October 18 - 22, 2004
Tuesday morning we herded onto a bus and headed out to Stennis. For those that may not know, Stennis is east of New Orleans. Actually, part of it is in Louisiana and part of it is in Mississippi. Stennis is an interesting place. I didn't know too much about it before going. This is the place where NASA does its propulsion testing. Or, in other words, they fire off big engines there. Not only do they test the Shuttle main engines, they test other rocket engines and engine systems.
Here are some of the Stennis fun facts. They are the largest single user of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen in the country. They use them for the engine tests. They also have a network of canals where they can load up barges with the liquefied gases and barge it over to the test stands. What makes Stennis unique in the rocket engine testing business is that they are able to do long duration tests. Their set up with the barges and test stands and accompanying equipment allows them to test engines for minutes rather than seconds.
Because Stennis' business is firing engines, they tend to make a lot of noise. So, there is a 125,000 acre buffer zone around Stennis proper. This buffer zone is actually privately owned land where the owners have limited use of their property. They can hunt, fish, or hang out, but they can't build any homes there. No structures allowed where people would live or work.
Stennis shares some of its land with the Navy, who does SEAL river training in the rivers on the property, and with a bunch of Oceanographers. This is the only NASA center who has a cooperative agreement with other entities for its land and facilities. Stennis also has the worlds third largest computer - 30 teraflops, they say. Japan has the second largest at 40 teraflops and NASA Ames has the largest at 60 teraflops. Well, Ames will soon have the largest. I gathered that it isn't quite up and running yet. But, if you need some serious numbers crunched, Stennis is the place. The users of this computer are a whole host of universities and other research facilities. One of the things that Stennis does with its computer is run what they call 3-D Caves. These are a facilities where they can do some serious three dimensional modeling and graphics displaying. They can do things such as give virtual walking tours inside buildings. We didn't get to see any of the 3-D caves, but from their description I imagine them to be one step away from the holodeck on the Starship Enterprise.
While we were at Stennis we were able to see a Shuttle main engine firing test. This was amazing. The test stand, which is a several stories tall piece of scaffolding and pipes and the like that holds the engine and feeds it fuel, was about half a mile away from us. We were standing on the roof of the building that holds the control center for the test. Yes, we were wearing ear plugs. We can be so close since the engines run off of the liquid hydrogen and oxygen. For comparison, you have to be at least three miles away for a Shuttle launch due to the nasty chemicals in the solid rocket motors. This test lasted on the order of 6 minutes or so. When the engine first started up it gave a loud noise that sounded sort of like a giant acetylene torch being lit. A really, really giant acetylene torch. I have never heard that noise at any of the Shuttle launches I have seen, but I guess it is because of the greater distance. After the startup, the engine just roared along, like it was supposed to. I am glad I had ear plugs. A flood of water, that is pumped from one of their holding ponds, is used to cool the test stand as the engine is being fired. This creates a whole bunch of steam. The end result of all of this water and steam is that rain clouds are made (seriously). Luckily, the wind was blowing such that we didn't get showered upon. We did, however, see a very pretty rainbow.
Wednesday we toured the Michoud Assembly Facility. This facility is also near New Orleans on the east side and it is the place where the external tanks (the big orange thing) for the Shuttles are made. The facility is run by Lockheed, since they are the company that makes the external tanks for the NASA. It is an impressive place. There is a 42 acre building in which they make the tanks. 42 acres! It is quite an operation. We toured the facility on a tram. Let's just say that there are lots of very large pieces of machinery that are used to make a tank. The tanks are built up in pieces - the liquid oxygen tank is the top part of an external tank, there is a structural connecting piece in the middle and the liquid hydrogen tank is the bottom part of the external tank. They spray on insulating foam on the outside of all the pieces. Most of the spraying is done by machine, but some of the difficult and angular pieces are sprayed by hand.
As you may know, it was a piece of foam that came off the external tank that hit the wing of the Space Shuttle Columbia and either cracked it or knocked a hole in the wing. This was the basic cause of the Shuttle accident. NASA and Lockheed have done an immense amount of work determining why the foam came off and how to prevent such problems in the future. We got to see the external tank for the next Shuttle launch. It is still there having its finishing touches being put on. When a tank is ready to go, they put it on a barge and barge it over to the Kennedy Space Center. This particular tank will be shipped to KSC in December.
