Air Force Research Laboratory

The roar of history can be heard at the Air Force Research Laboratory Rocket Propulsion Division at Edwards Air Force Base.

While the test pilots at ‘Main Base’ were testing the aircraft of the future, the people of the Rocket Lab were testing the rocket engines that would not only defend the United States, but also put men on the moon.

The Rocket Lab was where the engines for the Thor, Atlas, Titan and Minuteman Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles were all tested. And the massive F-1 engine for the Saturn V rocket (the rocket that launched men to the moon, was tested at Edwards.

Today, the Aerospace Systems Directorate as it is now known, brings together world-class facilities including a fuels research facility, structural testing labs, compressor research facility, rocket testing facilities, supersonic and subsonic wind tunnels, flight simulation lab, and many other cutting-edge research labs.

Among the technologies in development in the Aerospace Systems Directorate are scramjet engines, alternative fuels, unmanned vehicles, hypersonic vehicles, collision avoidance and aircraft energy optimization.

In early 2016, the facility gained a new chief when Dr. Shawn Phillips became chief of the Rocket Propulsion Director and site director for AFRL at Edwards.

In August, Col. Anne L. Clark became the commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory Aerospace Systems Directorate Detachment 7 at Edwards.

She is now responsible for the work and wellbeing of 500 military, civilian and contractor personnel at the laboratory’s $2.5 billion, 65-square-mile research site. She also directs safety, security and logistics compliance activities supporting research and development operations valued at over $110 million per year.

In a continuing effort to encourage and inspire scientists of the future, the personnel of the Rocket Lab are heavily involved in local STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) efforts.

In April, Sixty local middle school students delved into the world of rocket science with a visit to Air Force Research Laboratory’s Propulsion Directorate.

From lessons on chemical propellants to seeing actual rocket boosters that were launched, the 8th-graders from Discovery School in Lancaster, California, got a whirlwind tour of the “Rocket Lab.”

The learning experience was part of the propulsion directorate’s education outreach in conjunction with President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which is meant to ensure that all young people can reach their full potential. The president is joining with cities and towns, businesses, and foundations who are taking steps to connect young people to mentoring, support networks, and the skills they need to find a good job or go to college and work their way into the middle class.

The president also has stressed the importance of expanding science, technology, engineering and math programs for young people.

“We are trying to inspire junior high school students to become scientists and engineers,” said Kriss Vanderhyde, AFRL Education Outreach manager. “We found that the best way to do that is to get them out to one our sites, get them to do some hands-on functions like building rockets and show them what kinds of things are possible in an engineering and science career.”

A closer look at the Hydrocarbon Boost sub-scale preburner firing at full-power at Test Stand 2A, Air Force Research Laboratory April 21, 2016.

The day began at the Rocket Lab’s Heritage Room where the children got up close and personal with old rocket boosters and engines, some both used and tested at Edwards.

Next were tours of the Chemical Laboratory and Electric Propulsion Lab. 

After lunch provided by the school, the hands-on part of the tour began with students being separated into groups or “program management teams.” Each group was to build a rocket out of a two-liter soda bottle, tape and manila folders. 

“We’re known as the ‘field trip school’ and we focus a lot on the Antelope Valley’s history and places because it’s in our backyard,” said Stephanie Faber, Discovery School teacher. “Discovery School has an AVID and STEM based curriculum. For our 8th graders, we have three modules and one of them is Flight in Space.”

After all the rockets were built and inspected, each of them were filled with some water and placed on a launch pad where they were pressurized. Then, the countdown begins and the rocket is launched into the stratosphere. In this case, the stratosphere is about 100 feet off the ground. But, the intent is to show the students that learning is limitless.

“It isn’t really that hard to get there, they just need a little inspiration. That’s what we’re trying to do; providing that inspiration to get them on track and maybe get them to think, ‘hey, this science and engineering is really not bad, maybe I should check it out,'” Vanderhyde said.

After the rocket challenge the students finished off the day with a chemistry demonstration by AFRL scientists.

And in November, AFRL launched a new approach to STEM classes.

