Full-shell x-ray optics development at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

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Full-shell x-ray optics development at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

Kiranmayee Kilaru, 1 Brian D. Ramsey, 2 Wayne H. Baumgartner, 3 Stephen D. Bongiorno, 2 David M. Broadway, 2 Patrick R. Champey, 2 Jacqueline M. Davis, 2 Stephen L. O’Dell, 2 Ronald F. Elsner, 2 Jessica A. Gaskin, 2 Samantha A. Johnson, 4 Jeffrey J. Kolodziejczak, 2 Oliver J. Roberts, 1 Douglas A. Swartz, 1 Martin C. Weisskopf 2

1 Universities Space Research Association (United States)
2 NASA Marshall Space Flight Ctr. (United States)
3 NASA Goddard Space Flight Ctr. (United States)
4 The Univ. of Alabama in Huntsville (United States)


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NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) maintains an active research program toward the development of high-resolution, lightweight, grazing-incidence x-ray optics to serve the needs of future x-ray astronomy missions such as Lynx. MSFC development efforts include both direct fabrication (diamond turning and deterministic computer-controlled polishing) of mirror shells and replication of mirror shells (from figured, polished mandrels). Both techniques produce full-circumference monolithic (primary + secondary) shells that share the advantages of inherent stability, ease of assembly, and low production cost. However, to achieve high-angular resolution, MSFC is exploring significant technology advances needed to control sources of figure error including fabrication- and coating-induced stresses and mounting-induced distortions.


Lynx is a concept for a future NASA flagship observatory operating in the x-ray energy range. The science objectives for Lynx 1 require an angular resolution of 0.5 arc sec half-power diameter (HPD) on axis and 2 – m 2 effective area at 1 keV, with significant area throughout the 0.1- to 10-keV range. In x-rays, large effective collecting areas are achieved by closely nesting many grazing-incidence mirror shells in order to optimize the available aperture. Therefore, Lynx must use thin, lightweight mirrors to achieve a high degree of nesting and acceptably low mass.

The x-ray astronomy group at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), among other research teams, has investigated various approaches to meet these technical challenges. Our high-resolution mirror development team envisions full-shell monolithic mirror elements fabricated from commonplace, lightweight, machinable metal, and metal alloy substrates. These materials combine low density and low coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE) with high-elastic modulus and high-yield strength. Together with monolithic full-shell construction, the MSFC design provides structural integrity throughout the fabrication process, system integration, launch, and operation over the mission lifetime.

This contribution to this special section presents current efforts in the MSFC x-ray optics group to develop high-resolution grazing-incidence mirrors and related technologies. The MSFC team continues to pursue our long-established nickel-cobalt replicated optics technology (Sec. 2) while also performing exploratory research into lightweight directly fabricated mirrors (Sec. 3) to meet the angular resolution and weight challenges of Lynx. Figure 1 shows a flowchart showing the broad sequence of steps associated with the development of x-ray mirrors at MSFC for both replication and direct fabrication.

Fig. 1

Flowchart showing the sequence of steps for x-ray mirror development.

For thin lightweight mirrors, angular resolution is affected by internal stresses, coating-induced stresses, and mounting-induced distortions that cause medium- to large-scale figure errors. Therefore, in addition to exploring technologies to fabricate precisely figured thin shells, the team at MSFC is also pursuing capabilities to coat (Sec. 7) and to align and mount (Sec. 5) precisely formed mirrors including (static) postfabrication figure correction (Sec. 6) and associated metrology (Sec. 3.3).

Shell Replication

MSFC has more than two decades of experience in the development of grazing incidence x-ray optics through electroformed replication. 2 , 3 In this process, NiCo shells are replicated from a figured and super polished electroless-nickel-coated aluminum mandrel. The inside reflecting surface of a shell duplicates the high-quality figure of the outside surface of the mandrel. Many thin mirrors of varying diameter are nested into one module to increase the collection area. In the case of a multiple-module configuration where each nested module has its own focal plane such as for ART-XC (seven modules) or XMM-Newton (three modules), the replication has an advantage of producing multiple identical shells from a single mandrel. This leads to a significant decrease in the production cost, as most of the effort and development time is in mandrel fabrication and polishing. Figure 2 shows a photograph of a replicated shell on a mandrel coming out of the electroforming bath (a), a photograph of the mandrels (b), and shells of decreasing diameters (c).

Fig. 2

(a) The picture of a replicated shell coming out of the electroforming bath and photographs of (b) mandrels and (c) shells ranging in diameters of about 40 to 48 mm and length of about 600 mm.

The typical performance of mandrels fabricated at MSFC ranges from about 5 to 10 arc sec HPD; the typical shell performance is about 8 to 15 arc sec. Typically, the polishing process on the mandrel leaves mid-spatial frequency figure deviations, which then get replicated onto the mirror shell. The stresses involved with the replication process produce further deviations of the mirror shell profile from the mandrel profile.

Recent improvements achieved at MSFC in mandrel polishing demand investigation into the limitations of the electroformed shell quality. Mandrel figure errors are transferred to replicated mirror shells as expected but additional, nonrepeatable, low-frequency distortions are also observed. These features must originate either during the electroforming process or during separation of the shell from the mandrel. The stresses induced in the electroforming process, which are a result of factors such as nonuniform electric field, are likely candidates for the cause of figure distortions. After electroforming, the mandrel, along with the replicated mirror shell, is cooled in a water bath, which promotes the shell to separate from the mandrel via the CTE mismatch of the aluminum mandrel and the NiCo shell. It is possible that the stresses from un-even separation of the shell from the mandrel can cause local microyielding of the shell material leading to low-frequency figure distortions. Plans are to perform a detailed investigation of the figure profile of shells replicated from a well-characterized mandrel, varying the electroforming and chemical separation parameters and possibly including instrumentation to monitor and quantify the stresses during the separation process. These experiments are ongoing and are expected to lead to a better understanding of the replication process that will help to minimize figure distortions, specifically at low spatial frequencies.

Direct Fabrication of Full-Shell Optics

The Chandra mirrors prove that direct polishing of lightweight stiff materials, such as glass, can result in sub-arc sec, resolution large-diameter x-ray optics. The MSFC direct fabrication development 4 for x-ray telescope optics aims to preserve the high angular resolution that can be achieved using traditional small-lap figuring and polishing techniques, while significantly reducing the thickness of the mirror shell to permit large effective areas for a given mirror-module diameter. The metal substrate materials will be diamond turned along the inner surface, heat treated to relieve residual stresses, then machined to 100 μ m RMS. After this, electroless-nickel plating (a hard NiP alloy on which the final figuring and polishing will take place) will be done in three stages. The first stage involves plating the minimum thickness on the back surface with the front surface masked in order to compensate for plating stresses. Then the back surface will be masked and the front surface will be plated with thicker material to account for optical processing such as grinding and polishing. Finally, the mirror reflecting (front) surface will be single-point diamond turned. The result will be a surface with a 1-to- 2 – μ m surface error, and a few 10 s of nm surface finish, as a starting point for polishing using a computer-controlled Zeeko IRP600X machine.

This process requires: (1) choosing an appropriate substrate material, (2) developing fixtures that adequately support thin shells during fabrication, and (3) developing in situ metrology to help reduce fabrication time in addition to refined polishing and figuring techniques.

Material Selection

Substrate materials for lightweight, thin-shell, x-ray optics should have low density, low CTE, high modulus of elasticity, and high working strength. Materials should also be easy to machine, figure, and polish. MSFC is analyzing metal and metal alloy substrate materials for full-shell x-ray optics. These materials improve the mechanical stability of the optics, reduce manufacturing costs by permitting single-point diamond turning to produce surfaces with desirable figures with extremely low out-of-roundness errors and low subsurface damage. When subsurface damage is low, less material must be removed during final surface figuring. Hence, mid-frequency surface errors, which are difficult to correct, are significantly reduced.

