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Huntsville, Sierra Nevada Chasing the Dream of Space-based Business

Since the launch of the International Space Station some 20 years ago, the idea of space, especially low-Earth orbit, has been as one big start-up business.

With Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft jumping into the commercial resupply mission lane, the whole commercialization of space concept got very interesting for Huntsville.

If all goes as planned, the busy little Dream Chaser spacecraft will make its maiden landing at the Huntsville International Airport in 2023. It will be the first and only commercial airport licensed by the FAA for a spaceplane landing. The only other designated landing site will be Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“There is a whole new business going on up there and people who create NASA policy like the idea of the commercialization of space,” said Lee Jankowski, senior director of Business Development for Teledyne Brown Engineering in Huntsville. He is also the program manager for the $1 million project to obtain two special FAA licenses so the Dream Chaser spacecraft can land at Huntsville International Airport.

If this sounds far-fetched, that’s what Jankowski thought too, five years ago.

While known for the business of rocketry and propulsion. Huntsville also contributes to other areas of space exploration, such as payload science analysis, operations, and integration.

Sierra Nevada rendering shows Dream Chaser docked with International Space Station

Teledyne Brown Engineering  in Huntsville has handled all science payload operations for the Space Shuttle missions for nearly 20 years. The company has a Payload Operations Control Center at Marshall Space Flight Center and the contract was renewed to manage resupply efforts and payloads to the International Space Station.

“TBE and our subcontractors understand how to plan out the science while it’s onboard; how to train for it; how to execute it; and how to get it back down to Earth to maximize its scientific return,” said Jankowski. “With the shuttle program, Teledyne Brown planned one- or two-week missions that occurred three or four times a year.

“With the space station, we are up there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That’s a lot of science.”

Huntsville’s Story

Jankowski believes there is a compelling story to be told for why landing the Dream Chaser in Huntsville makes sense.

“There are two different mission sets or two different orbits for Huntsville to consider,” he said. “Let’s say we have a mission that goes up from Kennedy, resupplies the space station and, when it comes down, lands in Huntsville.”

This is not an implausible scenario, he said, because the Marshall Space Flight Center has a lot of hardware flying around up there that needs to be returned.

The second mission set would be going back to Spacelab-type payload missions. Many Huntsville entities such as Marshall and HudsonAlpha already have payloads. Why not plan a return mission that is more North Alabama-centric?

Sierra Nevada rendering shows projects being offloaded from Dream Chaser on the runway.

A standalone Huntsville payload mission landing here carrying specimens, hardware, or other science can be immediately offloaded from the space vehicle and delivered pronto to the scientists, universities, and companies in this area.

So Many Possibilities

Most of the early missions will be unmanned and flown autonomously but the Dream Chaser was originally designed for a crew of at least six. The interior has been modified to better accommodate supply runs to the space station, but Sierra Nevada is still focused on getting a U.S. astronaut back to the space station on a U.S. vehicle.

“A Dream Chaser landing capability here opens up so many possibilities,” Jankowski said. “Exposure to cutting-edge concepts and, let’s say we only get one landing. We are looking at job growth. We will need processing facilities and manpower to build, operate and integrate payloads.”

For the third straight year, the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce has sponsored a  European Space Agency competition, seeking applications for the Dream Chaser that would land in Huntsville.

“The Space Exploration Masters competition with the European Space Agency and our partner, Astrosat, a Scottish space services company, has given us a world stage for promoting our space, science and technology ecosystem,” said Lucia Cape, the Chamber’s senior vice president for economic development. “The competition has helped us raise the international profile of Huntsville not only as the home of the Saturn V and the space shuttle, but also as the space science operations center for the International Space Station and the ongoing rocket and propulsion capital for SLS and Blue Origin.”

Five years ago, Jankowski approached Madison County Commissioner Steve Haraway on how to acquire study money to determine if such a pursuit was feasible and if the airport could handle the unique spacecraft’s landing.

Haraway; County Commission Chairman Dale Strong; Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle; then-Madison Mayor Troy Trulock; Cape; and the Port of Huntsville leadership, all pulled together $200,000 in public funds to conduct a six-month feasibility study.

“The Chamber’s role in economic development includes working with local leaders and companies to position ourselves for optimal growth,” said Cape. “We’ve identified Huntsville’s space science and payload expertise as a key asset in the emerging space economy.

“Landing the Dream Chaser at Huntsville International Airport would create new opportunities for local companies as well as new capabilities for our research and development community.”