The AFRL Rocket Lab is calling its new program ENSPIRE, which stands Engineering & Science Producing Inspirational Rewarding Education. The program seeks to inspire innovation in students to become more involved in STEM efforts by seeking unique and innovative STEM projects that develop the next generation of STEM activities in schools to take the program to a new level in the Antelope Valley, organizers say.

Schools were required to submit their proposals to the Rocket Lab explaining how they would improve STEM in their classroom, their school, or across the district. These proposals included a short write-up and a budget for the year-long project.

Six high school STEM projects have been started under the ENSPIRE program since its inception this year. Tehachapi High School, Rosamond High School, Boron Junior-Senior High School, Hesperia High School, Antelope Valley High School and The Palmdale Aerospace Academy have all started projects, which were announced last month by Kriss Vander Hyde, education outreach manager for AFRL.

“The goal of AFRL Rocket Lab STEM is to inspire kids all across the Antelope Valley to become the next generation of scientists and engineers, not just for the Air Force but all the industries across the United States,” Vander Hyde said.

Tehachapi Unified School District proposed a project to build “Mobile Maker Carts” that can be used by the high school robotics team to get junior high and elementary students interested in the school STEM program. These carts will be used by the students of the Tehachapi Robotics Team in their Peer Teaching Program to teach engineering and programming in other schools.

Rosamond and AV High Schools both proposed using drones in unique ways. Rosamond is using drones to reach out to their STEM students and do a program where student teams will build their own unmanned aerial vehicle. AV High School proposed to use drones and infrared sensors in precision agriculture to monitor crop growth and watering efficiency.

Robots were the main theme in Boron, Hesperia and The Palmdale Aerospace Academy projects. Boron Junior-Senior High School is using robots to teach engineering and critical problem solving, while Hesperia High School is expanding its robotics team and including significantly more students in its program.

The Palmdale Aerospace Academy’s idea is to build a simulator that will demonstrate impaired driving by having students drive robots around a miniature town. The course, robots and software will all be designed and built by academy students who will then be able to measure perception and reaction times of the students using the simulator.

By extending the frontier of STEM education in the Antelope Valley, AFRL is looking for new engineers and scientists to grasp the cutting-edge technologies that the United States will need in the future to maintain the nation’s influence in the world, organizers say.

Dr. Richard Cohn, chief engineer of the AFRL Rocket Lab, said, “Inspiring students to pursue STEM is critical for the future of our nation. Future advances in STEM are critical to solving the world’s problems and without an inspired, motivated group of young people entering the field, we will surely be left behind. These programs provide a phenomenal opportunity for the young people of the Antelope Valley to become inspired to lead the charge.”

And while scientists and engineers are focusing on the future, they are also testing new rockets.

Aerojet Rocketdyne successfully completed a series of hot-fire tests on two Launch Abort Engines featuring innovative new propellant valves for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner service module propulsion system.

In May, AFRL and contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne achieved a major milestone under the Hydrocarbon Boost program, which is advancing domestic rocket engine technologies in support of next generation launch.

The Hydrocarbon Boost program completed full power, full duration tests of the oxygen-rich staged combustion sub-scale preburner. Testing was conducted at the historic rocket Test Stand 2A at Edwards Air Force Base; the facility was first utilized to test the F-1 engine used to power Saturn V rockets in the Apollo program to reach the moon.

The sub-scale preburner test campaign accomplished the first demonstrations of several key rocket engine technologies, including the first use of Mondaloy 200 superalloy in a rocket engine environment and the first operation of a diluent type preburner.  Demonstration of Mondaloy 200, which was co-developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne and the AFRL Materials Directorate, was a critical step to proving the unique combination of high-strength and burn resistance necessary for hardware survival in the harsh ORSC rocket environment.

“These tests are a significant milestone for our program, but also just the beginning of an effort to develop and transition the tools, components and knowledge needed for our customer and the U.S. rocket industry,” said Dr. Shawn Phillips, chief of the AFRL Rocket Propulsion Division.