Materials under consideration at MSFC include Be, BeAl, Al, AlSi, and AlSi + SiC. Be and BeAl have the highest elastic moduli, lowest density and CTE, and moderate yield strength. The family of Al/Si materials also has low density, a CTE that can be tailored by varying the silicon content, and a high-yield strength that approaches the ultimate tensile strength with little-to-no plastic deformation. Silicon carbide provides further reduction of the CTE and increases elastic modulus.

These materials can be coated with NiP—the same material used for years at MSFC to coat Al mandrels—before machining and polishing. This is especially important when working with the high-toxicity materials Be and BeAl. These substrates can, therefore, be worked with near-standard machine processes. Large, high-quality components are routinely cast from these materials, making them readily available and relatively inexpensive.

An added advantage of the family of BeAl and AlSi materials is that the mirror-shell support structure can also be fabricated from the same material, simplifying the thermal design. Moreover the use of the metal alloys for the substrates permits fabrication of mounting flexures integral to the mirror for mounting the shell into the telescope structure, reducing the number of epoxy joints and thus producing more stable optics.

Backing Support Fixtures

For thin-shell fabrication, a major challenge is supporting the shell during processing. The integrity and the optical performance of the mirror need to be preserved during fabrication, metrology, and assembly by providing adequate support. Specifically, thin, lightweight shells must be supported during processing to prevent fracture or microyield and also to minimize deflection that would adversely affect the deterministic polishing. The current backing-support design consists of a stiff outer shell that provides all the support to the thin mirror and a thin layer of pliable backing/interface material that goes between the mirror shell and the outer support (see Fig. 3). A gasket seals the system and prevents the backing material from escaping.

Fig. 3

Design of a thin-shell backing support system for polishing. A thin layer of pliable backing material (not shown) acts as an interface between the mirror shell (red) and the stiff outer support clamshell (gray). The support rings and gaskets prevent the backing material from escaping. This system has been fabricated.

Initial studies were conducted using a range of high-viscosity liquid backing material. Several granular materials were also investigated including various sizes of spherical glass beads and sand of various grades. Finite-element simulations were used to assess stresses involved in the full-scale application of this shell-support technique. These simulations predicted Von Mises stresses and displacements for different combinations of mirror shell and support backing materials in the computer controlled (Zeeko) polishing environment. These simulations show that the uniform support provided by this fixture design results in ultra-low stresses, even for extremely thin shells, hence permitting a significant reduction of the shell thickness for direct fabrication. One-quarter-scale mechanical tests were conducted, which showed that sand performed best of all materials tested. The same fixture was used to demonstrate that this backing material can be uniformly distributed, thereby reducing hydrostatic-pressure-induced nonuniformities. Vibration can be used during the filling process to “compact” the sand for additional stiffness.

In Situ Metrology

In situ metrology is intended to dispense with the need for moving the test surface between fabrication and metrology stations, thus eliminating the time spent reinstalling and realigning after each metrology cycle. We note that about 1/3 of the time for fabricating the Chandra mirrors was spent moving mirror elements between fabrication and metrology stations. Performing metrology with the mirror shell in the fabrication configuration also helps to improve the working precision. In situ metrology under development at MSFC employs phase-measuring deflectometry (PMD), 5 where a projected fringe pattern is reflected from the mirror work surface onto an image recorder (see Fig. 4). Deviations from perfect spacing of the observed fringe pattern measured at multiple phases then provides an unambiguous measurement of deviations in the slope of the reflecting surface from its ideal shape. Deflectometry has several advantages: it is relatively insensitive to vibrations, immune to trace errors, and has no coherent noise. It is also very fast, as it does not involve mechanical scanning. Hence, many images can be averaged to reduce random noise. The PMD method is capable of nanometer resolution 6 when used for metrology of x-ray mirrors. 7 , 8 The technique can be used directly on diamond-turned surfaces 9 because it is also insensitive to the quality of the surface. PMD does not require the incidence (observation) angle to be normal to the test surface for the measurements. Therefore, the fringe-pattern projector and the imaging detector can be positioned outside the fabrication working area. The technique applies well to relatively larger diameter mirror such as proposed for lynx. The in situ metrology system at MSFC is currently at a low-technology readiness level (TRL) breadboard configuration. It is being used to optimize the relative positions of the working optic, the fringe projector (a computer monitor), and the reflected image detector (one of several optical cameras). The relative positions drive the surface slope measuring accuracy, the spatial midfrequency coverage, and the axial and azimuthal portions of the shell surface under the test.

Fig. 4

A projected fringe pattern is reflected from the mirror work surface onto an image recorder. Deviations from perfect spacing of the observed fringe pattern measured at multiple phases then provides an unambiguous measurement of deviations in the slope of the reflecting surface from its ideal shape. The positioning of the elements shown will be modified to accommodate the large diameter mirrors for the test surface.


To achieve high-angular resolution, the figuring and polishing steps must be advanced to a high precision. For replicated optics, this means polishing the mandrel; for direct fabrication, polishing the optic itself.

Lap Polishing

Mandrels used in the electroformed replication process are made from an aluminum blank that is machined to the right dimensions. The blank is then coated with electroless nickel onto which the prescribed figure is diamond turned. The single-point diamond turning process produces a precise figure, but leaves residual tool marks. The lap polishing process is then aimed at removing these marks and other mid-spatial frequency figure errors, thereby producing a finely polished surface with ∼ 0.5 – nm roughness. The lap polishing process has greatly improved with each succeeding MSFC project from HERO (20 arc sec), ARTXC (15 arc sec), and FOXSI (10 arc sec) mandrel performance. For the current IXPE mandrels, there is another factor of 2 improvement in the mandrel quality leading to 5-arc sec performance (for the mandrel itself). These improvements are a result of optimizing the parameter space of the lap-polishing process. In order to meet the sub-arc sec requirement, computer controlled polishing has to be adapted with in situ metrology and feedback control to enable both accuracy and efficiency. Apart from lap polishing, MSFC is also actively pursuing the use of computer controlled polishing for the mandrels.

Computer Controlled Polishing

MSFC has been developing a process for using a seven-axes-of-motion Zeeko IRP 600 robotic polisher, capable of polishing the inside of directly fabricated thin shells of 600-mm diameter and the external surface of vertically oriented cylindrical x-ray mandrels up to 500-mm length. The Zeeko polisher is capable of polishing to 1/10th wave peak-to-valley and is optimal specifically for the removal of mid-spatial-frequency figure errors. The Zeeko machine utilizes an inflated rubber hemispherical diaphragm, or “bonnet,” supporting a polishing medium. The bonnet is attached to a spindle that rotates and compresses to conform to the contour of the work surface. A large range of figure error spatial frequencies can be corrected by varying the material removal rate (determined by tool feedrate, bonnet pressure, spindle rotation rate, tool offset, precess angle, and bonnet angle), bonnet characteristics (radius, thickness, and elastic modulus), and slurry characteristics (particle grit size and solids fraction) (see Fig. 5). The advantage of such a process is that specific and unique features in a figure can be directly targeted and corrected. In addition, many different tools and slurry combinations can be employed for different tasks and goals.

Fig. 5

From Ref. 6 (a) Illustration of precess angle θ , phi angle ϕ , tool offset δ , point spacing x , and track spacing y . Polishing bonnet (of about 40-mm radius) moves at specified feed rate between points spaced at x along tracks spaced at y and (b) tool offset.

