RS_25 engine being driven to NASA Stennis Test Stand A-1 (Credit: NASA Stennis)

Check in at Stennis: NASA, Relativity, and RocketLab

NASA’s Stennis Space Center now operates in service of many programs and companies, with NASA, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Relativity, and RocketLab being the main tenets of the test stands today. 

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Ashe S.

Ashe S.

Mon Nov 21 2022Written by Ashe S.

What Is Stennis Space Center?

NASA’s Stennis Space Center has been the cradle of spaceflight since the days of Apollo. Created to help service the testing of spacecraft engines, Stennis quickly became a hotspot in Mississippi for space operations and engineering. The site has seen the testing of numerous engines and programs, through Apollo, Space Shuttle, and now the SLS rocket and Artemis program. Stennis now operates in service of many programs and companies, with NASA, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Relativity, and RocketLab being the main tenets of the test stands today. 

NASA Conducting Further RS-25 Tests

On November 15th, NASA crews installed a new RS-25 engine to the A-1 test stand. The RS-25 engine, developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne, is one of the most historic engines still flying today. These monoliths of space engineering performed as the primary propulsion system for the Space Shuttle program, and now service the SLS vehicle, powering the Artemis missions to the Moon. Stennis Space Center has been the primary testing ground for the SLS and Artemis program, with the major testing milestone of the ‘Green Run’ occurring earlier this year, flight proving the core and engines for its inaugural launch. The RS-25 engines have one of the most storied histories of any engine at Stennis, with early designs being tested before the Apollo program saw its end, and are still undergoing testing today. Stennis now hopes to fully test an engine per month starting this December until 2023, slating 13 engines to be tested and qualified in the coming months. These tests will rigorously prove the capabilities of the aging engines, with some tests planned to exceed the operational thrust limits of the engines by over 10%.

Relativity Space Test Stand Expansion

Relativity Space, one of the newest and most promising startup rocket companies around, recently began work on a test complex for their new engine, the Aeon R. Relativity Space is trying to shock the space industry by 3D printing their rockets - part by part - allowing the build process to be streamlined, with massive savings for construction, assembly, and preparation time. This design philosophy also allows for rapid prototyping and iteration, along with the ease of manufacturing, which work in tandem to create an accessible and modern design. Relativity’s first small lift rocket, Terran 1, is currently in final assembly and testing at Cape Canaveral ahead of its first launch attempt. However, the company already has aspirations to compete with the likes of SpaceX and RocketLab. They have already begun development of their Terran R rocket, a much more sizable rocket compared to the Terran 1. However, bigger rockets need bigger engines. Relativity is hoping to test their upgraded Aeon R engine, which will help power their aspiration into orbit. For the testing campaign of the Aeon R, Relativity has begun expansion on its site at Stennis Space Center with an extra 153 acres of land being granted, including the use of the E-4 test stand. Relativity has already been using the E-3 test stand for its Aeon 1 engine, which currently powers the Terran 1 vehicle. These two stands will be the primary testing location for all of Relativity’s engine testing going forward, powering their rockets for years to come.

New RocketLab Archimedes Infrastructure

On November 4th, RocketLab and Stennis Space Center announced an agreement for the A-3 Test Stand and surrounding complex to be dedicated to the development and testing of RocketLabs new Archimedes engine. RocketLab, now an accomplished and rapidly expanding startup, is following the path not dissimilar from SpaceX, in developing a reusable rocket able to access space cheaply and rapidly. However to achieve such goals, nothing short of rigorous testing is needed. Archimedes falls in line with the advancing space industry, focusing on Methane and Liquid Oxygen as its main source of fuel and oxidizer. Archimedes will operate as the main source of propulsion for RocketLab’s new reusable medium class launch vehicle Neutron. Neutron is currently being developed at their new facilities in Wallops, Virginia at the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport, where RocketLab hopes to launch their small lift launcher Electron in early December. Neutron’s goal is to be rapidly reusable, which demands high performance and keen understanding of the ins and outs of its engine system, which can only be obtained through rigorous and in depth testing of their new engines, and the test stands at Stennis allow access to be able to prove and understand these engines for flight.