The U.S. has a limited technology base in the high-performance ORSC rocket engine cycle. The United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch vehicle is powered by Russian RD-180 rocket engines, which were developed based on decades of ORSC research and development in the former Soviet Union. Tensions with Russia spurred limits on future use of the RD-180 engines for national security launches and triggered increased U.S. government investment in ORSC technology for industry to use to provide future launch services for National Security Space launch needs.

A key goal of the Hydrocarbon Boost Technology Demonstrator is to mature the technology readiness of ORSC engine components to advance the U.S. rocket technology base. This is also a key goal of the Booster Propulsion Technology Maturation projects led by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base.

“DOD is absolutely committed to transitioning off the RD-180 as quickly as possible, while ensuring no impacts to national security. Programs such as BPTM are essential to achieving that objective while solidifying U.S. assured access to space and supporting the U.S. launch industry’s viability in the global market,” said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, SMC commander and Air Force program executive officer for Space.

 Technology maturation and risk reduction efforts are part of a comprehensive Air Force plan to transition off of the RD-180 engine. One of the BPTM project areas is to advance technology readiness through critical rocket engine component design, integration, and test. To this end, SMC augmented HCB program funding to accelerate development of the HCB full-scale preburner and enable near-term U.S. demonstrations that are critical to overcome key ORSC challenges. These critical ORSC challenges include combustion instability, oxygen compatibility of materials in severe high pressure and temperature environments, and complex preburner startup and shutdown transients. The improved knowledge base, test results, and lessons learned in the HCB program and other BPTM activities are shared with the entire U.S. rocket propulsion community. 

“An objective of this program is to help eliminate the United States’ reliance on foreign rocket propulsion technology,” commented Maj. Gen. Tom Masiello, AFRL commander. “This is key to ensuring our national security, and the people of the Rocket Propulsion Division are making impressive strides in achieving our goal.”

The highly instrumented HCB sub-scale preburner tests generated critical data for design and development of the full-scale preburner. Design and fabrication of the full-scale ORSC Hydrocarbon Boost preburner is underway. Preburner component level testing will be conducted at NASA Stennis Space Center prior to Hydrocarbon Boost integrated engine testing at AFRL in the 2020 timeframe.  Successful program completion will demonstrate national goals for the Rocket Propulsion for the 21st century program, which is co-chaired by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and NASA.

The HCB program continued testing throughout the year, and later in the year, the AFRL/Aerojet Rocketdyne tested the first full-scale component of the program.

The Hydrocarbon Boost Technology Demonstrator, a U.S. Air Force technology effort focused on development of Oxygen Rich Staged Combustion rocket engine technology, recently completed its first full-scale component test at 100-percent power.  

The development of Oxygen Rich Staged Combustion technology has been deemed a critical technology for the nation to help eliminate the United States’ reliance on foreign rocket propulsion technology.

The testing was performed by Aerojet Rocketdyne under contract to the Air Force Research Laboratory Rocket Propulsion Division, nicknamed the AFRL Rocket Lab. The HBTD’s kick pump is the first full-scale component to commence testing.

The AFRL Rocket Lab recently completed the test campaign of HBTD’s sub-scale preburner at its test facilities at Edwards Air Force Base in the same historic facility that tested the F-1 engine for the Project Apollo Saturn V program and RS-68 engines for the Delta IV expendable launch vehicle system. The kick pump was tested at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Sacramento, Calif., which has been used continually through Titan missile, Apollo and space shuttle programs.

The kick pump is a complex turbopump assembly made up of both a turbine and pump, hence the term turbopump. It is designed to be extremely compact and rotates at punishing speeds to meet extraordinarily high efficiencies required for space access, even down to one-third of engine power levels — a severe challenge for current state-of-the-art turbopumps, system designers say.

The kick pump operates in excess of 75,000 rpm at its 100-percent power level. The component is a critical element of the engine as it “kicks” a vital portion of fuel up to the extremely high pressures demanded by other engine components, without requiring the engine to pump all the fuel to that pressure. This drastically reduces the size, weight, cost, and complexity of the engine.