HSV Runway Testing

“In 2015, Huntsville International Airport did a landing site study (to determine) the feasibility and compatibility of landing future space vehicles (specifically the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser),” said Kevin Vandeberg, director of operations at Huntsville International Airport. 

The main issue was whether the skid plate on the front of Dream Chaser would seriously damage the asphalt runway. Dream Chaser lands on its back two wheels but does not have a front landing tire. Instead, the nose drops down on a skid plate to bring the vehicle to a halt. 

Using heavy equipment travelling at a high rate of speed, Morell Engineering tests showed a vehicle the size of Dream Chaser would be going so fast, it would do only minimal damage to the runway, never digging into the asphalt or rutting. Sierra Nevada shipped in a real skid plate for the test and it passed with flying colors.

They also conducted preliminary environmental assessments to measure the effects of the mild sonic boom the landing will trigger, and whether it will impact nearby explosive materials.

“In January 2016, the Airport Authority received the report on the findings of the study from Morell Engineering,” said Vandeberg. “It confirmed that little structural damage is expected to occur during the landing of Dream Chaser on the airport’s asphalt runway. Upon review of this report, Huntsville International Airport determined that we would move forward with the FAA license application process.”

The $1 Million Phase II Engineering Analysis

There are two applications required by the FAA to be considered a landing designation for Dream Chaser. Huntsville International must apply for a license to operate a re-entry site. Sierra Nevada must submit an application for a license for “Re-entry of a Re-entry Vehicle Other Than a Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV).”

“We are currently in the middle of a 2½-year engineering analysis in which we have subcontractors based at Kennedy Space Center doing most of the analyses,” said Jankowski. “Huntsville is taking a backseat to Kennedy because NASA is paying the Kennedy Space Center to do most of the required analyses. If you look at the launch schedule, Kennedy is one to two months ahead of Huntsville. Sierra Nevada gave us a heads-up to be patient and let Kennedy go first so a lot of the generic analysis needed is paid for, keeping our $1 million investment intact.”

The airport is scheduled to submit the first application to the FAA in December and the second application next January. However, the NASA buzz is that it will likely slip four or five months, and the Chamber has warned about recent proposed changes to space launch and landing permits at the federal level that could impact plans.

Altogether, it puts them a year away from final submission.

Community Engagement & Legislative Support

“We have engaged some amazing people like Congressman Mo Brooks, Senators Richard Shelby and Doug Jones, and Gov. Kay Ivey,” said Jankowski. “NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine; past-NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden; William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations for NASA; and Kirk Shireman, manager of the ISS Program, are all familiar with Huntsville’s FAA status.”

“The Chamber has been actively marketing Huntsville as a landing site through local partner workshops, presentations to local industry groups and the Alabama Space Authority,” said Cape. “We also have the sponsorship of an international competition seeking ideas for using the Dream Chaser to further space exploration and economic development.

The United Nations Factor

There is an even bigger business storyline in the making – Sierra Nevada is in negotiations with the United Nations.

A couple of years ago, the company sent out a Call For Interest among U.N. members, asking if they have any potential payloads or science to fly on a two-week Dream Chaser mission.

Expecting 40 or 50 responses, Sierra Nevada received close to 175. The United Nations is working with Sierra Nevada to potentially launch missions that help Third World nations.

And Jankowski said everything is on schedule so far.

“From the day Huntsville International Airport submits the application, the FAA reserves up to 180 days to approve the license,” he said. “Once they get their license, there will be 1½-year lead-time before NASA says, ‘Huntsville has both of their FAA licenses in hand. They want a mission.’

“After that, the soonest we could get on the manifest is, I think, about 20 months, so we are probably still looking at being about 3½ years out.”

But, as everyone knows, in the realm of the business of space, that day will be here before we know it.

Former NASA Acting Administrator, MSFC Director Robert Lightfoot Joins Lockheed Martin

Robert Lightfoot, a longtime NASA executive who served as both the agency’s acting administrator and highest-ranking civil servant, will join Lockheed Martin Space as vice president, Strategy and Business Development, effective May 6.

Robert Lightfoot

In his new role, Lightfoot will lead strategic planning, advanced technology concepts, and new business strategy for the corporation’s Space business area.

The business area programs include GPS, missile warning and communications satellites for the Department of Defense; human and robotic exploration systems for NASA; weather and commercial communications satellites, and strategic missile and missile defense systems.

Lightfoot retired from NASA in April 2018 and has served as president of LSINC in Huntsville for the past year.