The wear function dependence on these polishing parameters was determined through a series of test polishing runs performed on NiP-plated flat samples. This series of experiments was performed to develop and evaluate algorithms for applying the wear function for surface-error correction. After each polishing run, the surface figure was measured with an optical interferometer, a surface map produced, and the surface map used to validate the wear function model. After trying various constrained fitting and deconvolution algorithms, we found that a Richardson–Lucy deconvolution 10 , 11 leads to the best overall polishing performance for simulated postpolished slope errors. Using metrology data from the sample to be polished and these deconvolution algorithms, the software calculates the optimal tool path to reduce surface errors and generates the Zeeko-machine control code corresponding to the path. Using an optimal set of parameters and precise computer numerical control permits highly deterministic figuring of the surface at a higher convergence rate, when compared to traditional polishing machines.

The most recent application to NiP-coated vertically oriented cylindrical mandrels has met grazing-incidence prescriptions to within 0.5-arc sec slope error (corresponding to an HPD 2 arc sec ) for spatial wavelength ranges ≥ 7 mm (a limit set by the current tooling). The wear function prediction typically agrees with the measured value to within a few nanometers; validating the well-controlled capabilities of the polishing process. The current best surface roughness resulting from this process is typically ∼ 1.5 to 2.0 nm with a goal of 0.5 nm or better. Figure 6 shows photographs of lap-polishing stations and the Zeeko polishing machine.

Fig. 6

Photograph of mandrel at: (a) lap-polishing and (b) Zeeko polishing of vertically mounted mandrel (of about 140-mm in diameter and 600-mm in length).

Alignment and Assembly

An assembled module with multiple nested mirror shells typically has poorer performance than a single free-standing mirror shell, due to distortions induced by the mounting hardware in contact with the shell and also by epoxy shrinkage. Dedicated alignment stations [see Fig. 7(a)] are developed at MSFC for alignment and assembly of mirrors into a spider. The station consists of a base-plate assembly, a circularity-measurement system, a spider-support assembly, and a computer-controlled shell support and positioning system. The positioners, the controllers, and the measurement systems interface with the control computer. The base-plate assembly consists of a motorized rotary air-bearing table with a circular base plate. The metrology system consists of a sensor support stand with noncontact displacement Keyence sensors controlled by the computer. The shell support and positioning system consists of two motion-independent subsystems: an axial support system and a radial positioning system. The spider support assembly includes bottom and top spiders connected by the module column and the bottom spider positioning stages. Custom software has been developed to control the shell positioners and to collect and analyze the circularity data. Custom designed clips are also used as an interface between the mirror and the spider, which help to redirect distortions into the tangential direction. 12

Fig. 7

Photograph of two different alignment and assembly stations used at MSFC: (a) custom developed alignment station and (b) hanging wire approach. Shells range from about 130- to 140-mm in diameter and 600-mm in length.

A specially designed hanging-wire approach is also being used for the alignment and assembly of current optics in order to offload stress [see Fig. 7(b)]. In this design, a mirror shell is held on one end by wires at nine different positions with actuation at three locations. The weight of the mirror is offset by counterweights at the six other locations. The actuation is performed vertically at the top of the wire using picomotors with a precision of about 30 nm. This configuration enables the mirror weight to be off-loaded at the bonding locations while the mirror is being aligned into the mount thus minimizing figure distortions imparted during the assembly process. Figure 7 shows photographs of the two different assembly stations used at MSFC.

Postfabrication Figure Correction

Differential deposition has proven to be a viable postfabrication figure-correction technique to improve the angular resolution of the x-ray mirrors. This technique involves depositing a varying amount of material (10s to 100s of nm) on the surface of the mirror shell, with the goal of minimizing the figure errors of spatial frequencies ranging from 1 to 10s of mm. The minimum amount of material that can be deposited is limited by the metrology accuracy while the maximum amount is dependent on the stress introduced by the deposited material and coating properties such as adhesion and roughness. Custom developed vacuum chambers are utilized for the purpose with computer controlled translation and rotation stages. The coating parameters are optimized in order to minimize additional roughness ( 0.6 nm ). In the past, an iterative approach was used to correct the broader surface features with higher amplitude first, followed by correction of progressively smaller features. A factor of 2 improvement has been demonstrated through x-ray testing, a factor of 3, through figure metrology. 13 Current efforts are focused on improving the efficiency of the process. One approach is to use active slits that can correct multiple spatial frequencies along an axial scan. The design of this slit has been completed and the required components are currently being procured. The second approach toward improving the efficiency of differential deposition is the use of a custom mask with varying hole sizes that can correct the entire mirror surface in a single round of coating without having to scan along multiple axial positions. The design of this mask has been completed and is currently being fabricated.


A technological challenge associated with achieving high-angular-resolution optics is due to the stress in the thin film coatings that are deposited to enhance the x-ray reflectivity. The stress in the coating deforms the substrate’s figure and can severely degrade the optic’s imaging resolution. To help identify mechanisms for reducing the film stress, MSFC has developed a instrument for the in situ measurement of thin film stress. 14

The device, shown in Fig. 8, utilizes a high-resolution fiber-optic displacement sensor (FODS) to measure the evolving displacement of the tip of a cantilever-substrate in real-time during film growth. The measured displacement is then geometrically related to the substrate’s curvature from which the stress is calculated according to the Stoney equation. The FODS can detect nanometer-scale displacements of the cantilever tip, which results in a detectable limit in the integrated film stress of 25 MPa nm. This means that a change in film thickness of 0.25 nm (or 2.5 Å) can be detected for a growing film with an intrinsic stress of only 100 MPa.

Fig. 8

MSFC in situ stress measurement device shown with cantilever-substrate. Three substrates of either glass or crystalline silicon can be utilized simultaneously. The small fiber-optic sensor is visible under the glass substrate.

The device has helped identify and exploit the microstructural evolution in iridium films deposited by magnetron sputtering with argon process pressure (Fig. 9). With the aid of in situ stress measurement, we were quickly able to optimize the argon pressure to achieve a stress reduction of nearly three orders of magnitude in iridium films, while also maintaining the surface roughness within acceptable limits for soft x-ray reflectivity. 15 The stress evolution in polycrystalline metal films, such as iridium, can be associated with various features of film growth including nucleation, island growth, and island coalescence. The film stress reaches a tensile maximum during coalescences and then passes through zero stress before reaching a compressive steady state. We can precisely identify, with the aid of in situ stress measurement, the moment at which the film stress passes through zero for a given process pressure—this instance is associated with a certain film thickness as illustrated in Fig. 9. For an iridium thickness of 15 nm (in blue)—a thickness sufficient for the Lynx mirrors—zero stress will occur at 16.5 mTorr.

Fig. 9

(a) The in situ stress in iridium films as a function of film thickness for the indicated argon process pressures and (b) the stress as a function of argon pressure for the indicated film thicknesses. The blue line indicates the stress for a 15-nm-thick iridium film and shows that zero stress occurs at 16.5 mTorr.

MSFC is currently adapting this technology to measure the change in curvature of figured optics caused by film stress, and as a method of in situ metrology for figure correction.

We are also designing a deposition system that will allow coating deposition on a range of substrate types: optical segments, full shells, and mandrels.

Toward Large-Area Sub-Arc Sec X-Ray Optics for Lynx

The high-resolution optics development at MSFC is part of what is referred to as full-shell optics technology (as opposed to segmented optics) in the Lynx concept study. Independent research and development is being pursued at Italy’s Brera Astronomical Observatory (Civitani et al.), using fused silica as an alternate substrate material for full-shell optics.

