NASA Social at Glenn Research Center

On March 11, I went to Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, to take part in NASA’s “Moon to Mars” announcement event.


A little about the Glenn Research Center

Cleveland isn’t the first place one might expect to find a world-class NASA research center. But, Glenn (and the nearby Plum Brook Station, considered part of the center) are home to many world firsts, biggests, and bests, including:

  • The Space Power Facility, which at 122 ft (37 m) tall and 100 ft (30 m) in diameter is the world’s largest thermal vacuum chamber (it began its structural life as a nuclear containment dome!)
  • Zero Gravity Research Facility: an 432-ft (132 m) tall vacuum chamber (in a ~500-ft underground shaft), which provides up to 5.18 seconds of microgravity for experiments, by dropping them from the top. It’s the largest of its kind in the world.
  • Loads of wind tunnels for all sorts of experiments, from the 9×15 Low-Speed Wind Tunnel (the most utilized low-speed propulsion acoustic facility in the world), to the Hypersonic Tunnel Facility, which involves such high energies that it must be remotely operated for safety.
  • In the Stirling Research Lab, the longest running heat engine, at 110,000 hours and counting (actually more than that, since that number is from July 2018 — over 13 years).

Glenn continues to provide these facilities and many others to researchers and corporations. Most space vehicles make a test trip through Glenn’s facilities; for example, SpaceX’s recently demonstrated Crew Dragon capsule went through a few tests there. On my trip, however, I toured some of the facilities that are specifically relevant to NASA’s “Moon to Mars” initiative.


First, we visited the Simulated Lunar Operations (SLOPE) Laboratory, where NASA scientists test rover tires and other equipment related to locomotion and operation on the lunar surface. This facility is critical to proving technologies such as shape memory alloy-based tires (based on materials like Nitinol), which promise stronger, more resilient solutions to rolling around on the moon and Mars.


How often do you get to see tire racks full of space wheels?


Electric Propulsion Laboratory (EPL)

Here, electric propulsion (like gridded ion thrusters and Hall thrusters) are researched and tested in vacuum chambers (from tiny to huge) that simulate the conditions of space. This capability is key to developing NASA’s Gateway in lunar orbit, which they plan to propel and maneuver using the most powerful Hall thrusters ever developed.


Vacuum Facility 6, the largest of the vacuum chambers at the EPL

Stirling Research Laboratory (SRL)

Last, we went to the Stirling Research Lab to see their work in thermal energy conversion, or converting heat to electricity.

One method under heavy research is the use of Stirling engines. They have the longest running heat engine in this lab, at over 110,000 hours. That’s with no maintenance or replacement of parts! So it’s clear that heat engines with moving parts can withstand long periods of use — and that’s critical in space applications, since trips to and from target bodies can take months or years.


Sal Oriti showing off the longest-running heat engine in the world

Another important part of the Stirling Lab’s mission is research and development of nuclear power for space. One of the more promising developments is being called Kilopower: essentially, it is portable nuclear fission power. It transmits heat from a controlled uranium core via sodium-filled heat pipes to several Stirling heat engines, which generate electricity. It can operate in a gravity field with the simple heat pipes, or can theoretically be fitted with “wicking” heat pipes that can operate in microgravity.


Explaining the Kilopower design


My takeaways:

  • NASA are moving their innovation and operations out of low earth orbit (now that it’s well on its way to being commercialized) to the moon and nearby space. They want to apply their research and development to technologies that can be used on a trip to Mars, but prove them closer to home.
  • Glenn Research Center will play a role in many key technologies to accomplish the mission, including electric propulsion, energy solutions, and surface operations like in-situ resource utilization (ISRU).

Proving technologies closer to home that we will need for an eventual human mission to Mars sounds like a good idea to me. The SpaceX plans really only provide transportation — so somebody has to do the research. And, I’m glad to hear that NASA is setting its sights higher, and for once has some good funding (requested, at least)!

