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

WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency (ESA) is considering paying a multimillion-dollar repair bill for NASA’s B-2 Spacecraft Propulsion Research Facility in Sandusky, Ohio, so that the upper stage for the possible successor to Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket can be tested there.

The B-2 Spacecraft Propulsion Research Facility is part of Plum Brook Station, a campus about 80 kilometers west of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. ESA wants to use the facility to test the upper stage for its Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME) rocket, one of two options Europe is considering for its next satellite launcher. However, the B-2 building needs to have its steam ejection system fixed so it can simulate high-altitude conditions needed for the ESA test.

“We have to refurbish those,” Jim Free, deputy director for the NASA Glenn Research Center, said of the steam ejectors. “That’s where the majority of the upgrades, or the refurbishment of the facility comes in. It would be ESA paying for the upgrade, in addition to the test cost.”

Free would not provide a specific figure, but he said the overhaul would cost several million dollars. Plum Brook’s budget for 2012 is $11.2 million, and facility upkeep runs about $5 million a year, NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said.

Maintaining the upgrades paid for by ESA would not be a budgetary issue for NASA “because there is no anticipated customer beyond the ESA test,” Braukus said.

A draft Space Act Agreement containing some of the terms and conditions of ESA’s use of the Plum Brook facility “has been forwarded to ESA for review,” Braukus told Space News April 3. Final terms and conditions are still under negotiation, but NASA expects European space officials to make a decision about the test this fall. NASA has completed development cost estimates for the Plum Brook upgrades and is scheduled to conduct a formal review April 11, he added. Those results will be forwarded to ESA.

Pal Hvistendahl, an ESA spokesman in Paris, confirmed the agency is interested in using Plum Brook’s B-2 facility to test a fully integrated upper stage for the proposed Ariane 5-ME rocket, if the agency decides to go that route. But he also said that ESA’s “present baseline foresees development of a new test bench” at a liquid rocket engine test site operated by the German Aerospace Center, DLR, in Lampoldshausen, Germany.

“The testing at Plum Brook B-2 might come as a complement or as an alternative to this baseline,” Hvistendahl said.

ESA is mulling two options for its next workhorse launcher: the Ariane 5-ME, with a Vinci restartable upper stage engine and 20 percent more payload capacity; and Ariane 6, the name tentatively given to a next-generation rocket that would be designed to be commercially viable even if it launched one satellite at a time and garnered a smaller share of the commercial launch market than the current Ariane 5. Ariane 5 is designed to send two satellites to geostationary transfer orbit in a single launch. ESA officials are expected to pitch their preferred vehicle to representatives of the agency’s 19 member-nations in November.

NASA bills the B-2 facility as the largest propulsion test chamber of its kind. ESA has utilized the facility before; it tested the fairing separation sequence for Ariane 5 there in 1996. NASA last used it for propulsion testing in 1998, when it tested the upper stage of Boeing’s short-lived Delta 3 rocket.

According to NASA, a fully functioning B-2 Spacecraft Propulsion Research Facility could accommodate engines that produce up to 1.8 meganewtons of thrust for tests lasting as long as 14 minutes.

But without a functioning steam ejector system, the facility cannot be used for hot-fire tests.

However, it can still be utilized as a vacuum chamber. For example, Free said NASA has been testing balloon payloads in the B-2 building.

The Plum Brook facility — and ESA’s interest in using it — was brought into the spotlight last month during a U.S. Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee hearing on NASA’s 2013 budget request. During the March 28 hearing, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) pressed NASA Administrator Charles Bolden about perceived delays in approving ESA’s use of Plum Brook.

“The Europeans want to use Plum Brook, [and] I understand NASA headquarters seems to be holding this up,” Brown told Bolden. “Why wouldn’t we jump at this opportunity for the European Space Agency to want to use Plum Brook and its terrific facilities?”

Bolden pleaded ignorance.

“If in fact ESA is asking to test a vehicle at Plum Brook, I am not aware of what we’re doing to disallow that,” Bolden replied.

The NASA chief added that blocking a qualified customer from using NASA infrastructure “would be in opposition to my stated direction to everybody that we should find people to put in our facilities. I don’t care where they come from.”

Brown has been pressing NASA to put the ESA upper-stage test on a fast track since January, when he sent Bolden a letter about the European proposal.

Allison Preiss, a spokeswoman for Brown, said April 3 that NASA had not yet responded to the questions the senator asked Bolden at the hearing. However, she added “we expect to hear from the agency in a matter of weeks.”

Braukus said that NASA had replied to Brown’s earlier letter, telling the lawmaker that “we were in the process of defining the details of the agreement.”

The Ariane 5 is operated by Arianespace of France. The launcher is built by Astrium, a subsidiary of Europe’s EADS aerospace conglomerate.



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.