“Robert is a universally-respected leader with an exceptional understanding of space technology, operations and strategy,” said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space. “Robert’s insights and expertise will be crucial to the continued transformation of our space portfolio as we embrace new technologies and new business models.

“He will shape and drive a strategy that will help us deliver the breakthrough innovations and capabilities our customers need as we enter a new space age.”

During his career at NASA, Lightfoot served in several critical leadership roles to support space operations, exploration and science missions including director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and director of Propulsion Test at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

He also focused on strategies for key missions including the shuttle’s return to flight following the Columbia tragedy, then initial transition and retirement efforts for shuttle infrastructure.

Lightfoot retired from NASA in April 2018 and has served as president of LSINC Corporation in Huntsville

NASA, Blue Origin Agreement Signals Rocketing Growth of Commercial Space

Officials from NASA and Blue Origin have signed an agreement that grants the company use of a historic test stand as the agency focuses on returning to the Moon and on to Mars, and America’s commercial space industry continues to grow, according to a statement Wednesday from the space agency.

Under a Commercial Space Launch Act agreement, Blue Origin will upgrade and refurbish Test Stand 4670 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville to test its BE-3U and BE-4 rocket engines. The BE-4 engine was selected to power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle – both being developed to serve the expanding civil, commercial and national security space markets.

“This test stand once helped power NASA’s first launches to the Moon, which eventually led to the emergence of an entirely new economic sector – commercial space,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard. “Now, it will have a role in our ongoing commitment to facilitate growth in this sector.” 

Constructed in 1965, Test Stand 4670 served as the backbone for Saturn V propulsion testing for the Apollo program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was modified to support testing of the space shuttle external tank and main engine systems. The facility has been inactive since 1998. 

“We’re excited to welcome Blue Origin to our growing universe of commercial partners,” said Marshall Center Director Jody Singer. “This agreement ensures the test stand will be used for the purpose it was built.”

NASA identified the 300-foot-tall, vertical firing test stand at Marshall as an underutilized facility and posted a notice of availability in 2017 to gauge commercial interest in its use. Blue Origin responded and a team was commissioned to begin exploring the proposed partnership. 

“I am thrilled about this partnership with NASA to acceptance test both BE-4 and BE-3U engines at Test Stand 4670, the historic site for testing the Saturn V first stage and the space shuttle main engines,” said Bob Smith, chief executive officer of Blue Origin. “Through this agreement, we’ll provide for the refurbishment, restoration and modernization of this piece of American history – and bring the sounds of rocket engines firing back to Huntsville.”

Under the agreement, Blue Origin will pay for the investments it makes to prepare the test stand for use, as well as any direct costs NASA incurs as a result of Blue Origin use of the stand, maximizing the value derived from taxpayer investment in government facilities.

Blue Origin will manufacture the engines at its new facility under construction in Cummings Research Park.

Auburn Receives $5.2M NASA Contract to Improve Liquid Rocket Engine Performance

AUBURN — NASA has awarded a $5.2 million contract to Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering National Center for Additive Manufacturing Excellence, it was announced Monday.

The three-year contract is to develop additive manufacturing processes and techniques for improving the performance of liquid rocket engines. The contract is the latest expansion of a longstanding public-private partnership between Auburn and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

“For decades, Auburn engineers have been instrumental in helping the U.S. achieve its space exploration goals,” said Christopher B. Roberts, dean of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. “This new collaboration between NASA and our additive manufacturing researchers will play a major role in developing advanced rocket engines that will drive long-duration spaceflight, helping our nation achieve its bold vision for the future of space exploration.”

The research and development covered under the new contract is part of NASA’s Rapid Analysis and Manufacturing Propulsion Technology (RAMPT) project, which focuses on evolving lightweight, large-scale novel and additive manufacturing techniques for the development and manufacturing of regeneratively cooled thrust chamber assemblies for liquid rocket engines.

“This partnership with Auburn University and industry will help develop improvements for liquid rocket engines, as well as contribute to commercial opportunities,” said Paul McConnaughey, deputy director of Marshall Space Flight Center. “The technologies developed by this team will be made available widely to the private sector, offering more companies the opportunity to use these advanced manufacturing techniques.”

NCAME will support the RAMPT project in creating a domestic supply chain and developing specialized manufacturing technology vendors to be utilized by all government agencies, academic institutions and commercial space companies.

