NASA eyes research park near SSC

It’s always a relatively small turnout at the annual Aerospace Alliance Summit, but
participants are some of the key aerospace players in the region, so the value of the
event goes far beyond the numbers.

This year’s summit drew more than 120 to the Renaissance Arts Hotel in the
warehouse district of New Orleans. I attend because I know there will be something
noteworthy. And there was.

I missed the first evening, the welcome reception at the National World War II
Museum’s Boeing Pavilion. The dinner keynote speaker was John Shannon, Boeing’s
program manager for NASA’s Space Launch System.

But I was there for the second day of the summit, where the keynote address was
given by Greg Wyler, CEO of One Web. If you don’t know of Wyler, you should. He’s
a man of vision, and he knows how to get things done. He discussed his company’s
program to enable affordable internet access for all. OneWeb plans to build up to
800 satellites at Exploration Park, just outside Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

But it was the panel of experts from three NASA centers - two of them from the Gulf
Coast region - that piqued my interest. They discussed the roles their centers play,
including the impact on the surrounding area and expectations for growth.

It was during this panel discussion that Dr. Richard Gilbrech, director at Stennis
Space Center (SSC), Miss., since 2012, caught me by surprise. He said SSC was
looking at creating a “near-site research park,” and that SSC was on the verge of
releasing the notice of availability.

Less than two months after that comment, it happened. An official Notice of
Availability was posted at FedBizOpps Dec. 4. It says NASA is searching for a non-
federal partner to lead the development of Enterprise Park, a 1,100-acre technology
corridor on the north side of the complex. Responses are due on Jan. 12, 2018.

More on that later.

Gilbrech was one of three panelists during the second day of the summit. The other
panelists were Todd May, director of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.,
since 2016, and Keith Hefner, director of Michoud Assembly Facility in east New
Orleans since January 2017.

Before that panel discussion, Don Pierson of Louisiana Economic Development, set
the tone when he pointed out that the four states in the alliance share a unique bond
thanks to NASA and its space programs, including the current Space Launch System
that will bring astronauts into deep space.

“In Huntsville they design it, in Louisiana we build it, in Mississippi they test it, and in
Florida they launch it,” he said.

Then to the podium came Frank DiBello of Space Florida. He’s another can-do guy,
so much so that Florida Trend last year named him Floridian of the year because of
the impact he’s had diversifying Florida’s space activities from a NASA launch site to
a major player in commercial space.

“The mandate that we have is to take aerospace, aviation and space and make sure
that Florida has the infrastructure to succeed in those marketplaces, whether that’s
roads and bridges, or launch pads or manufacturing facilities,” he said.

His vision is expansive.

“We hope to grow the space launch capabilities in Florida where today the cape is
the busiest space port in the world with about 30 launches, to a level where we’re
somewhere between 100 and 200 launches, and that’s a year. And that’s not
inconceivable.”

May of MSFC said he has been working on the Space Launch System for about six
years. He pointed out that there are 42 states that have contracts for the rocket
alone, and of the companies with contract, about 800 are small businesses.

All the major pieces of SLS are now complete, and NASA is involved in outfitting and
structural testing of the hardware.

“Deep space is uniquely challenging, and that means it’s going to take a lot of
innovation to pull off,” said May. “Building a rocket is actually fairly easy. Building a
rocket the size of the Statue of Liberty that’s more powerful than 31 747s and can
take 12 double-decker buses into space in one launch is uniquely challenging.”

The challenge spawns innovation.

“By doing what we do we really create innovation and create the market. And that’s
just on the technological challenges that we have in front of us. The technological
challenges when you’re pushing the envelope of the performance capabilities drives
innovation. And all these companies get the benefit of that technological edge and
then they go out and turn into other markets,” May said.

May pointed out that NASA was the technological engine that propelled Huntsville
into being one of the leading innovation/technology centers in the United States, with
a high concentration of Ph.Ds.

He said Huntsville is working with the state of Alabama to have companies like Blue
Origin build their engines in Huntsville. Blue Origin is currently building a plant near
Kennedy Space Center where it will build the rockets. May said Huntsville is also
working to bring Sierra Nevada to Huntsville.

“So we are doing our part.”

Hefner said Michoud was originally created by federal government to build cargo
planes for WWII. 1961, NASA acquired the facility so it could work on the massive
Saturn V. Between 1981 and 2011, Michoud built all 135 space shuttle tanks.