A preliminary optical prescription meeting the science requirements for Lynx has been provided to the Lynx study team by MSFC. This design envisions a 3-m diameter, 10-m focal length assembly of 319 mirror shells ranging in thickness from 1 to 3 mm, length from 4.3 to 25 cm (per surface). This design provides slightly over 2 m 2 of effective area at 1 keV when coated with 10-nm C over 40-nm Pt (slightly under 2 m 2 if coated with Ir) and a grasp over the field of view with better than 1-arc sec HPD in excess of the required 600 m 2 arc min 2 .

For the Lynx concept, the mirror technology needs to achieve a technology readiness level (TRL) 5 by project Phase A (planned for October 2024) and TRL 6 by PDR (August 2028). Currently, the optics technology is assessed at TRL 2.

Realizing TRL 3 will require improvements in all aspects of the fabrication process-including polishing, metrology, and postfabrication figuring. Further improvements in the backing support fixture and understanding the implications of various error contributions caused by transferring the mount from diamond turning to figuring and polishing to differential deposition are needed to achieve TRL 4. A design for a breadboard mount and demonstration of basic functionality will be required for shells of various representative diameters.

TRL 5 requires demonstration of alignment and integration of a mirror shell into a flight-like support structure and achieving a full-shell performance at 1.5 times the error allowance as verified through x-ray testing. Once the methods for alignment and integration into the backing fixture are satisfactorily determined, several shells of different diameters will be integrated and x-ray tested as a whole and subjected to appropriate operational thermal and vibrational environments, in order to bring the system to TRL 5.

TRL 6 will require that Lynx 0.5-arc sec angular resolution can be met using a flight-like mount and that scalability (multiple shells) has been demonstrated. The assembly must then be tested in a flight-like environment.

Exploring 3-D Printing Alongside NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Virgin Orbit

Exploring 3-D Printing Alongside NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

As our aspirations for space grow more ambitious, so too must the ways we build our spacecraft! So we partnered with @NASA_Marshall to study how 3-D printing can be used to build next-gen rocket parts at a fraction of the cost and lead time. Read more: https://t.co/Rcu7Uz0nwT pic.twitter.com/IdVuB1sIEu

The satellite world is undergoing a massive upheaval. Thanks to advancements in computing and new manufacturing techniques, even spacecraft with the most critical responsibilities are becoming smaller and more inexpensive. As a result, satellite owners are building them faster and in greater quantities than ever before. Launch service providers like us, then, have a responsibility to build vehicles that can match this rapid evolution — which means we too must explore and implement new techniques, tools and materials.

We’ve been printing key parts of our engines for some time: early on we recognized additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3-D printing, as a great enabler. The great minds at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight think so too, which is why we’ve been putting our heads together for a mutually beneficial project partnership, or Space Act Agreement.

Our joint goal was to study the use of additive manufacturing to build multimetallic combustion chambers. Spoiler alert: this technology will change the way humankind designs and builds rockets altogether.

Combustion chambers are a crucial component of all rocket engines. It’s here that the propellants mix and ignite, generating incredibly high pressure and temperature before accelerating past the speed of sound as they exit the nozzle. The punishing operating environment makes combustion chambers one of the most difficult engine parts to develop while keeping manufacturing time short and cost low.

The benefit of developing multimetallic parts, as we are for our own engines, is that you can take advantage of their distinct properties (such as strength or thermal conductivity) to create a more robust, higher performing end product. The problem is developing such parts can be an excruciatingly slow process… that is, unless you have powerful tools like our hybrid additive-subtractive manufacturing machine.

For this partnership, Virgin Orbit engineers used this hybrid machine to modify combustion chambers designed by NASA. The chamber’s geometry was unchanged from the traditionally manufactured design, but we were able to build it more quickly and out of different materials.

An extensive hotfire test campaign then proved that the unit could hold up under realistic operational conditions, and in fact matched the performance of a traditionally manufactured unit.

We’re taking the lessons learned from this partnership and incorporating them into our own manufacturing development. When we hit our production goals, we’ll see an order of magnitude reduction in both cost and lead time for our engines — and it will be thanks in part to the work we’ve done here with the Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA Marshall Space Flight Center – Space Foundation

Corporate Membership

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NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

For more than 50 years, the unique capabilities and expertise at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has been used to design and build the engines, vehicles, space systems, instruments and science payloads that make possible unprecedented missions of science and discovery throughout our solar system.

Marshall minds designed, built, tested and helped launch the giant Saturn V rocket that carried astronauts on the Apollo missions to the moon. Marshall developed new rocket engines and tanks for the fleet of space shuttles, built sections of the International Space Station and now manages all the science work of the astronauts aboard the ISS from a 24/7 Payload Operations and Integration Center.

Today, Marshall is home to development of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever designed to carry human explorers, their equipment and science payloads deeper into space than ever before, to an asteroid and to Mars. Marshall also manages the Michoud Assembly Facility, where the core stage of SLS is under construction with a unique set of leading-edge tools, including the largest spacecraft welding tool in the world, the 170-foot-tall, 78-foot-wide Vertical Assembly Center.

Marshall enables scientific discovery through development and testing of hardware and instruments for projects including the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Japanese-led mission Hinode studying the sun.

Engineers and technologists at the Marshall Center consistently deliver highly skilled, crosscutting engineering services — the backbone to mission success and the center’s powerful capabilities — in support of Marshall programs and projects and throughout NASA. Their work serves both the current and near-term planned agency missions as well as efforts still on the drawing board, awaiting the necessary development and maturation to support NASA’s future exploration goals.

Marshall’s history reaches back to the 1950s, before NASA was created in 1958, partially in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, the previous year. A group of Army employees working then on rocket and missile programs at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, included the team of German scientists led by Dr. Wernher von Braun, who was largely responsible for the successful launch of the United States’ first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. In 1960, NASA established the Marshall Center with the transfer from the Army of more than 4,500 civil service employees and nearly 2,000 acres of Redstone Arsenal property. Von Braun became the Marshall Center’s first director.

Marshall’s location makes it a key player in a “community of capabilities,” located among dozens of federal agencies on Redstone Arsenal, including the Army Materiel Command; Army Aviation and Missile Command; Army Space and Missile Defense Command; Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center; the Missile Defense Agency; and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Missiles and Space Intelligence Center. Marshall and Redstone are adjacent to Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park, the second-largest research and development park in the nation. The Marshall Center has a critical role in moving the nation forward, offering unique expertise in science and engineering, forging partnerships with industry, academia and other government organizations, and continuing to help the United States lead the world in space exploration and discovery. Marshall’s strengths and proven capabilities support NASA’s goal of integrating science and exploration in innovative ways for maximum return on the nation’s investment.

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Marshall Space Flight Center: Test Site for NASA s Rockets, Space

Marshall Space Flight Center: Test Site for NASA’s Rockets

Located in Huntsville, Alabama, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has played a significant role in the American space program. Marshall helped to develop the rockets that carried the first U.S. astronaut into space and those that delivered humans to the moon. Today, the agency is working on the Space Launch System that could one day carry astronauts to Mars.

Shortly before opening the new agency, NASA described the Marshall Center as “the only self-contained organization in the nation which was capable of conducting the development of a space vehicle from the conception of the idea through production of hardware, testing, and launching operations.”

In addition to developing space vehicles, Marshall also participates in scientific programs, helping to develop and test hardware and instruments for projects like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Japanese-led Hinode mission.


Although the Marshall Space Flight Center wasn’t activated until 1960, its roots were well developed. Years before NASA was established, German immigrant Werhner Von Braun and his rocket team, who had developed the V-2 rocket during World War II, had come to the United States with hopes of developing rockets that would one day travel to space.

Initially assigned at Fort Bliss, Texas, the Von Braun team was later transferred to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. In the 1950s, the team expanded to include hundreds of American engineers and scientists. On Jan. 31, 1958, they used a modified Redstone rocket called Jupiter-C to launch America’s first orbiting satellite, Explorer 1.

