Skip to main content

Idaho Enterprise

Rocket Launch Test

Northrop Grumman tests a solid fuel rocket for NASA's Artemis program

Last week, the Northrop Grumman facility at Promontory Point/Corrinne, Utah conducted a static rocket test of its 5-stage solid fuel booster rocket for NASA’s ongoing Artemis missions.  Artemis is an ambitious unmanned spaceflight program that will take a research vessel through a longer exploratory mission and return to Earth than any yet attempted.  The test was designed to gather data on several essential performance parameters for the rocket, in front of a large crowd composed of the public, engineers, parts suppliers, university researchers, NASA employees, school groups, and the press.  The test, which was considered successful, lasted almost two minutes, during which time the fuel burned into the scarred mountainside used for previous static tests.

The testing area itself is located roughly a mile away from the viewing area, which is not far enough away that the heat and vibrations from the rocket burn itself are not palpable, even in the heat of a mid-July afternoon.  After a delay in the countdown due to the loss of a panel of cameras, the launch supervisor announced that the power supply was being checked in order to determine whether the launch could proceed.  Given the massive expense and logistical work involved in conducting and arranging the test, the anxiety of the moment leant additional suspense to the proceedings.  As the large crowd celebrated the occasional cloud that tried to make its way past the sun, the heat rose from the mid to high eighties as the launch time was pushed back.

The go-ahead was finally given as the clock moved closer to two o’clock, and the launch supervisor ran through the system checks needed before ignition.  At the zero moment, a blinding flash erupted from the base of the rocket, followed seconds later by the unique sound of rocket fuel in full engagement.  Due to the slower sound of speed, the sound waves take longer to reach observers than the luminescence, which creates an eerie moment of near silence.  The moment the sound reached the crowd, the bated breath turned to cheers.  As the fire burned brighter and the column of smoke rose higher, a visible portion of the crowd stepped backward to capture the image with phones, cameras, and video devices.  The perception of two minutes can certainly be variable.

“It didn’t seem like it lasted that long,” local visitor Hope Briggs said afterward.  “But I’ve seen these before.”  Malad, being only 50 or so minutes away from the launch site, often sends visitors, as well as employees, to Northrop Grumman.  While firm figures were not available, Northrop Grumman’s communications team noted that Oneida County was an important employee pool for the facility.

In operations as tightly engineered as space flight, making sure that the design is capable of safely and effectively performing its mission functions is essential.  Over the decades, NASA has of course encountered situations in which element failure led to catastrophic outcomes.  

The specific properties of the rocket undergoing testing were the performance of the new motor ignition system, fuel temperature behavior, new phenotic materials used in various elements of the construction, and the breakup performance of a high-density nozzle plug.  These items are being tested for eventual use in the Artemis 3 project, according to Mark Pond, Booster Manager for Northrop Grumman’s SLS program.  

Bruce Tiller, Element Manager for SLS Booster with NASA/Marshall Spaceflight said, “the best I can tell you is that it was a good test.  I heard chief engineers arguing about things that weren’t that important, so that’s a good sign!”  He further stated that “this is a piece toward NASA’s bigger goals.  All of this is hopefully leading us to getting back to the moon, maybe living there and mining there.  To me, this is a big event [as a part of] getting us to think about that bigger picture.”

The SLS FSB-2 rocket is composed of 5 segments, each weighing roughly 300,000 lbs., equivalent to a blue whale.  In total, the rocket weighs around 1.5 million pounds when fully fueled and stands (or lies in this case) 177 feet.  At launch, the rocket provides 3.6 million pounds of thrust.  Between the two rockets which will eventually take the Artemis mission into space, 75% of the thrust needed to escape the atmosphere will be provided by the Northrop’s rockets.  The test provided 393 channels of data to the test administrators, as well as 22 active cameras.  Researchers at Northrop Grumman will be retrieving components from the test and analyzing data to present to NASA by the beginning of this week.