ATK's last shuttle motor test

PROMONTOROY, Box Elder County — The motor is gigantic. Dense gray fog emphasized the scale: a white tube 12 feet in diameter and 126 feet long, growing dimmer and grayer the farther you looked from the nozzle. Technicians walking beside it were small dark figures almost lost in haze.

[View of the motor Thursday morning before the static test. Photo by Joe Bauman]

A large snow-covered pipe and two rings extended on a gantry, mechanisms that would spew thousands of gallons of water onto the motor to quench the fire after its two-minute burn. A camera mounted on a pole; banners with representations of the Space Shuttle. Wide yellow ribbons repeating the phrase “CONTROLLED AREA DO NOT ENTER”, strung from tall orange and white cones. A pair of gleaming aluminum hoses connected the vast nozzle’s cuff with a metal cabinet-like structure some eight or ten feet tall. The stiff hoses touched the ground in the middle, and in the surreal flat lighting they looked like four jointed arms of a monstrous sci-fi arthropod.

That was the close-up view of Alliant Techsystems’ Space Shuttle booster motor shortly before it was fired in a static test Thursday morning.

The mist felt funereal, appropriately because the Space Shuttle itself is coming to its end. After nearly 30 years of flights and additional years of testing, just four shuttle launches remain before the fleet is mothballed. The test carried out Thursday was the last needed to check the safety of the final sets of engines.

The Reusable Solid Rocket Motors were to be the basis for the first stage of Ares I, designed to return Americans to the moon by 2020, and to explore Mars and other destinations later. Ares V, a projected cargo ship capable of hoisting 188 tons to the moon, also was to rely heavily on RSRMs built in Utah. The overall program was dubbed Constellation. But on Feb. 1, after $9 billion in development costs, the Obama administration announced it was scrapping Constellation.

Some members of Congress are fighting the proposed cuts and the outcome of the battle is unknown. But that the president’s budget proposal axed Constellation was a severe blow to the many hundreds of ATK workers whose jobs were at stake.

“I’m certainly disappointed but it’s not the end of the game,” Cary Ralston, vice president of ATK’s Space Launch Propulsion, said Thursday before the test. His purview includes both the shuttle’s boosters and the Ares I first stage. “There’s a lot of discussion in Washington about that.”

[ATK’s Cary Ralston. Photo by Joe Bauman]

He is convinced there is a chance that “the program would be reinstated, or at least the key components.” Ralston stressed that Ares is “designed for astronaut safety.”

ATK vice president Charlie Precourt indicated the main goal announced by former President George W. Bush for Constellation, a moon landing by 2020, may have been too ambitious. “Perhaps there was too much focus on that single point as a measure of success,” he said. Precourt is a former astronaut who rode the shuttle into orbit four times.

Thousands of Utahns pulled into a public viewing area about a mile and a half from the test stand, while others parked on the side of U-83 and walked to the viewpoint. Before the 11:50 a.m. ignition, an ATK employee led the crowd in singing the Star Spangled Banner. By then the fog had lifted, but the motor was hard to distinguish from the snowy foreground. School children chanted the final seconds of the countdown.

Searing, bright white light lanced out of the distant motor as the crowd yelled. Eight or nine seconds later their voices were replaced by the blast of sound from the booster. As the motor thundered on, a puff of smoke curled over the main jet of flame. The tail of the exhaust fire flickered and glowed red and orange. Gray and white smoke billowed, mingling with the clouds. After two minutes the flame diminished and black smoke spurted into the air as the flame was doused. Thousands were cheering.

[The static test. Photo by Joe Bauman]

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This was not the last solid rocket motor test at Promontory, according to ATK. It’s only the last of the shuttle engines to be ignited there. In September an Ares I rocket motor is to undergo a static firing there. Time Magazine has named the rocket, which was supposed to carry Americans to the moon and beyond, as the first of “The 50 best inventions of the year” 2009.

The Ares I first stage is designed to use five of the ATK motor segments; the Space Shuttle’s twin boosters each use four segments. In September 2009 an Ares I first stage was tested at Promontory. The following month a simulated Ares I, with a four-segment first stage augmented with a dummy segment plus a simulated second stage, was test-launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The static firing half a year from now will examine a new design for the Ares I first stage exhaust mechanism, according to one commentator on the Internet discussion forum NASASpaceFlight.com. Another explained further testing of a canceled program by saying it was to be paid for according to an existing federal contract.

A member of the forum who signed in as “CHAS,” wrote, “Sometimes it costs less to allow a contract to complete a milestone rather than pay termination costs. With all that talk about NASA eventually perusing heavy lift to go beyond LEO [low Earth orbit], these motors may retain some purpose.”

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[Part of the crowd shortly after the test. Photo by Joe Bauman]

During a press conference Thursday afternoon at Promontory, David Beaman, NASA manager of the Reusable Solid Rocket Booster project office, Huntsville, Ala., said that since July 1977, the motors underwent 52 tests. “It’s a little bittersweet coming toward the end of the program,” he added.

Steve Cash, a NASA deputy director for propulsion in the Space Shuttle program, said of the ATK-NASA alliance, “I have been blessed to be part of this great team for nearly 28 years now.”

Precourt said ATK is “extremely proud to be able to serve the nation and our longstanding NASA partners.” The motor delivers 3.2 million pounds of thrust, burns for two minutes, and the heat reached 5,000 degrees, he said. Of that day’s motor firing, he said, “The initial test data’s looking really good.”

Altogether, counting shuttle launches, the motors have fired 260 times, he said. The program is like a football game, he added. “We have come to the fourth quarter.” Members of the groups know each other on a first-name basis. “I’m not going to kid ya. … I’m sure going to miss this testing.”

“There’s nothing for me more exciting than a launch or a test. The smoke and fire’s what we live for,” said Beaman. “I think there’s some bittersweet aspects to standing there today.”

Many people have spent their entire professional careers working on the motors. Associates become like family members, Beaman said.

[Charlie Precourt. Photo by Joe Bauman]

Precourt said the American public has “a definite uniform desire that we go deeper and further into space than we’ve ever gone before.” The question today is how it will be done, he said, and many factors in ATK’s portfolio can help with future exploration.

The Obama administration is interested in private enterprise taking over the crewed space program. Precourt noted that ATK is a commercial company too and its rocket motor produces three times its own weight in thrust at an incredible power level.

“We all have to work together. The smaller companies turn to and need the help of larger companies.”
Precourt added, “We’re fully prepared and we see contributions for years to come.” ATK’s assets “will continue to be leveraged for multiple uses in the future.”

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