Two years later, Von Braun became the director of NASA’s new George C. Marshall Flight Center in Huntsville. On July 1, 1960, the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency transferred the ownership of buildings, land, space projects, property and personnel to the new agency, which was named for Gen. George C. Marshall. Marshall had been the Army chief of staff during World War II, secretary of state under President Harry Truman, and Nobel Prize winner for the economic recovery program that became known as the Marshall Plan. He died in 1959. President Dwight D. Eisenhower dedicated the fledgling agency on Sept. 8, 1960.

In 1961, Marshall’s Mercury-Redstone vehicle carried America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, on a suborbital flight. Visitors today can still see the Historic Redstone Test Stand, where the rockets that sent Shepard into space were tested.

Marshall played a vital role in achieving President John F. Kennedy’s admonition of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” The center built the Saturn V rocket that would carry the astronauts on their way to the moon.

“Engineers, scientists, administrators and contractors worked night and day to develop the technology powerful enough to lift the 363-foot tall, 6.2-million pound Saturn V rocket into space,” according to Marshall’s historical website.

Marshall also helped to develop the Lunar Roving Vehicle that carried astronauts across the surface of the moon during the last three Apollo missions. The rover allowed astronauts to travel several miles from their landing craft, set up experiments in a wider area and carry home several pounds of rocks.

In the 1970s, Marshall participated in Skylab, the United States’ first crewed orbiting space station and the first U.S. space program completely dedicated to scientific research. Marshall supplied the Skylab workshop, the four Saturn launch vehicles, the solar observatory, and many of the scientific experiments for each of the three astronaut crews.

“Skylab results included significant discoveries in all experiment disciplines and far more data than anticipated,” NASA said. “It opened the era of comprehensive scientific research in space.”

Women scientists train in the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator in 1975. (Image credit: NASA.)

Also during the ’70s, Marshall helped to develop the space shuttle’s main engines, its solid rocket booster, and its external tanks, as well as a variety of scientific payloads. The agency was responsible for Spacelab, a laboratory carried inside the cargo bay of the shuttle.

When the space shuttle launched on April 12, 1981, it “marked a new era in the history of space flight,” NASA said. “The world’s first reusable space vehicle, powered by Marshall-developed propulsion systems, was thrust into orbit with two astronauts aboard. This new chapter in the history of the Center would feature Marshall at the forefront of the nation’s space exploration efforts.”

After the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster, “Marshall and other NASA centers dedicated their work to ensure that the Space Shuttle propulsion elements would perform safely in the future,” the center’s website says.

On Jan. 22, 1986, four Marshall Center facilities were designated as National Historic Landmarks. The Redstone Test Stand static-tested the first rocket that launched Shepard into space, the last step before flight. The Neutral Buoyancy Simulator mimics the weightless environment as preparation for astronauts traveling into space. The Dynamic Test Stand was used for ground vibration tests of the Saturn V launch vehicle and Apollo spacecraft, for tests involving Skylab, and for ground vibration testing of the complete space shuttle vehicle. The Propulsion and Structural Test Facility became the primary center responsible for large vehicles and rocket propulsion systems. On June 15, 1987, the Saturn V Display, an actual test rocket used in the dynamic testing of the Saturn facilities at Marshall, was also designated as a historical landmark.

Marshall continued to propel science forward by playing a role in the development of the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990, Hubble continues to awe the world with impressive astronomical images after more than 25 years. Marshall also developed and manages NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which probes the depths of space in the X-ray spectrum.

Marshall today

Marshall is one of NASA’s largest field centers, with over 4.5 million square feet of space. The center boasts test, manufacturing and research facilities. It employs nearly 6,000 civil and contractor employees.

The Space Launch System (SLS) is currently under development at Marshall. The rockets of SLS will carry missions deep into the outer solar system. With the aid of the Orion crew module, also under development at Marshall, the SLS will be able to carry the first humans to Mars.

In 2018, the SLS and Orion were both in the final stages of completion. Marshall plays an important role in the final steps of both.

“SLS testing will continue as the core stage structural test articles for the liquid hydrogen tank, intertank, and liquid oxygen tank arrive at Marshall and are loaded into towering test stands to be pushed, pulled and twisted to simulate flight,” NASA said in a press release.

To test the SLS fuel tank, Marshall constructed a pair of twin towers soaring to 221 feet (67.4 meters) in height. The stand simulated the powerful dynamics of launch and flight. For this test, Marshall was crucial.

“There is no other facility that can handle something as big as the SLS hydrogen tank,” SLS engineer Sam Stephens said in a statement.

The primary elements of Orion’s structure are being assembled at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, and will be shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center by the end of 2018.

The agency manages the Discovery program of focused scientific investigations that complement NASA’s larger planetary exploration missions. Active Discovery missions include the Dawn mission to Ceres and the Kepler planet hunting space telescope. It also manages the New Frontiers program that conducts robotic missions to explore the solar system. The New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, Juno’s mission to Jupiter, and OSIRIS-Rex, the first U.S. mission to return a sample of an asteroid, are all New Frontiers missions.

Marshall also plays a role in the International Space Station (ISS), the space home for astronauts in orbit. Marshall supports hardware development, workspace nodes, oxygen generation, water recovery systems, and manages science operations for the space station at its Payload Operations Integration Center, which maintains year-round, 24/7 contact with the ISS.

Visiting Marshall

Marshall Space Flight Center is not open to the general public. However, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center serves as the center’s visitor information center. Here, interactive exhibits and unique historical artifacts help visitors to learn more about Marshall’s legacy and ongoing projects. The center’s admission is:

  • Adults (13 and up) – $25
  • Children (5 to 12) – $17
  • Children 4 and under – FREE

Discounts are available for NASA civil servants, retirees, contractors, active military and families. The center is open seven days a week, from 9 to 5, though it is closed for some major holidays.

The Space Rocket Center is home of the U.S. Space Camp and the site of the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge.

Educational Escapes is a program for elementary and secondary group tours to the Marshall Space Center, and is conducted by the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Access to Redstone Arsenal requires a badge and prior approval.

NASA Selects Jacobs to Continue Environmental Engineering Support Services at Marshall Space Flight Center, Jacobs

NASA Selects Jacobs to Continue Environmental Engineering Support Services at Marshall Space Flight Center

Jacobs has been providing environmental services to Marshall since 1987

DALLAS, Dec. 17, 2019 /PRNewswire/ — Jacobs (NYSE: J) was selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as the sole provider to continue architect-engineer (A-E) environmental engineering services at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), located in Huntsville, Alabama, and other NASA centers and installations.

Jacobs has been providing environmental services to the MSFC since 1987. One of ten NASA field centers, MSFC has been the lead for the Space Shuttle main propulsion and external tank; payloads and related crew training; International Space Station design and assembly; computers, networks, and information management; and the Space Launch System. MSFC was recently selected to manage the Artemis program for NASA, which aims to put astronauts on the moon by 2024.

“As NASA’s largest solutions provider, we can effectively deliver environmental services that are specific to the mission of the MSFC and other centers, without impacting critical operations,” said Jacobs People & Places Solutions Senior Vice President and Global Environmental Market Director Jan Walstrom.

