HOUSTON — For the first time in more than three and a half years, a Space Shuttle Main Engine roared to life Jan. 9 in support of NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket.
The engine, renamed the RS-25D, fired for 500 seconds atop the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The space shuttle flew its last mission in July 2011.

Four RS-25 engines are planned to power the first stage of NASA’s Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket designed to launch astronauts on deep-space missions. The first uncrewed SLS test flight is targeted for 2018.

“The RS-25 is the most efficient engine of its type in the world,” said Steve Wofford, manager of the SLS liquid engines office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the SLS program is managed. “It’s got a remarkable history of success and great experience base that make it a great choice for NASA’s next era of exploration.”

Three RS-25 engines were mounted to the rear of each shuttle orbiter to power the vehicle through its ascent and initial entry into orbit. On the shuttle, each of the engines routinely operated at 491,000 pounds of thrust. On SLS, they will need to each operate at 512,000 pounds of thrust — at least on the first four flights — and handle colder liquid oxygen propellant and engine compartment temperatures.

Space Launch System. Credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center
Space Launch System. Credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

“We have made modifications to the RS-25 to meet SLS specifications and will analyze and test a variety of conditions during the hot-fire series,” Wofford said.

In addition to increased thrust and temperatures, the RS-25 engines used on the SLS will encounter greater inlet pressure due to the taller core-stage liquid oxygen tank and higher vehicle acceleration, as well as more nozzle heating due to the engine configuration and their position in-plane with the SLS booster exhaust nozzles, Wofford said.

The Jan. 9 test fire collected data on the engine’s controller unit and inlet pressure conditions.

The engine controller unit, the “brain” of the engine, relays commands to the engine and transmits data back to the launch vehicle. The controller also manages the engine by regulating the thrust and fuel mixture ratio while monitoring the engine’s health and status.

The RS-25’s new controller will use updated hardware and software configured to operate with the new SLS avionics architecture.

“This first hot-fire test of the RS-25 engine represents a significant effort on behalf of Stennis Space Center’s A-1 test team,” Ronald Rigney, RS-25 project manager at Stennis, said in a statement. “Our technicians and engineers have been working diligently to design, modify and activate an extremely complex and capable facility in support of RS-25 engine testing.”

Testing will resume in April after upgrades are completed on the test stand’s high-pressure industrial water system, which provides cool water for the test facility during a hot-fire test.

The recently fired engine, one of two development engines at Stennis that never flew on a shuttle mission, will be used for seven more tests before being replaced by the other engine. The second series of test firings — 10 are planned — will include the first tests of the new engine controller unit.
Fifteen flown RS-25D engines remained at the end of the shuttle program. Unlike on the shuttle, which returned the engines after each mission for reuse, the RS-25 engines will be discarded with each SLS launch.

“We had identified significant cost and time saving ideas for the RS-25 before the shuttle program ended,” Wofford explained. “We see many opportunities for process and manufacturing savings with the change to an expendable engine and the maturation of technologies, such as 3-D printing and structured light scanning.”

Robert Z. Pearlman is editor of CollectSPACE.com.