Auburn and NASA established NCAME in 2017 to improve the performance of parts that are created using additive manufacturing, share research results with industry and government collaborators and respond to workforce development needs in the additive manufacturing industry. The center is also one of the founding partners of the newly established ASTM International Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence at Auburn.

Leading Auburn’s team as principal investigator for the RAMPT project is Nima Shamsaei, NCAME director. Serving as project manager is Mike Ogles, director of NASA programs in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.

“This contract is a giant leap towards making Alabama the ‘go to state’ for additive manufacturing,” Ogles said. “We look forward to growing our partnership with NASA, industry and academia as we support the development of our nation’s next rocket engines.”

History and Future Merge with Blue Origin Engine Plant in the Rocket City

Looking back on history with an eye to the future, elected officials joined the CEOs of Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance in a ground-breaking ceremony Friday for a $200 million rocket engine manufacturing facility in Huntsville.

“We’re here to celebrate history with a vision to the future,” said Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield at the event. Canfield was joined on the speakers’ platform by Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin; Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance; Gov. Kay Ivey; U.S. Sen. Doug Jones; U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks; Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong.

The plant, when its doors open in 2020, is a milestone achievement in helping the United States return to space by building America’s next rocket engine.

“It’s a great day here in the Rocket City,” said Smith. “Thanks to the votes of confidence from United Launch Alliance, from the Air Force for national security missions, and from Huntsville and the state of Alabama, we are breaking ground on a facility to produce our world-class engines and power the next generation of spaceflight.”

Blue Origin was selected by ULA last September of last year to supply its next generation Blue Engine 4, or BE-4, for the first stage of ULA’s Vulcan Centaur Rocket

“It is a true marvel of engineering,” Smith said. “We will be able to end our dependence on Russian engines,” Smith said.

Calling it a “day of destiny,” Brooks said Blue Origin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was inspired to build rockets when he saw the movie “October Sky” in 1999. The movie was based on the book “Rocket Boys” by Huntsville resident Homer Hickam. “Blue Origin is coming to the home of the man who inspired him.”

Smith also linked Huntsville’s history of building the giant engines that took Americans to the moon to building the BE-4 engines.

“We’re in final negotiations with the Marshall Space Flight Center to test the BE-4 on Test Stand 4670, the historic site of engine tests for the Saturn V and the space shuttle,” he said.

A pair of BE-4 engines will lift the new Vulcan rockets, which are made at ULA’s plant in Decatur.

“Our rockets are going to take Americans on American soil into space,” said Bruno. “And it’s about damn time!”

Blue Origin has a launch services agreement partnership with the Air Force to use its commercial, heavy-lift New Glenn launch vehicle for national security space missions. New Glenn will be powered by seven BE-4 engines.

“This gives us a chance to design, make and test a rocket engine,” said Battle. “We will produce the greatest rocket engine in the world right here in Huntsville.”

Blue Origin’s engine production facility is the latest addition to Cummings Research Park, which is the second largest research park in the United States and fourth largest in the world.

“We are thrilled to officially welcome Blue Origin to Cummings Research Park,” said Erin Koshut, the park’s executive director. “As we like to say, the research and development happening here is driven by science and powered by people.”

The plant, which is expected to employ 300 people, is on a 46-acre site at the corner of Explorer Boulevard and Pegasus Drive.

Citing this area’s importance in U.S. space history, Strong said it’s no coincidence Blue Origin chose Huntsville.

“We have got the right people in the right place at the right time,” he said. “Welcome to the ‘Propulsion Capital of the World.’”

Huntsville’s Connection to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe

Now that the historic Parker Solar Probe is charging toward the Earth’s sun, scientists are ready to use it to answer decades old mysteries about its core, surface and atmosphere.

“This mission has been the dream of scientists since the beginning of the space age,” says Dr. Gary Zank, director, Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “To see it finally happening is intensely satisfying. Like all great missions, however, we will learn more than ever imagined and yet will be left wanting to know even more.”

Since the probe launched Aug. 12, the spacecraft and its instruments are going through commissioning to ensure that everything works as designed and planned, Zank says.

“This takes some time,” he said. “There will be a period that data is returned for a first analysis. But once everything is working, and the data begins to flow, that’s when the real mission begins — this is the discovery phase where the probe will begin to spend significant lengths of time in a part of the solar wind, this will occur even before the closest approach to the sun.”

Zank said scientists are “hoping” to see the probe’s first data possibly by the end of October or early November.

“From then on until the end of the mission, there will be a stream of papers describing, discussing, analyzing, relating to theories and models, everything that will be observed,” Zank said. “In fact, we will not have enough people working on this data set to unearth all the gems waiting to be discovered.