The implementation of this kick pump in an ORSC engine provides for a performance improvement compared to other foreign engines, such as the Russian RD-180.

“This is an exciting day in the rocket propulsion industry,” said Dr. Shawn Phillips, the Rocket Propulsion Division chief.  “The completion of this test is a key milestone that has been years in the making.  So far everything looks good; there were no anomalies and the data indicates that the pump is functioning nominally.”

Phillips added that this test effectively achieves the harshest test point of the kick pump test campaign. 

Robert Bernstein, AFRL’s Hydrocarbon Boost program manager, said “The 100-percent test confirms that the kick pump is operating as designed, but we’re not done putting it through its paces.  There are more than 100 tests before we’re ready to integrate the kick pump with the rest of the engine. The next battery of tests will refine our understanding of how this pump operates and provide the data we need to gear up for testing of the demonstrator engine.”

The sheer number and duration of tests is beyond that of typical test campaigns for development pumps and is an example of the technology push and intense research focus of the HBTD program.  As the campaign progresses, the kick pump will be pushed to its limits, testing the pump’s efficiency and potential life of the bearings and seals. These tests will provide data from 113 instruments that will continuously monitor the pump’s health during operation and allow engineers to directly measure parameters that would otherwise need to be determined analytically.

This is one of the most highly instrumented turbopumps of its size ever developed and will provide critical data to the full-scale demonstrator engine test campaign, Bernstein said. The demonstrator engine will integrate the kick pump with other full-scale components like the main turbopump and preburner for integrated powerhead testing. 

“The massive amount of data we’ll be collecting will validate some key technologies and help us reduce risk for the full-scale, demonstrator engine,” said Bernstein. 

The demonstrator engine’s full-scale components are designed for 250,000 lbf of thrust and a throttling range of 33 to 100 percent, eclipsing the performance and efficiencies of domestic and foreign rocket engines of today. 

The testing of the full-scale components will help the U.S. rocket industry understand one of the most challenging rocket engine technologies ever developed and are intended to achieve the ambitious goals of the Rocket Propulsion Directorate for the 21st Century (RP-21) program, said Bernstein.  This activity will benefit the Air Force and the nation by demonstrating the viability of key technologies and materials necessary for this cycle while making available the design and data to all of the American aerospace industry he said. 

The lessons learned from the HBTD program are vital to maintaining America’s superiority in rocket and space technology, Bernstein said.

And now, the Rocket Lab is again involved in sending humans back to space.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is testing its Launch Abort Engines at the sige.

The LAE feature innovate new propellant valves for Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation-100 Starliner service module propulsion system. The tests confirmed the ability for the new valves to modulate propellant flow and control peak LAE thrust in the event of a launch abort.

The LAEs, designed by Aerojet Rocketdyne, include a fuel valve and oxidizer valve, which were developed and tested under the company’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) subcontract to Boeing. The Starliner will open a new era of spaceflight, carrying humans to the International Space Station once again from United States soil.

The LAEs, designed by Aerojet Rocketdyne, include a fuel valve and oxidizer valve, which were developed and tested under the company’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) subcontract to Boeing. The Starliner will open a new era of spaceflight, carrying humans to the International Space Station once again from United States soil.

“These innovative valves successfully enabled the engine to demonstrate precise timing, peak thrust control and steady-state thrust necessary during a mission abort. This testing culminates a year of dedicated hard work by the LAE Integrated Product Team at Aerojet Rocketdyne,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake. “This is another important step forward as our nation prepares to safely and reliably send humans back to the space station from American soil.”

Under the CCtCap subcontract to Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne will provide propulsion system hardware, which includes LAEs, Orbital Maneuvering and Attitude Control thrusters, Reaction Control System thrusters, and more. Boeing will assemble propulsion hardware kits into the service module section of the Starliner spacecraft at its Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Aerojet Rocketdyne also provides hardware supporting service module hot-fire testing, which will take place at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico; the pad abort and system qualification testing, which will occur at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico; and the orbital flight test, which will be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.


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