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Stennis test puts US closer to ‘Journey to Mars’

On Stennis Space Center’s A-2 Test Stand on March 23, NASA engineers conduct a test of the first RS-25 engine controller that will be used on an actual Space Launch System flight. The engine, with the flight controller, was test fired for a full-duration 500 seconds.
On Stennis Space Center’s A-2 Test Stand on March 23, NASA engineers conduct a test of the first RS-25 engine controller that will be used on an actual Space Launch System flight. The engine, with the flight controller, was test fired for a full-duration 500 seconds. Courtesy NASA

America’s Journey to Mars made two big leaps this week. The RS-25 engine controller, which will be used on the first flight of the new Space Launch System was tested at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. And in Washington, the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 was signed that sets a goal of landing astronauts on Mars by 2033.

NASA called the March 23 test at Stennis a “critical milestone.” Engine Controller Unit-2 — the brain that has the electronics to operate the engine and communicate with the SLS vehicle — was installed on RS-25 development engine No. 0528. It was test fired for 500 seconds on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis.

This controller will be installed on one of four flight engines that will power the first flight of SLS and the Orion spacecraft.

“This is an important — and exciting — step in our return to deep space missions,” Stennis Director Rick Gilbrech said. “With every test of flight hardware, we get closer and closer to launching humans deeper into space than we ever have traveled before.”

Two more engine controllers for the first SLS mission will be tested on development engine No. 0528 at Stennis, then installed on flight engines. The fourth controller will be tested when NASA tests the entire core stage during a “green run” on the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis. Gilbrech said that test is tentatively scheduled for the end of the year, and all four RS-25 flight engines will be fired simultaneously, as during a mission launch.

The RS-25 engines are former space-shuttle main engines, built for NASA by Aerojet Rocketdyne. They will fire simultaneously to provide 2 million pounds of thrust and will operate in conjunction with a pair of solid rocket boosters to power the SLS launch.

“Just think about all the advances in computing technology and electronics that have occurred over the recent years,” said Dan Adamski, RS-25 program director at Aerojet Rocketdyne. “We’ve been able to include those advances into the controller. We’ve been able to increase the processing speed, add memory and greatly improve the reliability of the entire controller communication network.”

The new controller has 20 times the processing capability of the shuttle-era controller, the company said.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017, signed this week by President Donald Trump, provides $19.1 billion for the space agency next year. Itt is the first time in seven years Congress has reauthorized NASA, said Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., former chairman of the House Space Subcommittee.

“Our bill provides clear guidance for NASA and a pathway to meeting America’s space exploration goals,” he said.

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