Under the 5-year, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract capacity, Jacobs will deliver A-E services for:

  • Environmental compliance, including audits and inspections; hazardous and solid waste; hazardous materials; air; wastewater; storm water; storage tanks; toxic substances; sustainability and pollution prevention; recycling; natural and cultural resources; energy management and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification; National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documentation; and other federal, state and local regulations.
  • Environmental remediation, including documentation preparation as required under either federal or state implemented Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) programs; field investigations; analytical laboratory services; groundwater modeling; environmental studies; risk assessments and risk evaluations; treatability tests; demonstration projects; corrective measures studies; feasibility studies; engineering design documentation; munitions and explosives of concern investigations; and construction/remediation oversight.
  • Regulatory risk analysis and communications, including reviews of proposed rules and regulations that may affect NASA centers and programs on the federal level and the states in which NASA centers and major contractors are located (Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, Utah and Virginia). Support also includes evaluating risks to the agency; providing recommendations on risk mitigations for NASA; and evaluating the environmental aspects of manufacturing, testing and operational issues for NASA programs such as the Space Launch System.

Under a separate Engineering Services and Science Capability Augmentation (ESSCA) contract with NASA, Jacobs is providing critical science and engineering and technical support for flagship programs at MSFC including the Space Launch System, the International Space Station and numerous space science and technology development projects.

At Jacobs, we’re challenging today to reinvent tomorrow by solving the world’s most critical problems for thriving cities, resilient environments, mission-critical outcomes, operational advancement, scientific discovery and cutting-edge manufacturing, turning abstract ideas into realities that transform the world for good. With $13 billion in revenue and a talent force of approximately 52,000, Jacobs provides a full spectrum of professional services including consulting, technical, scientific and project delivery for the government and private sector. Visit jacobs.com and connect with Jacobs on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Certain statements contained in this press release constitute forward-looking statements as such term is defined in Section 27A of the Securities Act of 1933, as amended, and Section 21E of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended, and such statements are intended to be covered by the safe harbor provided by the same. Statements made in this release that are not based on historical fact are forward-looking statements. We base these forward-looking statements on management’s current estimates and expectations as well as currently available competitive, financial and economic data. Forward-looking statements, however, are inherently uncertain. There are a variety of factors that could cause business results to differ materially from our forward-looking statements. For a description of some additional factors that may occur that could cause actual results to differ from our forward-looking statements see our Annual Report on Form 10-K for the year ended September 27, 2019, and in particular the discussions contained under Item 1 – Business; Item 1A – Risk Factors; Item 3 – Legal Proceedings; and Item 7 – Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations, as well as the Company’s other filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Company is not under any duty to update any of the forward-looking statements after the date of this press release to conform to actual results, except as required by applicable law.

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Artemis moon mission: NASA picks Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to manage lunar lander program – CBS News

NASA picks Alabama space center to manage lunar lander program

August 16, 2019 / 5:44 PM / CBS News

Despite protests from Texas lawmakers, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, will manage the agency’s plans to build a lunar landing system that will carry the next man and the first woman to the surface of the moon in 2024 , NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Friday.

Appropriately enough, the critical program will be managed by Alabama native Lisa Watson-Morgan, who earned her engineering degree from the University of Alabama and is a three-decade NASA veteran.

“The program that will be managed here in northern Alabama is going to land the first woman on the south pole of the moon, and that landing system is being managed by one of NASA’s best engineers,” Bridenstine said. “And she just happens to be a woman. What a great American story for NASA.”

An artist’s impression of a possible lunar lander design, showing an ascent vehicle, carrying an astronaut crew, blasting off from the surface of the moon. NASA

Bridenstine made the announcement standing at the base of a towering test version of the 149-foot-tall liquid hydrogen tank that will be used in the first stage of the huge Space Launch System — SLS — rocket being built by Boeing to carry astronauts back to the moon.

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The Artemis moon program is the centerpiece of the Trump administration’s push to return astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2024, four years earlier than NASA originally planned. The Johnson Space Center in Houston is managing all aspects of the program as it relates to astronauts, crew training, life support systems and mission design.

But the lander is a showcase element, and one that Texas lawmakers argue belongs at the Johnson Space Center. Senators Ted Cruz, John Cornyn and Rep. Brian Babin, all Texas Republicans, wrote to Bridenstine Thursday, asking him to “reconsider” his decision until the schedule, projected costs and rational can be explained in more detail.

“While the Marshall Space Flight Center specializes in rocketry and spacecraft propulsion, and is undoubtedly the leader in these areas, it is the Johnson Space Center, which has been, and continues to be, ground zero for human space exploration,” they wrote.

“The integration of development responsibilities into one center — ideally the center with the longest history and deepest institutional knowledge of human space exploration — would be the most cost-efficient, streamlined, and effective approach, and is the approach that NASA should pursue.”

They did not attend the Friday announcement.

But Bridenstine said Johnson will, in fact, be involved in the lander project and that the Texas space center already has a full plate with management of the International Space Station, development of commercial crew spacecraft, cargo delivery missions to the station and the Gateway space station required for Artemis moon landings.

“I understand some of their concerns,” he said. “This is about 363 total jobs, 140 of which will be here in Huntsville, 87 would be led out of the Johnson Space Center.”

With modern technology, including high-speed computer networks, teleconferencing and other tools, having engineers in two locations is not the impediment it was in the early days of the space program, he said.

Morgan tried to reassure critics that Marshall will work closely with other NASA field centers to ensure success.

“We’ve partnered extensively with all the other NASA centers through the years, and we intend to keep doing that,” she said. “That’s how we bring out the best. You let JSC work the crew module, you let Marshall lead in the propulsion areas, you let Glenn (Research Center) lead in the power systems. . That’s what we plan to do.”

In a break with past practice, where NASA developed a “reference” design that industry then implemented, “what we plan to do is collaborate with industry and bring their speed and our experience to try to have the best team that can make this 2024 goal,” Morgan said. “I’m very excited to be part of this, to lead this effort.”

The Artemis program calls for building a small space station called Gateway made up of a solar-electric propulsion module connected to a pressurized habitation module and a docking port. The modules will be launched to the moon by commercial rockets and assembled under remote control using autonomous docking systems.

An artist’s impression of a Boeing-built Space Launch System rocket climbing toward space. NASA

The lunar lander, consisting of three components, also will be launched atop commercial rockets and docked at the Gateway before any astronauts arrive. One component, a sort of carrier craft known as a transfer vehicle, would take the lander from Gateway down to a lower orbit. From there, the lander’s descent module will make a rocket-powered landing on the moon, initially carrying two astronauts.

The astronauts would ride down to the surface in the pressurized cabin of an upper ascent stage. That stage will use the descent module as a launching pad, much like the Apollo astronauts did 50 years ago, to climb back up to the transfer vehicle and then on to Gateway.

While the details remain to be seen, “we’ve got to have a lander,” Bridenstine said. “In most conceptual designs that (lander) requires three elements. . Two of those elements are highly focused on propulsion. And I would argue that when it comes to propulsion, there is no place in the world more experienced or better than the Marshall Space Flight Center.”

While development of Gateway and the lunar lander are underway, NASA will be pressing ahead with development and tests of the gargantuan Boeing-built SLS rocket needed to boost astronauts out of Earth orbit and on to the moon aboard Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsules.

An initial unpiloted test flight of the SLS-Orion space vehicle is planned for 2021, followed by a piloted flight around the moon in the 2022-23 timeframe. If all goes well, the third flight of the SLS will carry astronauts to the Gateway for an initial landing near the moon’s south pole in 2024.

NASA originally planned to put astronauts back on the moon in 2028. But earlier this year, the Trump administration directed the agency to accelerate those plans, approving $1.6 billion in supplemental funding for NASA’s fiscal 2020 budget to kick-start development.

Since then, NASA has awarded a contract to Maxar for Gateway’s propulsion module and another sole-source contract to Northrop Grumman for the habitation section. A variety of smaller fast-track contracts for science payloads and technology development have also been awarded.

