NASA's Earth Systems Science Office at Stennis is to develop an understanding of key biological, chemical, geological, and physical processes and man's influence on these processes. The research focus is the study of coastal processes in support of NASA's Mission To Planet Earth program.

Stennis work in remote sensing has proven valuable in promoting the commercial utility of space for Earth observations technology. Remote sensing and Geographic Information System programs are being appraised at the center, determining their economic benefit, and how best to transfer such approaches to the private sector.

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