He said Michoud has 832 acres of prime real estate available, along with 2.2 million
square feet of manufacturing space. It has more than 20 tenants, which has helped
reduced NASA’s operating cost. Michoud, home of the National Center for Advanced
Manufacturing, is where the SLS core stage and Orion space capsule are built.

Gilbrecht said Stennis Space Center was created to provide NASA with a location to
test powerful rocket engines. The requirement was a sparsely populated area with
rail, roads and water access, close enough to population centers from which to draw
a workforce. SSC is a 140,000 acre site with a 15-mile circle around the center.

“Imagine trying to recreate that in today’s litigious world,” he said.

SSC has test stands that are able to hold down a rocket with a thrust of 7.5 million
pounds. It tested all the stages that sent astronauts to the moon and avoided closure
after the Apollo program by diversifying at becoming the home of more than 40
tenant agencies, including the Navy, which was the first and now the largest tenant.

SSC has 15 RS-25 engines in its inventory, enough for four SLS flight sets before
NASA would have to restart production of RS-25s, he said. With a combined 2.2
million pounds of thrust from the four RS-25 engines that will be tested in 2019, “it will
probably give the stand a little bit of a workout. … My goal is not to become a launch
site.”

The upcoming test of all four RS-25s attached to the first stage core will be a major
workout for the stand.

“We put about $250 million into our B-2 test stand getting ready for the big test that
we hope will happen sometime around maybe March of 2019. I actually have never
seen a stage test in my 25 years at NASA. I’ve been very close to those programs,
but I’ve never actually gotten to feel that much power rattle the windows around
here,” Gilbrech said.

SSC has a workforce of 5,000, with 2,000 supporting NASA mission, 2,000
supporting the Navy and the other 1,000 in various commercial entities and other
agencies. It has 5 million square feet of useable space, and it’s 88 percent occupied.

“We also work in the commercial space arena as well,” said Gilbrecht, who pointed
out that since 2000 it has worked with Aerojet Rocketdyne on the RS-68 for the Air
Force’s rocket program. “It’s purely a commercial venture between us and them.”

It has also worked with Orbital ATK, Blue Origin and SpaceX. It is also working with
startup companies, including Relativity Space, which is working to create 3D-printed
rockets and testing engines at SSC.

Gilbrech said he’s getting more into non-traditional roles as the head of SSC,
including the airspace arena. The military works a lot in the unmanned aerial systems
field, and SSC now has a restricted airspace over the whole 50-mile circle of the
buffer zone.

“The military was a major driver of that,” he said, but it can also be used by academia
and industry.

As for economic development, he thinks the SSC role is key and expansive. He has
looked at what other areas NASA sites have done, including Space Florida and
Huntsville, Ala., with its Redstone Gateway, a nearly 500-acre mixed use park outside
Marshall Space Flight Center.

For SSC, the 15-mile buffer zone and security has been positive for many of the
companies that have come to SSC. They like the privacy, but it also causes of type of
void. Companies that want to be close by but don’t want to go through the security
procedure have to be seven or eight miles away from where the action is.

That’s what prompted the idea of the “near-site research park,” that would “fill the
niche and really poise us toward growth in the future.”

The objective is to find a private or public entity to enter into a partnership with NASA
to lead in the multi-phased development and long-term operation of the park at the
nation’s largest rocket engine test facility. The park would be designed to attract
private sector participation in space exploration and space transportation activities.

Recent master planning efforts identified a need for a technology park area at SSC,
and the first phase of the Enterprise Park focuses on 1,100 acres identified as the
most development-ready. The property is located on the northern edge of the
13,800-acre secured area and includes sites both inside and outside the security
perimeter.

While there were a lot of takeaways from the summit, the prospect of creating a
research park in and around SSC was a real highlight.

I’ve lived near California’s Silicon Valley, and I’ve also lived near Huntsville’s
Cummings Research Park. I’ve seen what can result when a space is created that
attracts innovative, research-intensive companies big and small, whether it’s
designed to work with NASA, the military or other federal agencies.

A research park at SSC could attract not only space-related companies, but those
involved in advanced materials and geospatial technologies. A key to success is
bringing in research universities. On top of that, if efforts to create an advanced
manufacturing tech park near Michoud comes to fruition, it will have a major impact
for future generations.

- David Tortorano, December 2017
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