“This data will be used during the mission and for decades after, especially because this is a once-in-a-lifetime mission.”

UAH role

Zank, also an eminent scholar and distinguished professor at UAH, is co-investigator on one of the spacecraft’s investigations: The Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons investigation.

That’s where CSPAR comes into play.

CSPAR and Marshall Space Flight Center formed a consortium with Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Los Alamos National Lab, University of California Space Sciences Laboratory, University of New Hampshire, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build the SWEAP instruments.

SWEAP instruments will directly measure the properties of the plasma in the solar atmosphere during the probe’s encounters into the sun’s atmosphere over the next seven years. In includes a small instrument that will look around the protective heat shield of the spacecraft directly at the sun. This will allow SWEAP to sweep up a sample of the atmosphere and touch the sun for the first time.

“As fascinating and enjoyable as it is to develop theories and models, unless they’re tested and hopefully validated against observations, it’s about as useful as staring at one’s navel,” Zank said. “So, spacecraft observations are key to ensuring that we can develop testable, quantitative models and theories of the physical phenomena or processes that interest us.”

He said the origin of the solar wind, the high-speed (350 to 800 km/s) flow of charged particles from the solar surface, remains perhaps the outstanding unexplained problem in space physics today. The PSP was built in large part to answer that fundamental question, and basically clear up the mystery that has faced scientists since the start of the space age.

“The Parker Solar Probe is a billion dollar mission so certainly one of the largest heliophysics missions ever flown, and by extension, one of the biggest and most important projects in which CSPAR is involved,” Zank said.

In addition to SWEAP, the other investigations include:

  • The Fields Experiment will measure electric and magnetic fields, radio emissions and shock waves in the sun’s atmospheric plasma.
  • The Integrated Science Investigation of the sun uses two instruments to monitor electrons, protons and ions in the sun’s atmosphere.
  • The Wide-field Imager is a telescope that will make images of the sun’s corona to see the solar wind, clouds and shock waves as they pass by the spacecraft.

Proving a theory?

Then there is Zank’s theories related to how the sun can be hot at its core yet stay relatively cool at its surface, while at the same time super-heating its coronal atmosphere?

“I have developed two theoretical models to explain the heating of the solar corona, which in turn will explain the origin of the solar wind,” Zank said.

Both models, he said, are based on the dissipation of low frequency magnetic turbulence, and the differences reside in certain somewhat technical characterizations of the underlying turbulence.

“Broadly speaking, they’re both turbulence models,” Zank said. “The competing model for heating the solar wind relies on high frequency waves called ion-cyclotron waves, and the damping of these waves is thought to heat the solar corona. PSP will measure directly the coronal plasma using the SWEAP instrument that I’m involved with and the magnetic fluctuations using the Fields instrument.

“The combined results from these two instruments will allow us to infer the nature of the fluctuations and so distinguish between low-frequency turbulence-like and high-frequency wave-like modes. The amount of energy in these fluctuations can be measured as well. From these kinds of measurements, we will be able, if life remains simple and straightforward (not always guaranteed!), we should be able to take the first steps in confirming what the basic heating mechanism is for the solar corona and hence the origin of the solar wind.”

 

 

Miley named associate director of Marshall Space Flight Center

Steve Miley has been named associate director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

“With three decades of government acquisition and management experience, Steve is well prepared for his new position on the center’s senior leadership team,” said Marshall Center Director Todd May. “The leadership skills he has displayed while working with NASA Headquarters, other NASA field centers, the U.S. Air Force, government agencies and partners has been, and will continue to be, invaluable to Marshall and the nation’s space exploration efforts.”

Stephen Miley

As associate director, Miley will manage and lead development of business operations, guide daily business decisions and oversee Marshall’s operational policy and processes. In addition, he will serve as a senior adviser in advancing the direction of the center’s future.

The Dayton, Ohio, native most recently served as director of Marshall’s Office of Procurement. Named to the position in December 2015, he managed the organization responsible for all aspects of the contracting and procurement processes at Marshall, NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and associated contractor facilities.

Marshall, one of NASA’s largest field installations, has almost 6,000 civil service and contract personnel, an annual budget of approximately $2.5 billion, 4.5 million square feet of infrastructure and a broad spectrum of human spaceflight, science and technology development.

A 21-year Air Force reserve officer, Miley received his commission through the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2008.

He and his wife Dana live in Huntsville.