External tank fun facts: they are 154 feet long and 27.6 feet in diameter. They are the largest element of the Shuttle and the structural backbone of the Shuttle, i.e., the Shuttle and the solid rocket motors are bolted to the external tank for launch. The tanks are basically made of aluminum. Empty, the tanks weigh about 58,500 pounds. When they are loaded with the liquid oxygen and hydrogen, the tanks weigh nearly 1.7 million pounds. They hold roughly 145,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and 390,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen. The tank empties in about 8 1/2 minutes and is separated from the Shuttle at about 69 statute miles in altitude and about 800 statute miles downrange. Almost all of the tank burns up during re-entry. What doesn't burn up falls into well-defined spots in the oceans.
Thursday we had to leave all the fun of New Orleans and head over to Huntsville, Alabama, where the Marshall Space Flight Center is located. We arrived in the early afternoon and went straight to the space center for an afternoon of presentations. We heard all about what Marshall does, which is a lot of different things. They manage the propulsion for the Space Shuttle (the solid rockets and the main engines), they build pieces of the Space Station, they integrate all the payload activities for the Space Station (and run them from a control center at Marshall), they work on advanced propulsion systems and programs, they work on automated docking and rendezvous of satellites, and they have a center for advanced manufacturing, among other things. That night they hosted a fish fry for us. It was quite nice as we got to mix and mingle with some of the folks that work at the space center. The only problem was that this was probably our 40,000th meal of fried fish on this trip. Seems like every time anyone fed us, we had fried fish. Don't get me wrong, I love fried fish, but after a solid week of it, I was ready for a green vegetable. And not okra in a vat of gumbo, which is the other thing we had regularly on this trip. Southern cuisine is good, but not exactly good for the ole arteries.
After several hours of presentations and socializing, we finally headed to the hotel for the night. Most folks went straight to the bar - not because they were particularly thirsty, but because it was the last game of the baseball playoffs and they had a big screen TV. We were rooting for the Astros to win. Unfortunately, it didn't work out for them.
The next day we toured many of the facilities at Marshall that do the activities that we heard about on Thursday. There is some really neat stuff going on. I really liked the advanced manufacturing facility since they have found ways to take raw material, such as a particular type of powder, and make it into useable tools! Go figure. They have these machines that build layer upon layer and finally they have whatever object that they are making. I wish I could have seen one of these machines work. I kept imagining the machine in the movie "The Fifth Element" that created the fifth element (if you aren't familiar with the movie, never mind. . .). The ultimate goal of this facility is to develop ways to make building materials and other equipment in situ on the Moon and Mars.
At lunchtime we had lunch (BBQ for a change. . .whew!) with a group of teachers. These teachers are part of the same group that we spent time with our very first week on the job. However, the ones at Marshall weren't able to attend the conference at JSC, so they were at an additional session that NASA had for them. Unfortunately, we didn't get to stay long as we had a very packed schedule that we had to keep. On the other hand, we didn't have to make any toilet paper crafts this time. Following the teachers we had a quick run through the facilities for Space Camp, which is affiliated with Marshall. I cannot believe how sophisticated their stuff is. They have to ability to do several day simulations that include space walks. I wish Space Camp had existed when I was a kid. I tell you what, if any child/teenager is interested in space stuff, they should go to Space Camp. Or, better yet, get their schools involved. Apparently, Space Camp will have week long sessions for school groups and their curricula is accredited. That way, the kids and teachers will get credit for learning math and science and not have to be counted absent (or AWOL). How nifty is that?
After shuffling through a few more labs and the like, we headed off to the airport. Unfortunately, our travel luck had run out. Weather in TX caused our flights to be delayed. We eventually got out of Huntsville and made it to Dallas, but then we had to wait some more. I finally gave up, changed my ticket to leave the next day, and called up Cousin Joe. He took me in for the night. I was fast asleep in a comfy bed while my classmates were still trying to get home.
© Shannon Walker 2004
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