NASA IG Scrutinizes Seldom-used Plum Brook Test Facilities


WASHINGTON — All but one of the five big test facilities at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, have few or no customers, and the situation is unlikely to change any time soon, according to an April 23 report from NASA’s inspector general (IG).

A “majority of the test facilities are underutilized, with the level of use and funding for these facilities depending on NASA programs and external customers choosing to perform testing at Plum Brook rather than at other NASA or private facilities,” the IG wrote in the 28-page report, “Audit of NASA’s Requirements for Plum Brook Station.”

Some of the facilities, most of which date back to the 1960s, are so rundown they require millions of dollars in repairs — costs that must be borne by prospective customers who show no sign of materializing, the IG wrote.

The inspector general recommended NASA create a long-term strategy for either maintaining or disposing of underutilized infrastructure at Plum Brook. NASA agreed, and, in a letter appended to the audit report, said it would present the strategy in a report to Krista Paquin, associate administrator for mission support, in September.

Plum Brook is part of the Glenn Research Center, located some 80 kilometers east in Cleveland.

Plum Brook B-2 test
The NASA Plum Brook facility’s B-2 test chamber — shown in 1998 being used for propulsion testing of a Delta 3 upper stage. Credit: NASA photo

Of special concern to the IG is Plum Brook’s B-2 Spacecraft Propulsion Research Facility, a cavernous vacuum chamber built in 1964 and used to test-fire rocket engines in space-like conditions. Last used in 1998 to test the upper stage of Boeing’s ill-fated Delta 3 launch vehicle, B-2’s steam ejection system — which has been broken for years — needs $15 million worth of repairs before the chamber can properly simulate high-altitude conditions required for engine tests, according to the IG.

The problem is that nobody has yet committed to testing an engine at B-2. The leading candidate at this point, the IG wrote, is NASA’s Space Launch System. NASA has budgeted two SLS launches, one in 2018 and one in 2021, and will rely on a modified Delta 4 cryogenic upper stage for both missions.

But if the SLS program wants to use B-2 to test that upper stage, it “would be expected to cover the estimated $15 million in basic refurbishment costs as well as SLS Program-specific test costs, which could likely be significant,” the IG wrote.

If the SLS program does not test the upper stage at Plum Brook, it could use the A-3 test stand at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, which was completed in late 2014, despite the cancellation four years earlier of the Constellation program for which it was designed. A-3 was to be the high-altitude test site for the mothballed J-2X upper-stage engine, designed to power the Ares 5 cargo launcher canceled along with Constellation.

In another blow for B-2, the European Space Agency apparently will not use the facility to test the upper-stage engine for the successor to its Ariane 5 rocket. ESA now “is planning to build a test stand in Europe to accommodate such tests,” the IG wrote. Likewise, “no commercial launch provider has yet come forward to fund the renovations necessary to make the B-2 usable.”

There are, however, a few nonrocket B-2 bookings lined up for 2015. NASA’s astrophysics department plans to test high-altitude balloons in the chamber, and the U.S. Army plans to test components for unmanned aerial vehicles there, according to the IG. Astrophysics and the army will not need the chamber’s rocket-testing capabilities, so the two groups are out as possible bill payers for B-2’s broken steam-ejection system.

Meanwhile, prospects are even worse for three of Plum Brook’s other major testing facilities. Two of these — a wind tunnel called the Hypersonic Test Facility, and the Cryogenic Components Laboratory, which is now slated for demolition — have not been used in four years, the IG wrote.

In even worse shape is Plum Brook’s Combined Effects Chamber, which was designed for large-scale experiments with liquid hydrogen, but never used. Moreover, even if someone wanted to use the chamber, it “is unusable in its current condition,” according to the IG.

Only Plum Brook’s Space Power Facility, a cavernous vacuum chamber for testing full-scale space hardware, has a steady stream of customers lined up, according to the inspector general.

SpaceX Space Power Facility
SpaceX testing hardware at NASA’s Space Power Facility at Plum Brook Station in 2013. Credit: SpaceX

“As of January 2015, NASA, the Department of Defense, and commercial launch providers are using or have plans to use the [Space Power Facility] through at least 2020 to test space-related hardware, including for NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle,” the IG wrote.

The Space Power Facility has a recent history of attracting commercial customers, too. In 2013, SpaceX tested the 5.2-meter fairing for its Falcon 9 rocket there. The fairing is an essential piece of hardware for the Hawthorne, California, company’s commercial satellite launches.

Since 2012, Plum Brook Station has received about $31 million in annual funding from NASA, most of which comes from the agency’s Construction and Environmental Compliance account — the budget line reserved for building, maintaining and demolishing infrastructure.

On the demolition front, although Plum Brook has torn down 18 buildings and structures since 2012 — reducing the annual maintenance costs in the process — there is still a backlog of repairs Glenn has put off at the Sandusky campus because it does not have the roughly $55 million it would cost to undertake them, according to the IG.