A Visit to NASA Glenn Research and Plum Brook Facilities
When I was a chubby lad back in the 1960s, one of my favorite things to spend my allowance on was something called Space Food Sticks®: “Good nutrition and lasting energy in a chewy tasty snack.” You see, these exotic neo-candy bars were allegedly developed for the astronauts. They must have had some kind of magic if they were the ambrosia of space pioneers and we Air Force brats coveted them wildly. (You can find out information about the Space Food Sticks Preservation Society at http://www.spacefoodsticks.com, by the way). The other fond food memory of the space age was Tang®, which was apparently used on Gemini flights to mask the foul taste of some of the drinking water that was consumed on-board. Both of these nutrition items can still found on Earth, but it’s been a while since I’ve sought them out.
Is it Captain Nelson? Where’s Jeannie?
The allure of space travel: the Apollo program, heroes in space helmets, artificial food products–all captured my boyhood imagination. All the aging nerds about my age knew the LEM from the Command Module and marveled at the Earth-shaking thrust of the Saturn V launch vehicle. Audacious! So it is against the backdrop of these fine memories we have recently teamed with Aerospace Engineering Associates to support the Constellation Return to the Moon project. Joe and Larry, career NASA engineers late of the Glenn Research Center hosted us on a brisk March day to see the facilities that lie not far from Cleveland (nickname: The Forest City).
The program, called “Constellation” is an ambitious effort to reclaim the higher dusty ground of our nearest celestial neighbor. The moon hasn’t gotten any closer since our last visit in 1972 and at a quarter of a million miles away, it will require a new heavy lift vehicle to bring cargo and astronauts to the surface, and back.
There are a couple of drivers for this project. It is not solely a jones to plant our feet on the dusty lunar surface, but includes the goals to support the National Space Policy Directive to replace the Space Shuttle and to complete the International Space Station.
The Space Shuttle, after 119 flights (as of this writing), is being phased out of NASA’s budget by 2012. What will replace the space station and science missions? Russian Rockets! Hmm. While it’s nice that we are cozy enough to ask our friends for a ride now and then, it’s a little bit like putting your eggs AND your hen in one basket. Hence, we need new kind of launch vehicle.
Second, the need to advance our state-of-the-art, well, it’s simply the American way. With the changes afoot in the world order–China successes in space for example (they “hit” the moon recently themselves)–there is no small need to keep our edge keen. If one takes the long view that the human race might be around for another few millennia, it’s worth keeping the pressure and funding for the noble objectives of advancing our understanding of Earth and our place in the universe. And it can all be done with less than 10% of a round of AIG bailout.
The basic architecture of the program draws on shuttle launch vehicle plus some of the proven Apollo-era designs. Instead of one big rocket to lift crew and cargo to orbit, the Constellation uses a Crew Launch Vehicle (the Ares I) and a Cargo Launch Vehicle (Ares V). In a break with the Space Shuttle design, the parts and pieces will fall to Earth and be reclaimed for reuse. The crew capsule, however, will not land like a plane (a glider, rather), but will splash down like the first rounds of our experience of returning temporary satellites to Earth.
What’s our piece? Well, considering that the first flight of the Ares I will take place in about 2015, budgets permitting, there are loads of engineering studies that we are planning to work on, including RF analyses, reliability, technology implementation studies, you name it and it’s got a study plan. Consider that mistakes are really not permissible, every millimeter of these rockets are meticulously designed, crafted, analyzed and documented.
To get a feel for our way forward, we paid a visit to the Cleveland area and the NASA Glenn Research Center and Plum Brook Test Facility. Hosted by our friends from Aerospace Engineering Associates, Joe Nieberding and Larry Ross, we got the cook’s tour of the Apollo-era facilities. Impressive is such an under-powered word to use to describe the mechanical and electrical achievements at these two locations.
First stop was a 500+’ deep hole used to perform experiments in the Zero G Facility. It is about as deep as the Washington Monument is high.
The facility drops specialized pods with science experiments down the hole. The entire apparatus is in free-fall in a vacuum and, as a result, simulates near-zero Gs.
For about five seconds, the experiment records the effects of the microgravity. Various phenomena have been observed and the result has been to modify the mechanics of spacecraft systems engineering, particularly when it comes to fluids behavior. This is critical to understand because (non-solid) propellants are composed of liquids that need to mix nicely in order to burn and provide thrust. Seems that, in zero Gs, propellants tend to separate into their component parts and gloop together in the propellant tank. If the fluids aren’t mixed and available at the nozzle in the right proportion, then the engine won’t start or will burn poorly. Given that there is not a way to get back down to Earth and refill, the efficient operation of the rockets is paramount. These effects were observed in the micro-gravity chamber when it was built in the 60s and, as a result, there are several designs that now are utilized to mitigate this.
Plum Brook Station
Next on the tour was the truly awesome Space Power Facility at Plum Brook Station, an hour down the road from Cleveland. Mr. Kurt Shalkhauser provided a walking, driving and talking narrative of the Plum Brook facility, originally a TNT development and test facility in WWII.
It is no exaggeration to say that there is nothing like the Space Power Facility in the world. The 125’ tall chamber simulates deeeeeep space by evacuating all the air and heating and cooling the area to simulate the “dark side of the Moon” and high noon on orbit. So it’s either hot or cold (but always extremely dry) in there.
The thermal vacuum chamber is sealed by a large pocket door. In the photo below, the white structure in the middle is the door that slides shut and latches for an airtight fit. The door weighs 5 million pounds, about the same as 11.2 million Big Macs.
The upper stage of the Ares V rocket will be set in the chamber and subjected to not only environmental extremes, but will also be tested for EMC and radio frequency characteristics. The chamber is constructed of a double-walled configuration with an inner aluminum shell and an outer concrete shell. The space is evacuated by some enormous pumps and held at that negative pressure for the duration of the testing.
The picture below shows a test of a Delta IV shroud (basically the upper stage of the rocket).
The facility is being upgraded to include a vibration test stand that has a concrete pour (inertial mass—think huge anchor) about the size of a tennis courts. The shaker arrangement will subject the launch vehicle to the stresses encountered during liftoff and ascent. The concrete will keep it from shaking loose. Want to take a ride?
After viewing the marvels of the 60s we are humbled by the great efforts of the space pioneers. It truly was a time of soaring aspirations and the inventive spirit. May we continue in the same vein.
Next month, we’ll take a trip to Windy Wisconsin where we clambered on and inside one of these: