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Rocket engine testing station at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County.

PROFILE: John C. Stennis Space Center

By DAVID TORTORANO

John C. Stennis Space Center, north of Interstate 10 in South Mississippi, is a 14,000-acre secure complex surrounded by a unique 125,000-acre heavily wooded buffer zone.

It’s where some of the most powerful rocket engines in the world have been tested, including 27 first- and second-stage boosters for the Saturn V. In 2008 the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics named SSC a historic aerospace site.

Today SSC, which has more than $2 billion in assets, provides test services for NASA, the Department of Defense and the commercial sector. It’s home to NASA’s Rocket Propulsion Test Program, which manages all the agency’s propulsion test facilities.

» READ MORE: THE DAWNING SPACE ECONOMY — Governments and private companies are going all-out in what amounts to a new space race, and this region has a foot in both worlds

Over the years, SSC’s activities expanded to include other organizations that set up shop. It now has more than 40 resident agencies and over 5,000 employees. SSC has hundreds of scientists and technicians working in fields as varied as propulsion, geospatial technologies and underwater research. It has the world’s largest concentrations of oceanographers.

The largest tenant is the Navy, which operates its oceanographic research community from SSC as well as one of the world’s largest supercomputers. It’s also the location of the National Data Buoy Center and NASA Shared Services Center. SSC also has data centers, geospatial and earth sciences work and activities of five universities and one community college. It’s also the location of several university cooperative programs.

It’s also a manufacturing center, where Lockheed Martin builds satellite components and Aerojet Rocketdyne assembles RS-68, AR1 and in the future AR-22 engines.

SSC is close to three interstates and two commercial and one general aviation airports, and has access to water and rail transportation.

SSC is one of just four NASA facilities that can test large rocket engines. A former director once pointed out that there’s no other place in the United States where the government or commercial companies can test 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year with no fear of encroachment on surrounding communities.

SSC can test everything from engine components to full-scale engines and rocket stages at its vertical firing A-1 and A-2 test stands, the duel position, vertical-firing B-1/B-2 test stand and three-stand E complex, which includes seven separate cells capable of various tests activities. The stands can be used for both acceptance and developmental testing.

The 300-foot-tall A-3 test stand will let engineers simulate conditions at altitudes up to 100,000 feet. SSC will be the only facility in the country capable of testing J-2X engines fully in simulated high-altitude conditions.

SSC tests two engines that will be used in NASA’s Space Launch System: the J-2X, which will power the upper stage, and the lower stage’s RS-25. But SSC is also involved in commercial test programs.

The Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68 is tested on the B-1/B-2 stand for United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV, and the Aerojet AJ26 was tested for Orbital Science Corp. on the E-1 stand until Orbital dropped the engine in the wake of a malfunction on the launch pad. Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine thrust chamber assembly, the engine’s combustion chamber and nozzle, is also tested on the E-1 Test Stand.

In 2010, officials at Stennis Space Center identified 3,900 acres along existing roadways with existing utilities as prime locations for aerospace companies. Called the Stennis Space Center Technology Park, the site already has Lockheed Martin, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Rolls-Royce North America, which tests its largest commercial jet engines at an outdoor facility.

SSC also has additional acreage that could be put on the table in the future. In addition, just outside SSC there are other efforts to provide acreage to aerospace and technology companies. The similarly named, privately owned Stennis Technology Park, near Stennis International Airport, is 100 acres but has another 900 to develop.

» EDITOR’S NOTE: Reprinted through a collaboration from the recently released Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor.

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