SSME testing success at Stennis

by Chris Bergin

While a routine part of their work, NASA’s Stennis Space Center has returned to testing Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) with a successful 520 second test-firing on Tuesday.

The test-fire drew attention given it was the first test undertaken by the center since returning to full operations in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Katrina.

“We are very pleased to be testing again,” said Gene Goldman, manager of the Space Shuttle Main Engine Project Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in a statement released this evening. “It’s a testament to the dedication and character of the Stennis workforce that they are able to test so soon after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”

The firing was part of the AHMS (Advanced Health Management System) certification, which monitors the engine’s performance.

According to Stennis, the process “enables the engine to shut down if unusual vibrations are detected in the turbopump. It’s an upgrade that provides a significant improvement for lower risk for shuttle main engines. Other engine parts were tested and certified, such as a fast-response temperature sensor.”

The test was carried out for 520 seconds, as that mirrors the time it takes the Orbiter’s three SSME’s to reach orbit before MECO (Main Engine Cut Off). The SSMEs are a highly powerful and reliable engine, with only one failure during ascent. That occurred on STS-51F, with Challenger still making it to orbit by pressing to ATO (Abort to Orbit) on its remaining two SSMEs.

SSMEs will also play a part in the Vision for Space Exploration, with involvement already in the initial plans for the CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle) and the SDLV (Shuttle Derived Launch Vehicle).

The two NASA facilities in the region hit by Katrina are integral to NASA’s Return to Flight 3 mission, STS-121 with Shuttle Discovery. The final test flight is set to launch on May 16, 2006 – kicking off a manifest of 19 launches, 18 to the International Space Station and one Hubble Servicing Mission – at least in the current planning.

Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans is expected to be back to a full complement of staff just prior to Christmas. The building and the External Tanks (ET) which are processed there survived major damage from Katrina, but the workforce which mainly lives in the Slidell region of New Orleans suffered major displacement to their property and transportation links.

MAF has just received ET-120, in addition to ET-119, from the Kennedy Space Center. Both tanks will have their PAL Ramps removed – the cause of much concern when foam liberated away from the area during STS-114’s ascent uphill. Once sliced and analysed, both tanks will have a shorter foam wedge placed and sprayed into the vacated area of the ET.

Both tanks are required back at KSC in time processing ahead of the May launch of Discovery, as well as the STS-300 rescue mission requirement of sister ship Atlantis – also due for a July 12 launch on STS-115, the first International Space Station (ISS) assembly mission since prior to the loss of Columbia on STS-107.

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