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Spinoff 1997

Marshall Space Flight Center
NASA Headquarters and Centers


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The roar of rocketry has been part of George C. Marshall Space Flight Center's historic past, as it is in 1997. Space propulsion is the designated Center of Excellence area for Marshall, dedicated to supporting transportation systems development and microgravity research as mission areas.

Marshall is a multi-project management, scientific and engineering research and development establishment. Such epic projects as building the giant Saturn V booster and developing the main propulsion system for the Space Shuttle took place at this center.

Located on 1,800 acres inside the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama, Marshall was officially dedicated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in July 1960, by the transfer to NASA of part of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency.

The center's first director was Wernher von Braun, the renowned German rocket scientist who spearheaded the development of the boosters that kept the United States a competitor in the often-called "Space Race" with the former Soviet Union. Highlights of those early years included building the Mercury Redstone rocket that shot America's first astronaut into space, Alan Shepard, on a 15-minute test flight.

Von Braun's leadership ultimately propelled the United States to lunar distance. Riding atop the towering Saturn V rocket, Apollo astronauts became the first humans to step onto another world beyond Earth--the Moon.

Following those first footfalls on the Moon and subsequent Apollo Moon landings, Marshall was essential in making use of Apollo hardware and remaining Saturn boosters to create the Skylab program. In May 1973, America's first space station--Skylab--was boosted into Earth orbit by a Saturn V launcher. Skylab liftoff marked the end of an era in the history of the Marshall-developed Saturn V launch vehicle.

In 1973, an engineer set controls as a second engineer uses Ergometer in the full-scale mockup of the Orbital Workshop at Marshall Space Flight Center. The workshop is the largest component of Skylab.


Several other significant events took place at Marshall in 1973, including development of the Space Shuttle. The Center was responsible for design and development of three major elements of the Shuttle system--the three main engines that power the orbiter, the external tank that holds the propellants for the engines during launch and ascent to orbit, and the solid rocket propellant strap-on boosters. In conjunction with the Shuttle, Marshall managed the Spacelab program in concert with Europe.

Marshall is responsible for the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana. At this site, the Shuttle's external tank is manufactured. The center also is responsible for the assembly and refurbishment of the Shuttle's solid rocket motors that takes place at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Marshall is moving forward with several enhancements for the Space Shuttle system. These will increase the performance of the Shuttle. Such enhancements include a new superlightweight external tank and a new high pressure oxidizer and fuel turbopump for the Space Shuttle's main engines.

Throughout its history, Marshall has managed many significant projects including Apollo's Lunar Roving Vehicle, the Hubble Space Telescope, over two dozen Spacelab missions since 1983, and the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility (AXAF).

Marshall has been a leader in the development of scientific payloads and experiments flown aboard the Space Shuttle. Many of these payloads, including a variety of microgravity and astronomical experiments, have been carried within Spacelab, the reusable, modular research facility carried in the Shuttle's cargo bay. The center also operates NASA's Spacelab Mission Operations Control Center, a state-of-the-art facility from which all NASA Spacelab missions have been controlled. Marshall's control center can help with investigations undertaken by Shuttle astronauts, replan investigations if necessary, and monitor the overall health of scientific hardware.

Marshall is providing testing, manufacturing and assembly support for the International Space Station. That support includes developing the first major experiment facility for the huge orbiting complex, the Space Station Furnace Facility. Microgravity materials science research will be conducted in this facility.

As NASA's lead center for transportation system development and the Agency's Center of Excellence in propulsion, Marshall is, once again, at the forefront of rocket technology. The center manages NASA's Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) effort. An end product of this program is demonstrating a reusable launch system. New advanced technologies are to dramatically increase reliability and lower the cost of putting a pound of payload into space from $10,000 to $1,000.

One of three RLV projects managed by Marshall included four flight tests of the subsonic DC-XA, or Clipper Graham. Lifting off from a site in White Sands, New Mexico, the DC-XA flight tested advanced technologies such as lightweight composite propellant tanks, fuel lines and valves.

An investigator at the Biophysics Research Office at Marshall Space Flight Center prepares the High Brilliance X-ray instrument for a test run. The instrument is used for protein crystal research.


A second RLV program is the X-34, a small, reusable technology demonstrator vehicle. The fast-track X-34 program calls for demonstrating a vehicle that flies at eight times the speed of sound and reaches an altitude of 250,000 feet. The vehicle is to showcase low-cost reusable technology, autonomous landing, subsonic flights through rain, safe abort conditions, and landing in 20-knot cross winds. Marshall is providing design and development of the vehicle's main propulsion system.

The third RLV effort now in progress is the X-33, a craft designed to rocket to Mach 15. Built in partnership with Lockheed Martin, the X-33 integrates and tests advanced components and technologies necessary for industry to build a full-scale reusable launch vehicle. Lockheed Martin will design, build and conduct the first flight of the sub-scale X-33 test vehicle by March 1999, conducting at least 15 flights by December 1999.

The RLV program is a radical departure from the way NASA has done its rocket business in the past. While NASA is to develop the high risk technologies that industry cannot afford, the follow-on to the X-33, called VentureStar, is to be built by industry. NASA would use the full-scale VentureStar, not operate the launcher.

In accordance with NASA's goals to search for an understanding of the universe and explore the solar system, it is Marshall's vision to be the world leader in space transportation. The thrust of the Advanced Space Transportation Program is to focus on a broad spectrum of technological advances with the potential to reduce costs beyond RLV goals.

A low-cost booster technology project, called Bantam, is part of Marshall's work-in-progress. Investments are being made in innovative technologies for low-cost manufacturing and systems engineering of this booster. Air breathing rockets are part of the advanced space transportation work at Marshall, as well. These systems would use atmospheric oxygen for its oxidizer thus eliminating the need to carry stored oxygen in the rocket.

While the rumble from huge Saturn V rockets has fallen silent, Marshall Space Flight Center remains as NASA's primary center for bringing ideas, innovation and new technologies forward to dramatically increase reliability and lower the costs of putting payloads, people, and aspirations into space.

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