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.
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.
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.
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.