Rick Gilgrech


Ancient humans built the seven wonders of the world, only one of which stands today – the Great Pyramids of Giza. Since those ancient days, various lists have noted new human-engineered wonders, such as the Taj Mahal, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge and even the International Space Station.

NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) perhaps will be found on future lists. Designed as the world’s most powerful rocket, SLS is being built to carry astronauts back to the Moon under the agency’s Artemis program and to new destinations, including Mars.

The space agency marked numerous SLS milestones in 2019, both in construction and testing of hardware and in partnering with commercial companies to supply needed technologies and capabilities for the new rocket and its related missions.

A particularly significant mark was achieved with completion of the massive SLS core stage part of the rocket at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The core stage will launch SLS with more than 8 million pounds of thrust, supplied by four RS-25 engines and a pair of solid rocket boosters.

Stennis Space Center is especially invested in development of the SLS and has been charged to test all RS-25 engines for the new rocket. Last spring, we completed testing of engines and new engine flight controllers for the first four SLS launches. This year, we will begin a new round of RS-25 testing to provide engines needed for additional missions.

In addition, after six years of construction work on the B-2 Test Stand, Stennis is ready to test the new SLS core stage this year prior to its first flight. The stage was shipped to Stennis this month and installed for the test series. The test campaign will culminate with the first integrated test of all core stage systems during a full-duration, 500-second – more than eight minute — firing of its four RS-25 engines, just as will occur during the actual maiden launch.

READ MORE: NASA Artemis Program and Stennis Space Center set the stage for testing in 2020

The subsequent SLS launch will be an uncrewed flight test designated as Artemis I, the first mission in the Artemis program. The initial phase of the Artemis program will land the first woman and the next man on the Moon’s South Pole of the Moon by 2024.  Humans first traveled to the Moon for brief visits during Apollo Program missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Artemis program has a different goal and offers an unprecedented return on investment for the nation.

Artemis will establish a sustainable presence on the Moon, enabling astronauts to develop and test technologies and capabilities needed for travel deeper into space, including to Mars. Through Artemis, this nation will learn how to live and work on other planets and will open the door to incredible new exploration missions.

Though the aim is different, the program has proven benefits. Construction of SLS already has involved more than 1,000 companies – large and small – and many thousands of workers. Likewise, core stage testing at Stennis, including the extensive preparations involved, is drawing on contributions from various area companies and workers from surrounding Mississippi and Louisiana communities. The economic impact of the work and workers are not only powerful, but widespread across south Mississippi, Louisiana and the region.

Space exploration has proven its value many times over through the “spinoff” of a myriad of related technologies and developments into everyday life. It has demonstrated the ability to inspire generations of engineers, scientists, and explorers to dream bigger and reach further. Its motivational power was fully revealed 50 years ago, when a daring lunar program united not only a nation, but much of the world.

SLS is the backbone of the Artemis program – and the core stage set for testing this year at Stennis is the backbone of SLS. The rocket will continue to evolve new capabilities, but the core stage will remain the fundamental launch component.

Testing of the core stage at Stennis is one of the undeniably critical milestones of 2020 – and the center is set to conduct the testing with the same level of excellence and expertise it demonstrated in testing Saturn V stages for Apollo missions and main engines for space shuttle flights. This is one of the most historic and exciting times for NASA and Stennis in my 28-year career. It has been over 49 years since an actual flight stage has been delivered, installed and tested at Stennis before heading to the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. I am blessed to work at Stennis with such a capable and talented workforce who are all excited and ready to bring the world’s newest and most powerful rocket roaring to life in south Mississippi.

One of the wonders of the ancient world was the Temple of Artemis, a magnificent structure dedicated to the twin sister of Apollo and the Greek goddess of the Moon. As one chronicler noted, “When I saw the house of Artemis that mounted the clouds, … other marvels lost their brilliance.”

Whether it will rate as a “wonder” on future lists or not, it will surely be a sight to behold SLS poised on a Florida launch pad for its maiden voyage beyond the clouds. That Artemis I mission not only will return us to the Moon, but open the way to new marvels of the universe.

The new great era of space exploration is at hand. One can only wonder at the adventures to come.

For more information about Stennis Space Center, visit:

» Dr. Rick Gilbrech has served as director of NASA’s Stennis Space Center since 2012, after serving in the same role in 2006-7. As director, he is responsible for implementing NASA’s world-class rocket propulsion test program. He also provides executive leadership, direction and management of a federal center home to more than 5,000 employees and 50 federal, state, academic and private organizations and companies.

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