...The announcement in early December that a commercial spaceship company would test its
engines at Stennis Space Center, Miss., was interesting enough, but it was just the latest in a
series of stories over the past few months that point to an intriguing future for the center.
...Stennis Space Center Director Patrick Scheuermann said word is getting out about the test
stands, the land that’s available for development and the expertise at SSC, and commercial
companies are showing interest.
...“We had been hearing on sort of an infrequent basis,” Scheuermann said about companies
interested in working with SSC, “but in the last couple of years the frequency has picked up
quite a bit.”
...Deputy Administrator Lori Garver announced in December during a visit to Blue Origin of
Kent, Wash., that the company will test the BE-3 engine at SSC’s E-1 Test Stand. That,
combined with a NASA move to find a commercial company interested in the E-4 test stand
indicates a growing level of activity at SSC.
...“Your observations are dead on, in that there has been a lot of increase in activity here for
testing of NASA and commercial based companies, and just better awareness in general of
what this whole federal city is about,” said Scheuermann.
...It was in November that NASA issued a notice of availability and request for information
seeking to identify industry interest in SSC’s underutilized E-4 Test Facility. Originally
designed to conduct ground tests of propulsion systems in support of NASA's Rocket Based
Combined Cycle Program, the E-4 Test Facility was partially built but has not been completed
and further development is not planned.
...NASA wants to know if any commercial companies are interested in leasing the facility or
partnering with NASA. Priority will be given to users that support space exploration for the U.
S. government or those that are involved in commercial space launch or commercial space
user missions, whether or not the U.S. government is a customer.
...This isn't a first for SSC. NASA's H-1 Test Complex, used to test hybrid rocket motors, is
now the Rolls-Royce Outdoor Test Facility, with a 150,000 lbf stand used to test the Trent
series of Rolls-Royce airliner engines.
...E-4 consists of concrete-walled test cells and associated hard stand, a high-bay work area
with a bridge crane and adjacent work area, control room space and personnel offices. The
facility was designed to provide low-pressure hydrocarbon fuel and oxidizer to test articles
having a thrust in the horizontal plane up to 50,000 lbf maximum. But NASA envisions the
growth of capabilities at the stand, including the addition of a Ram Air test capability up to
Mach 0.8 to support the testing of power packs and engine systems up to 500,000 lbf thrust.
...And that may be a significant selling point.
...“There are a lot of companies with great ideas that I’ll say are laboratory or subscale
versions,” said Scheuermann. Some of the NASA testing is with engines with perhaps 500,000
pounds in thrust. Some commercial companies are looking at 10,000 pounds or even 5,000
pounds of thrust test capability.
...“And very quickly, as you can imagine, their success at the lab or the subscale level will
force them to either make an investment in their own back yard or search for somewhere that
they can get it to the larger scale, which is what Stennis is built for. And so rather than them
duplicating infrastructure somewhere or putting their capital dollars somewhere, they’re
basically using resources that the taxpayers already paid for once,” said Scheuermann.
...That’s the kind of thinking that went into Boeing’s lease of OPF-3 at Kennedy.
...The effort to find commercial interest in E-4 is “sort of a similar thing, but the difference
here is that at Stennis Space Center this is not new for us. We’ve entered these commercial
agreements since the 90s. So that agreement that you heard from Kennedy Space Center is
one of the first ones that they’ve done. This is, I’d say, normal duty for us.”
...“The word’s getting out on what exists here in South Mississippi, and I think commercial
companies are going to continue to flock to this area, whether they’re using the traditional
stands, E-4, or just undeveloped land that we have in the fee area,” he said.
...Part of the appeal is the uniqueness of SSC.
...“There’s really not any places in the United States anymore where the government or
commercial companies can come test 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year
without having any fear of encroachment on surrounding communities,” said Scheuermann.
“That’s the uniqueness of it.”
...The other part has to do with money.
...Scheuermann points out that in an age when resources are limited for both the federal
government and commercial companies, the investment that’s been made on facilities at SSC
since the Apollo program is significant and diverse. They’ve successfully tested for the Apollo
program, then the shuttle and more recently the Space Launch System.
...“When you get right down to it, this place represents a unique national capability. When you
combine the rocket stands, the skill base and the buffer zone that’s around us to test 24-7, if
somebody’s serious about leaving the rock called Earth, you’re going to have to test engines a
lot to make sure that they’re safe for either cargo or people to ride on. You can’t do that
testing one time every second Tuesday on a month when everybody’s out of town. That’s
where we’re unique,” Scheuermann said.
...He said people are more familiar with Kennedy and Marshall space centers than Stennis. As
a result of the commercial engine testing, more commercial companies are learning that Stennis
Space Center exists.
...“Once they take the time to come from wherever they are to see what we have, they usually
leave with their eyes wide open,” said Scheuermann. “You can do a general comparison in just
wage rates here in the Southeast United States versus the West Coast or the Northeast and
when you’re talking from a business case perspective, commercial companies that’s their
bottom line.”
...Scheuermann said they can’t help but ask themselves, ‘What in the world am I doing
somewhere else when I got everything I need right here.’ … We are on the front line of the
critical path to space.” –
David Tortorano

January 2012
Companies looking at SSC