But the schedule includes almost no margin for technical setbacks or delays. Complicating the outlook, Bridenstine has said NASA will need an additional $20 billion to $30 billion over the next five years to meet the Trump administration’s 2024 lunar landing deadline.

“The funding is significant,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala. “We’re talking about, in the first year, roughly $1.6 billion to make sure we’re on track to return to the moon by 2024. Over that five-year period, we’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 to 30 billion.

“And let me emphasize that has to be over and above what we’re already spending on the science NASA does,” he added. “That is a significant commitment, and I hope that Congress will be in a position to recognize the value, the advancements we’re undoubtedly going to have.”

First published on August 16, 2019 / 5:44 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of “Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia.”

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Exhibit and model makers of Marshall Space Flight Center telling story of NASA

Exhibit and model makers of Marshall Space Flight Center telling story of NASA

The exhibit and model makers of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville are still telling the story of NASA in a very unique, hands-on way.

Of course, preparation for that started years earlier with ideas, drawings and calculations on paper. A handful of talented artists and technicians turned those ideas into exact scale replicas of the rockets and capsules that would launch humans on their greatest adventure.

The exhibit and model makers of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville are still telling the story of NASA in a very unique, hands-on way.

Inside a building on Redstone Arsenal is a Santa’s workshop of sorts that few people have ever seen. Millions have seen what they make at the exhibit and model shop, but few have seen how this creative crew shrinks a nearly 400-foot rocket into a desktop display or discovered why what they do is so important to NASA’s mission.

The manager of exhibits and artifacts, Todd Cannon, says an 11-member team of model makers, graphic designers and technicians can create anything from delicate mural-size wall coverings to sturdy hands-on exhibits and scale models.

“We’re a visual society,” he said. “So, having a model to demonstrate all of these different designs really ignites the imagination of the person you’re talking to.”

Inspiration is their stock in trade, firing up the next generation by creating traveling exhibits, museum displays, artwork and models.

“This is a great way for people to understand when we’re talking about a rocket that’s going to go to the moon, what does that look like?” Cannon said.

Trevor Bennett’s been building models professionally there for three years. He worked on a 150-scale model of the SLS. The detail is incredible and much of it is still done by hand.

“The eye wants to go to all the details and the excitement begins to build,” Bennett said. “As a modeler, we try to aim for accuracy that engineers notice.”

A modeler, Aaron Stanfield, is in his eleventh year there. Building models was a hobby until he heard about this place.

“I couldn’t believe this job existed,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. Somebody paid somebody to build models for NASA? So I had to have the job.”

He’s working on a scale model of the engine test stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. After visiting the site, he uploaded photos and blueprints that he’s using to recreate the structure in plywood and plastic.

“Some of these models have been out here fifty years, and I hope my models are out here fifty years. We’ll see,” Stanfield said.

Shari White manages this team. She describes their mission in just a few words.

“We help tell the story of NASA,” she said.

Designers and technicians can take a simple sketch, transfer it to a computer and create a hand-built exhibit.

“We’re the actual hands-on. You know, I can talk to you all day long and say ‘I build rockets, and I built this and I did that,’ but until you see it, you don’t know that that’s what’s actually going on,” White said.

A design artist, Rob Williams, says it’s rewarding work, showing people what NASA is doing.

“From paper to computer screen to in a lobby or in a school, or even in a museum, they get to see our work,” he said.

In addition to museums, their work is on display at trade shows, in office building lobbies, presidential boardrooms and executive offices.

Earlier this year, the Marshall Space Flight Center‘s director, Jody Singer, used a model in her office to show how the SLS works. Wernher von Braun was especially fond of these intricate reproductions.

“He had in his office at Marshall, you can even see in some of these pictures, there were always models of rockets behind his desk,” his daughter, Margrit von Braun, said.

She remembers her father’s office crammed with them.

“And one of them, I think they actually had a cutaway in the ceiling to show the Saturn V because it was too tall to fit in the regular room,” she said.

Von Braun believed models helped engage the public in the space program, and he made sure he had plenty of them.

“Dr. von Braun was one of the ones who actually helped focus on getting the model shop started here,” Trevor Bennett said.

The processes may have changed with liquid PVC, 3D printers and computer-aided routers now working alongside old-school lathes and milling machines, but the mission of the team remains the same.

“We show them what the agency is doing, where it’s going, what we’re going to do, what we’re doing now, and I think that’s very important,” Rob Williams said.

Some of the new processes they’re using out there, specialized software and 3D printing, are actually laying the groundwork for techniques that could one day be used to make tools and replacement parts aboard a remote space station on the moon or Mars.

Facility Focus: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center – Tech Briefs

Facility Focus: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

Founded on July 1, 1960, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL is one of NASA’s largest field centers. Marshall engineers designed, built, tested, and helped launch the Saturn V rocket that carried Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Marshall developed new rocket engines and tanks for the fleet of space shuttles, built sections of the International Space Station (ISS), and now manages all the science work of the astronauts aboard the ISS from a 24/7 Payload Operations Integration Center. Marshall also manages NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans — the agency’s premier site for the manufacture and assembly of large-scale space structures and systems.

The Space Launch System (SLS) liquid hydrogen tank test article positioned in the test stand at Marshall.

Core Capabilities

To enable NASA’s human and robotic exploration missions, Marshall maintains a range of design, development, and testing capabilities. For launch vehicles and spacecraft, the Center develops propulsion and life support systems, studies space environment effects, designs advanced avionics and guidance systems, and operates a suite of environmental testing facilities to verify hardware prior to flight.

Propulsion – Propulsion is the foundation for all space exploration, and Marshall has been a part of every major propulsion development in NASA’s history. The Center’s expertise in traditional solid and liquid propulsion systems, as well as advanced systems such as solar sails and nuclear propulsion, enables an array of spacecraft and missions for the future of exploration. Marshall has unique capabilities to rapidly prototype, test, and integrate new propulsion system concepts including liquid propulsion technologies. The Center maintains national test facilities and test engineering to support development efforts through customized test programs.

Materials and Manufacturing – Marshall maintains the most comprehensive collection of materials properties data in the world. The Center is also working to develop new manufacturing technology and techniques applicable to the smallest engine components or the largest cryogenic fuel tanks. Marshall is advancing commercial capabilities in additive and digital manufacturing and applying them to aerospace challenges, and is advancing materials diagnostics and fracture/failure analysis.

Space Transportation Systems – To enable NASA’s human and robotic exploration missions, Marshall maintains a range of design, development, and testing capabilities. For launch vehicles and spacecraft, the center develops and analyzes advanced vehicle and systems concepts, designs advanced avionics and guidance systems, and provides a full suite of structural testing capabilities. The center provides in-house design of avionics and electrical systems, flight software, and guidance, navigation, and control procedures. Unique test facilities enable testing of structural systems and thermal and fluid systems.

The NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge at Marshall.

Space Systems – Since the first payloads went into space, Marshall has played a vital role in managing payload systems and mission operations. The center continues to support living and working on the ISS, plan future systems for life support and scientific research, study space environment effects, and operate environmental testing facilities to verify hardware prior to flight. Capabilities include design of closed-loop, regenerative, and integrated air/water life support systems.

Scientific Research – Marshall’s scientific research includes a broad array of earth science, heliophysics, astrophysics, and planetary science investigations. These experiments include missions from nanosatellites to Chandra, one of the Great Observatories.

Marshall Missions

From rocket engines to 3D printing in space, Marshall is involved in nearly every facet of NASA’s mission of exploration and discovery about Earth, the Sun, the solar system, and beyond.

