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All systems go: Newest rocket booster passes initial testing in Utah desert

PROMONTORY, Box Elder County— On a cloudless day in northern Utah, super-hot flames generate huge plumes of thick smoke that rise high into the otherwise clear blue sky above the desert of Box Elder County, bringing cheers to scores of onlookers who came to marvel at the power of human engineering that will one day propel rockets into space beyond Earth's orbit.

"I'm one of the few people that, when I was 14 years old, I knew what I wanted to do in life — and that was to play with rockets," said Jeff Winter, motor development manager at Northrop Grumman. Seeing the fruits of his labor is especially gratifying.

"I'm living the dream," Winter said.

Northrop Grumman Corp. Thursday conducted the first qualification ground test of its graphite epoxy motor — GEM 63 — which will be used as strap-on boosters on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket beginning July 2019.

The full-scale, static-fire test was the culmination of a three-year effort that began with development of the new technology that went into the motor, explained Katie Qian, an aerospace engineer in business development for commercial programs at Northrop Grumman.

"The main objective is to test out the ballistic qualities (of the motor)," she said. Ideally, the test will indicate the readiness of the motor and show what adjustments, if any, need to be made going forward, she said.

"We want to make sure everything is working, between the case, the propellant and the insulation on the inside," Qian said. "Today's test is to put all that together and get the (resulting) data validated."

Under a $191 million agreement with the U.S. Air Force, Northrop Grumman is partnering with the United Launch Alliance to implement launch vehicle production, launch operations and spaceflight certification for the Space Test Program-3 mission scheduled to take place at Florida's Cape Canaveral next year.

"(This motor) is a booster on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V space launch vehicle," Qian said. "It's the kind you might see sending up satellites for communications and that sort of thing."

The motor being tested is one of potentially five that could be strapped around a rocket to provide added thrust during takeoff, she said.

The test was considered a "cold" test in which the motor was cooled down to a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit before ignition to determine if the motor is able to operate properly under such conditions, she explained.

"The first static test is always a major milestone," she said.

The next static test will be a "hot" test, where the motor will be activated at 90 degrees, Winter said.

As for the cold test, he said they were "expecting success and we got success." When asked how he measured success, he replied wryly, "because I could see the building."

Noting the fact there were no unforeseen catastrophes, he added that they will know more about the function of the motor once they're able to examine and evaluate data generated from Thursday's test.

"We've got performance data to look at," he said. "We'll dissect the motor and it'll take about 30 days to collect all the data."

This test seemed to go generally as expected, Winter said. However, he said there is still work to be done to prepare for the upcoming ground test later this year.

While he is optimistic about the possible findings, he was particularly excited about the lead up to and execution of the static test. Being a part of this kind of program is exactly why he became a rocket scientist, he said.

He said the second static test is scheduled for December when, if all goes well, they will be able to plan for the first actual launch using the GEM 63.

"The first flight will have five solid (rocket booster motors) on it," he said. Much of the technology that went into the making of the solid rocket motor was developed and manufactured in the Beehive State at various Northrop Grumman facilities around northern Utah — something Utahns should be proud of.

"We are the single largest manufacturer of solid rocket motors in the world," he said.