But, the Gateway concept is sort of confusing to me. They say it would be a reusable, permanent “command and service module” in lunar orbit, and missions to the moon could use it as a base. If the majority of the science and work will be on the lunar surface, why do we need the Gateway? Direct lunar missions take longer, sure — the trip from Earth is around three days, versus maybe a few minutes for a descent from lunar orbit. But, the launch window to return to Earth from the moon is always open: Earth is always in the same place in the sky. If the Gateway is orbiting the moon, doesn’t that mean the launch window to get to it from the moon’s surface will be instantaneous and relatively rare?

SpaceX’s first West Coast booster landing on land

Last night, SpaceX’s SAOCOM 1A mission from Vandenberg AFB in California went off without a hitch. For all appearances, it was a routine satellite launch to a low polar orbit. The timing, just after sunset, made for some beautiful sights (or terrifying sights, depending on the viewer). The spacecraft and their exhaust gases were high enough to be illuminated by the sun, which was well over the horizon by launch time.

What caught my attention, however, was the return-to-launch-site (RTLS) booster landing. All previous RTLS landings have been on the US east coast, at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral AFS LZ-1 landing pad, which is far removed from the launch pads SLC-40 and LC-39A at 9 km (5.6 mi) and 14.8 km (9.2 mi), respectively. The LZ-4 landing pad on the west coast, however, is relatively close to the launch pad, at only about 425 meters (1400 ft or about a quarter of a mile). SpaceX captured the difference beautifully in the photo below.



SpaceX’s SAOCOM 1A mission launches from SLC-4E, delivers a payload to orbit, and lands 425 meters to the west at LZ-4 (photo by SpaceX)

Launch photographer John Kraus (one of my personal favorites) captured a similarly dramatic photo from a different perspective, using a sound-activated camera:



SAOCOM 1A launch and landing, about 8 minutes and 1400 ft apart (photo by John Kraus)


The ability to land boosters back at the launch site is critical to quick turnaround and low-cost reusability of Falcon 9. Landing at sea requires waiting on the landing ship to return to port, loading onto a truck, and transport back to the launch site. SpaceX are working on the ability to reuse the same first stage booster within 24 hours of a launch.

You can see more great shots from last night’s mission, and many more on SpaceX’s Flickr account and John Kraus’ website. Congratulations to SpaceX on the christening of their new landing pad, and nice work to the photographer(s)!


Final launch of historic Delta II rocket this weekend

This weekend will see the final flight of the Delta II rocket, launching NASA’s ICESat-2 (Saturday, Sept. 15 at 05:46 Pacific/12:46 UTC) from Vandenberg AFB in California. You can watch this launch on ULA’s website.

To date, the Delta II has successfully launched 153 missions, with 1 spectacular failure (a GPS mission), and 1 partial failure. Over its lifetime, it has been a major workhorse in the US unmanned space program, as well as commercial space. Among other payloads, the Delta II rocket has launched:

Delta II was also involved in the story of Lottie Williams, the only person on record to have ever been hit by orbital space debris. In 1997, Lottie was walking in a park in Tulsa, Oklahoma when a twisted, charred, light piece of metal fell out of the sky, “tapped” her on the shoulder and fell to the ground. She was uninjured. Later analysis revealed the debris to be from the second stage of the Midcourse Space Experiment, a mission launched by (ironically?) the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization on a Delta II rocket.

ICESat-2 will be using the last complete Delta II rocket in the United Launch Alliance (ULA)’s inventory. Missions capable of being launched by the Delta II recently have been launched using other, more modern rocket types. ULA CEO Tory Bruno suggested that “most” of the parts to build a Delta II remain in inventory, raising the possibility of a museum display.

The retirement of the Delta II marks the end of the career of a record-setting workhorse. If successful, ICESat-2 will be the 100th consecutive mission success for Delta II. It has been an important force in US space exploration and commercial success. However, today, more modern and efficient rockets are taking over the stage. With more nations and companies with orbital capabilities than ever before, and innovators pushing the envelope of what is possible and driving down costs, a new global space era beckons.