NASA’s Stennis Space Center gives SpaceX’s Mars plans a boost

SSC plays a key role in a highly successful, innovative commercial space company, testing parts of the powerful engine that will one day boost the company’s massive Mars Colonial Transporter.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches with satellites from Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Station, Fla.., March 1, 2015

To say that commercial space company SpaceX is ambitious is a huge understatement. Its space vehicles supply the International Space Station and will one day transport astronauts. It’s also working on ways to get launchers to land back on Earth vertically, like in movies of old, and creating new spaceships that will take colonists to Mars.

And South Mississippi is playing a major role in development of the next-generation rocket engine that will make SpaceX Mars trips possible.

Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship.

LANDING ZONE: This is the top view of the landing deck on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship.

It’s been a year since SpaceX cut the ribbon on its test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. Since then, SpaceX has been testing components for its Raptor rocket engine, specifically injectors and combustion chambers, with additional components ready for testing in the near future. In a typical week, SpaceX conducts multiple tests, spokesman John Taylor said.

Getting SpaceX to pick South Mississippi to play a role in the company’s future was nothing short of monumental. Mississippi’s top elected and economic development officials were on hand at the April 21, 2014, invitation-only ceremony to welcome the company to the Stennis family of tenants.

Brent Christensen, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, said SpaceX “strengthens the state’s position as an industry leader in the global aerospace sector and demonstrates to the world that Stennis is an ideal location for aerospace companies with sophisticated research and development needs.”

The state of Mississippi and Hancock County’s economic development commission assisted in improving the E-2 test stand SpaceX is using for research and development.

“With the strong cooperation of Stennis Space Center, the Mississippi Development Authority and the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission, SpaceX was able to begin testing at its facility within months of signing its agreement with NASA and Stennis Space Center,” said Taylor.

Landing a SpaceX operation at SSC earned the Port and Harbor Commission the top economic development award from the Mississippi Economic Development Council.

Ashley Edwards, HCPHC executive director, called SpaceX one of the most innovative and exciting companies in the world and just the caliber of world-class companies the county is recruiting.

“We are diligently working with SpaceX to grow their footprint in Hancock County and solidify their Stennis Space Center operation as one of their leading locations for the company’s future,” Edwards said.

spacex-logoSpaceX is developing the methane-fueled Raptor as a reusable engine for a heavy-lift launch vehicle. SpaceX’s goal is to reach Mars in the next 15 or so years. It’s the latest in the fast-moving history of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., founded 13 years ago by Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and CEO of Tesla Motors.

SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif., designs, manufactures and launches rockets and spacecraft, and is a star of the $52 billion industry. In 2012 it won a $440 million agreement with NASA to develop the Dragon spacecraft to transport humans into space. In May 2012 Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to dock to the International Space Station, deliver cargo and return to Earth.

More recently, NASA chose SpaceX and Boeing for the combined $6.8 billion contract to transport astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017.

Taylor said SpaceX chose Stennis Space Center based on its long resume of testing for the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs and more recently for government and private sector propulsion systems.

“Stennis is home to some of the most advanced rocket test facilities in the world and decades of experience developing new engine technologies. We are thrilled to work with this talented group to ensure a rapid and comprehensive test program,” he said.

The agreement with NASA, announced in 2013, called for SpaceX to revive the dormant E-2 test stand with high-pressure methane capability. Without revealing details, Taylor said SpaceX made “significant investments” upgrading the hardware at the E complex, “investments that will remain for NASA and other private contractors to use at the conclusion of this test effort.”

He said SpaceX has also paid for the use of the stand and of Stennis’ workforce, “representing true private sector investment into the center.”

The number of employees working at Stennis varies, Taylor said, depending on the testing being done. Nationwide, SpaceX employs more than 3,500 people.

“We looked to Stennis to be an R&D test center for the company and will leverage these capabilities to accelerate the Raptor development effort,” Taylor said. “In SpaceX’s view, Stennis has some of the best high-pressure test stands in the world.”

The E complex is one of several that make Stennis the nation’s largest rocket engine test complex. Established in 1961, Stennis has adapted to a succession of new programs that have brought opportunities for testing innovative engines and components.

The construction of one new test structure at SSC, however, generated national headlines and criticism about government waste.

The 300-foot A-3 test stand was built to test engines in a vacuum to simulate high altitude operation up to 100,000 feet.

A-3 was also designed for tests that ran the full duration of actual flights and to gimbal or rotate the engines in the same way they would move during flight. Those capabilities would have given engineers unique opportunities to test engine performance on the ground.

But the rocket program A-3 was built to support was cancelled before construction of the stand was complete. On orders from Congress, the $350 million-plus stand was finished and then mothballed.

For now, the future of A-3 is on hold. Valerie Buckingham, the Stennis Space Center news chief, said the stand is being maintained “until we have a test objective identified. We don’t have any mission right now.” is a website created in 2008 to highlight aerospace activities along the Interstate 10 corridor between New Orleans and Northwest Florida. It includes reference material, job postings, a daily aerospace newsfeed and weekly column. In 2011, the website teamed with several journalists to create the Gulf Coast Reporters’ League, which writes and publishes an annual book about aerospace in the region. The first book was published in June 2011. In September 2013, the League launched an eight-page quarterly aerospace newsletter, which became a bimonthly in August 2014 after the League published the fourth edition of the annual.

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