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For Release: October 14, 1998
|NASA's 40th Anniversary: A Look at Space Propulsion of the Past, Present and Future|
When NASA was formed in 1958, the space agency quickly found itself building on the early rocket and propulsion work of luminaries such as Robert Goddard and Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket scientists.
Just more than a decade later, after an incredible burst in technology development and scientific achievement, Marshall-developed Saturn rockets boosted humans to the Moon. NASA and industry had, in a few short years, jumped from rudimentary engine designs to the development of the massive F-1 engine. The initial stage of the huge Saturn rocket was powered by five liquid-fueled F-1s, each producing 1.5 million pounds of thrust.
At the time of the first Saturn V launch, von Braun, then director of Marshall Center, said, "No single event since the formation of the Marshall Center in 1960 equals today's launch in significance. For MSFC employees - this is their finest hour."
Similar sentiments were expressed in the 1970s, when Marshall had a key role in the development of the Space Shuttle and its propulsion systems. The Center continues to manage the Space Shuttle's propulsion elements, including the enormous solid rocket boosters and the super lightweight external tank.
The Space Shuttle Main Engine is considered by many to be the world's most sophisticated reusable rocket engine. The three liquid-fueled main engines produce nearly one million pounds of thrust. The energy released by the three main engines at full power is the equivalent of 23 Hoover Dams.
Today, Marshall engineers are turning to cutting-edge technologies such as high-temperature ceramics and lightweight yet strong composites to design simpler, more innovative propulsion systems that will help NASA dramatically lower the costs associated with getting into space, and traveling in space.
Marshall engineers, for example, are designing what may be one of the world's simplest turbopump rocket engines. Only the second space launch engine developed in the United States in the last 25 years, the Fastrac engine has significantly fewer parts than previous engines.
The easy-to-build engine will initially cost approximately $1.2 million to produce -- about one-fifth of the cost of similar engines. The Fastrac provides 60,000 pounds of thrust to boost payloads weighing up to 500 pounds.
The first vehicle scheduled to be powered by the Fastrac engine is the X-34, a technology testbed to demonstrate key vehicle and operational technologies applicable to future low-cost reusable launch vehicles, or "space planes."
Another engine currently under development and component testing is the revolutionary linear aerospike engine, which will power NASA's X-33 Advanced Technology Demonstrator when it begins flight tests next year.
The X-33 is a half-scale technology demonstrator prototype of a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) Lockheed Martin has named "VentureStar®." Through ground research and demonstration flights scheduled to begin next year, the X-33 will prove the technologies needed for industry to proceed to the development of a full-scale RLV.
The linear aerospike features unique properties that include the ability to automatically compensate for altitude as the launch vehicle climbs, and also to steer the vehicle by varying the flow of fuel from top to bottom and side to side. The engines are powered by J-2S-heritage turbopumps from the Saturn rocket.
Also, by burning a mix of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, the byproduct of the X-33's engines will be super-hot steam, making the engines much more environmentally friendly than some traditional designs.
With the X-33 and X-34 technology demonstrators, NASA is demonstrating technologies required to reduce the expense of getting to space from today's costs of $10,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound.
At the same time, NASA's Advanced Space Transportation Program at the Marshall Center is building the highway to space by developing technologies focused on the next level -- reducing the cost of getting to space to only hundreds of dollars per pound.
"I think that 40 years from now traveling around in near-Earth orbit and to nearby planets will be a lot like air travel is today," said Garry Lyles, manager of the Advanced Space Transportation Program. "People will not think it's very unusual to hop on a spaceliner and go to a job on Mars or maybe even a month-long asteroid-mining mission."
Lyles expects a lot of people will be working and playing in space in 40 years. Human journeys to the outer planets and robotic probes to other star systems are also part of his vision for the 2040 timeframe.
"Propulsion systems for deep space missions of the future probably haven't even been thought of yet," said Lyles, "or if somebody's thought of them, they may be considered science fiction now."
Lyles says space transportation needs a technology breakthrough akin to the silicon chip that revolutionized the computer industry and made desktop computers commonplace. A technology breakthrough in propulsion coupled with a business venture that lures people to space will be the key to space development and travel to other star systems, he said.
"Breakthroughs don't just happen. Usually, a lot of work has preceded any breakthrough," said Lyles. "That's why the Advanced Space Transportation Program is doing technology work - even though we don't know what the right answer is.
"As long as we have a network of smart people working toward advancing propulsion for space transportation, I believe we'll have a breakthrough - and we'll accelerate the breakthrough through NASA's technology development."
NASA is studying a wide variety of propulsion technologies that could transform the vision to reality during the next 40 years of America's space program. Technologies currently being developed by the Marshall Center include air-breathing rocket engines, laser propulsion, magnetic levitation and antimatter.
Note to Editors: Interviews, photos and video supporting this release are available to media representatives by contacting June Malone, Media Relations Office, Marshall Space Flight Center, (256) 544-0034. For an electronic version of this release, digital images or more information, visit Marshall's Virtual NewsRoom: /centers/msfc/NEWSROOM/
For more information on Marshall's Space Transportation Programs Office , visit its Web site: http://stp.msfc.nasa.gov