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ROCKET LAB MAY BENEFIT FROM RENEWED INTEREST IN MISSILES EDWARDS FACILITY HAS BEEN INVOLVED IN MOST MAJOR PROPULSION PROJECTS.

Byline: Jim Skeen Staff Writer

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE - For more than 50 years, Edwards Air Force Base's rocket laboratory has helped develop rocket engines for launching nuclear warheads as well as putting men on the moon.

Established in 1947 on rocky Luehman Ridge overlooking Rogers Dry Lake, the rocket laboratory has developed engines for such rockets as the Atlas, which powered the Mercury space flights; the Minuteman missile; and the Saturn that powered the Apollo moon missions.

``This is a vital part of American air power and space power,'' said Air Force Maj. Gen. Doug Pearson, Edwards' commander.

The lab, like the rest of the U.S. military, weathered a series of defense cutbacks during the 1990s. More troubling for military rocket people was the rising belief in Pentagon circles that private industry should take the lead in rocket propulsion development.

``It was thought the commercial sector would take over propulsion development,'' said Wesley Cox, a former Air Force colonel who led the rocket lab until his retirement on Aug. 2. ``That didn't materialize to the extent they thought.''

Now there is a growing interest in the military for a quick, low-cost way to put satellites or other things into space. The Bush administration wants to build a space-based missile defense system and there is interest in a ``space bomber,'' an aerospace craft capable of reaching anywhere in the world in 30 minutes.

What this push for space access means for the laboratory remains to be seen.

The laboratory's new commander, Lt. Col. Joseph Boyle, said one of his first tasks will be to start visiting potential customers, such as the Air Force Space Command and the Ballistic Defense Missile Organization, and find out exactly what technologies they are interested in seeing developed.

``I want to understand what those folks need,'' Boyle said. ``I want to reconnect with our customers.''

The rocket lab has been known by a variety of official titles over the years, the latest being Air Force Research Laboratory - Propulsion Directorate.

However, to longtime Antelope Valley residents and rocket enthusiasts, the facilities are known as the ``the rocket site,'' ``the rocket lab'' or simply ``the rock.''

While the exploits of the aircraft testing at Edwards - like Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947, W.J. ``Pete'' Knight setting an X-15 speed record in 1967, or tests of the B-2 stealth bomber and other planes - are well-documented, the achievements of the rocket lab are little known outside the rocket world.

Former Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall once referred to the rocket lab as ``the quiet part of the Edwards saga.''

Among the lab's little-known historic events were the first launches of the Minuteman missile. The missiles were actually launched only to short altitudes and were brought crashing back to Earth by nylon tethers.

The rocket site covers more than 65 square miles and has facilities that its officials say would cost more than $3.1 billion if the government had to build them over again. It contains two-thirds of the nation's rocket test stands strong enough to hold high-thrust engines.

``Ninety percent or more of a rocket is the propulsion system and propellant,'' said lab spokesman Ranney Adams. ``Ten percent, if you're lucky, goes to the payload. Anything we can do to increase the payload is of great benefit for the nation.''

The lab recently assisted Boeing's Rocketdyne division test its 14,500- pound RS-68 rocket. The engine, capable of generating 650,000 pounds of thrust, will be used on Delta IV rockets to take satellites into space.

One lab project is to improve a space propulsion system called a Hall thruster, which converts electric energy into thrust for moving objects in outer space.

The thruster was introduced in the 1960s and later advanced by the former Soviet Union. The problem with it is the wear-and-tear on certain components.

``The Air Force has payloads it wants to get into a high orbit,'' said William Hargus, a scientist at the laboratory. ``The Hall thrusters would be part of a satellite upper stage.''

Another project is the development of a small thruster for use on microsatellites, satellites weighing less than 220 pounds.

The thruster is expected to see use in 2003 in an experiment called Technology Satellite of the 21st Century, or TechSat 21 for short. The experiment is aimed proving small satellites flying in formations can replace large, single satellites.

Such microsatellites would be cheaper to launch into space, be able to readily change missions, and more durable than today's larger satellites.

The rocket site has about 600 workers at any given time, about 250 of whom are military and Defense Department civilians. The others work for private companies.

One of the issues for the laboratory, like the rest of the Air Force, is attracting engineers. About 30 percent of the lab's engineering and scientific slots are open.

``That's a major challenge right now - finding engineers and convincing them that this a great place to be,'' Boyle said.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Research engineer Bill Hargus examines a Hall thruster, which converts electric energy into thrust, at the rocket lab.

(2) Test Stand 1A juts out over the High Desert at the rocket propulsion research lab at Edwards Air Force Base.

Jeff Goldwater/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 13, 2001
Words:883
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