The Marshall team designed, developed, and manages the Space Launch System (SLS) — the most powerful rocket ever built — to carry human explorers, their equipment, and science payloads deeper into space than ever before, to an asteroid, and to Mars. SLS is the only rocket that can send the Orion spacecraft, astronauts, and supplies to the Moon in a single launch. Offering more payload mass, volume capability, and energy than any current launch vehicle, SLS will open new possibilities for payloads including robotic scientific missions to deep space destinations.

Scientists at Marshall also work to understand and explore our home planet, improve lives, and safeguard our future. Developed and managed by Marshall scientists, SERVIR (a partnership of NASA, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and leading technical organizations) helps developing countries use satellite data to address critical challenges in food security, water resources, land use, and natural disasters. The NASA Short-term Prediction Research and Transition (SPoRT) center puts Earth observations into the hands of the operational weather community to improve short-term forecasts at the regional and local levels.

Marshall leads numerous science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education projects and activities to engage and inspire new generations. Thousands of students worldwide have competed in the Marshall-managed NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge, an annual event that challenges teams of high school and college students to create human-powered rovers designed to traverse the simulated surface of another world. Marshall also leads NASA Student Launch, which challenges American students to design, build, and launch working rockets, complete with science or engineering payloads.


Marshall has developed technologies that have applications outside of NASA’s space program. Many of these technologies can be found in products you see every day like stadium roofs, keg coolers, sports rehab equipment, and in boat motors and electric car wheels. Described here are just a few technologies that Marshall has developed that greatly improved the space industry.

Graphite and boron-reinforced composite materials originally used for the shuttle program were licensed to improve golf clubs. The composites provide a combination of shaft rigidity and flexibility that provides maximum distance.

Lower Chatter Friction Pull Plug Welding (FPPW) is necessary to plug the hole that is left behind as a friction stir weld (FSW) joint is completed and the pin tool of the welder retracts from the joint. FPPW involves a small, rotating part (plug) being spun and simultaneously pulled (forged) into a hole in a larger part. When the plug enters the hole, there is often chatter, and sometimes the machine stalls completely. NASA discovered that by optimizing the design of the pull plug, including angling the shoulder edge of the plug precisely, it makes contact with the hole in such a way that the chatter issue is improved. NASA has made the new design as an adaptation to make FPPW more practical and robust. The new plug has been used to make space-qualified parts at NASA, and the plug welds are as strong as initial welds. This new design makes FPPW more practical, perhaps even as a future rivet replacement.

Low-chatter friction pull plug welding.

Marshall developed an improved joining technology called Thermal Stir Welding that improves upon fusion welding and friction stir welding. This new technology enables a superior joining method by allowing manufacturers to join dissimilar materials and to weld at high rates. NASA’s technology offers users an alternative to state-of-the-art fusion and friction stir welding technologies.

Researchers have developed modular fixtures for holding metal in place during the assembly and welding of cylindrical and conical sections of rocket bodies. The huge structures hold the metal sheets that make up the shape of the rocket in place while technicians weld them together. These structures can easily be adjusted to form different body configurations for rocket sections with various diameters and heights. This improved setup efficiency allows for a more rapid shift from one project to the next. It cuts the amount of time to complete a project from months to weeks. This application could be useful in shipbuilding, airframe assembly, pressure vessel assembly, and of course, commercial space launch vehicle assembly.

The process of Ultrasonic Stir Welding joins large pieces of very-high-strength metals by adding high-powered ultrasonic energy and stirring the metals together. This application greatly reduces axial, frictional, and shear forces; increases travel rates; and reduces wear on the stir rod. Ultrasonic Stir Welding could improve the welding process in bridges, trains, ships, automotive pistons, struts, and vehicle structure.

Future applications for thermal stir welding.

Marshall developed a new low-cost, long-lasting valve seal — a simplified method for installing valve seats that eliminates the need for a swaged assembly process and the additional hardware and equipment typically found in conventional elastomeric valve seat installations. In addition to weight reduction, the fewer hardware components reduce the number of potential failure modes.

This simplified technique saves time and installation costs, and results in comparable leakage protection by minimizing acute stress in the seal material. NASA has used the installation technique on gas-fed, pulsed, electric thrusters for propellants that require very specific fluid flow operation, by quickly opening and closing the valves within short durations of time.

Ultrasonic welding applications.

Marshall’s cryogenic isolation valve technology uses solenoid valves powered by direct current (DC) electrical energy to control and redirect the energy stored in the upstream line pressure. Powering the solenoid valves only requires a DC power source capable of supplying 22 Watts that can be distributed and controlled in an on/off manner. By achieving actuation using only upstream line pressure and a 22-Watt DC power source, many additional support systems that are required for electromechanical and pneumatic actuation are eliminated. This reduction of parts results in several benefits, including reduced footprint, weight, and potential cost of the valve in addition to lower energy consumption.

Fluid Structure Coupling (FSC) technology is a passive method to control the way fluids and structures communicate and dictate the behavior of a system. It has the potential to mitigate a variety of vibration issues and can be applied anywhere internal or external fluids interact with physical structures. For example, in a multistory building, water from a rooftop tank or swimming pool could be used to mitigate seismic or wind-induced vibration by simply adding an FSC device that controls the way the building engages the water. It also could be used in marine applications for multi-directional stabilization of vessels or platforms.

Technology Transfer

NASA’s Technology Transfer Program ensures that innovations developed for exploration and discovery are broadly available to the public, maximizing the benefit to the nation.

To learn more about Marshall technologies available for licensing, visit here . For more information on doing business with Marshall, contact Sam Ortega, Manager – MSFC Partnerships Office, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ; 256-544-9294 or visit here .

Alabama s Marshall to lead NASA lander program in return to moon

Marshall Space Flight Center to lead NASA lander program in return to moon

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HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine today announced that the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville will lead the agency’s Human Landing System Program for its return to the Moon by 2024.

Bridenstine made the announcement in front of the 149-foot-tall Space Launch System (SLS) rocket liquid hydrogen tank structural test article currently being tested at NASA’s Alabama installation.

He was joined at the event by U.S. Reps. Mo Brooks and Robert Aderholt of Alabama and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee.

“We greatly appreciate the support shown here today by our representatives in Congress for NASA’s Artemis program and America’s return to the Moon, where we will prepare for our greatest feat for humankind – putting astronauts on Mars,” Bridenstine said.

“We focus on a ‘One NASA’ integrated approach that uses the technical capabilities of many centers. Marshall has the right combination of expertise and experience to accomplish this critical piece of the mission.”

Informed by years of expertise in propulsion systems integration and technology development, engineers at Marshall will work with U.S. companies to rapidly develop, integrate, and demonstrate a human lunar landing system that can launch to the Gateway, pick up astronauts and ferry them between the Gateway and the surface of the Moon.

Marshall Space Flight Center is the birthplace of America’s space program. It was Marshall scientists and engineers who designed, built, tested, and helped launch the giant Saturn V rocket that carried astronauts on the Apollo missions to the Moon,” Brooks said.

“Marshall has unique capabilities and expertise not found at other NASA centers. I’m pleased NASA has chosen Marshall to spearhead a key component of America’s return to the Moon and usher in the Artemis era.

Huge announcement from @NASA Administrator @JimBridenstine – @NASA_Marshall will oversee & manage the agency’s lunar lander development program. This decision highlights the crucial role #MSFC plays in sending astronauts back to the Moon.

Aderholt said Marshall is the perfect pick to lead the Human Landing System Program.

Marshall Space Flight Center, and North Alabama, have played a key role in every American human mission to space since the days of Mercury 7. I am proud that Marshall has been selected to be the lead for the landers program,” Aderholt said.

“I am also very proud that Marshall has designed and built the rocket system, the Space Launch System, which will make missions to the Moon and Mars possible. We look forward to working with our industry partners and our NASA partners from around the country.”