Northrop Grummans Trina Patterson tests rockets

Northrop Grumman's Trina Patterson tests rockets

 June 13, 2019

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Trina Patterson is Director of Communication Launch Vehicle Division at Northrop Grumman. She shares the reasons why the OmegA First Stage Ground Test was an occasion worth attending.

"For many individuals seeing a rocket soar to the heavens is an item on their bucket list, as it should be," says Trina. "Watching a launch vehicle ignite and start to rise from the pad with its bright plume of fire, followed by the sound of 'rocket thunder' as it moves up into the sky on its journey to space, is nothing short of breathtaking. Just as exciting is taking the opportunity to experience a ground test; in fact, I would argue the experience of watching a ground test is more physically intense than watching a launch."

Bucket list completion with the OmegA rocket motor test

The first stage test of Northrop Grumman's OmegA rocket, an intermediate/heavy-class rocket designed to carry critical national security payloads for the U.S. Air Force, recently took place at Northrop Grumman’s rocket motor test facility in Promontory, Utah, and was covered live on the company's website.

"As a veteran in the launch industry, I have had the honor to support more than 100 launches and 30 ground tests. Ground tests give you a real feel of the power of a rocket as it ignites all of your senses. Yes, I am aware that was a rocket pun!" says Trina. "Unlike a launch—where the rocket immediately starts moving away from you—a ground test allows you to experience the raw power of the rocket stage for its entire performance, which is usually around two minutes."

​Up close and personal with a solid rocket booster for NASA’s Space Launch System

Northrop Grumman solid rocket motor

The image shown above offers a bird’s eye view of a solid rocket motor in the test stand as Northrop Grumman prepares for a test fire.

The OmegaA first stage was 80 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, but was positioned horizontally on a specialized test stand. The test stand is designed to hold powerful rockets in place while they produce millions of pounds of thrust – OmegA’s first stage produced 2.1 million pounds of thrust!

Collecting data makes for happy rocket scientists and technicians

Trina added ahead of the test: "Technicians have instrumented the rocket stage with sensors and gauges to take measurements and collect data that our engineers use to verify the rocket performed as designed. I should mention that the more data we collect, the happier our rocket scientists are – so on this test, there are approximately 700 channels collecting data. While you won’t see all of these instruments from the viewing site, you may notice boxes and raceways, similar to what you would see with electrical conduit, in some of the close-up video and photos of OmegA’s first stage."

Minutes before the test is when things really started to get exciting at the viewing site. At the one-minute mark, a siren sounded. This siren is part of Northrop Grumman’s safety protocol to alert all of the test personnel a rocket stage test is about to take place and everyone must be clear.

As the countdown started, those in attendance heard the test conductor call out: “T-minus 30 seconds.” At that point, Trina's heart started racing! 

She described the experience ahead of the event: "You will see an amazing, brilliant white fire shoot out of the nozzle of OmegA’s first stage. A white cloud will begin to rise in the air. For about 15 seconds it will be eerily quiet – yes, quiet – as the speed of sound is slower than the speed of light. You will notice the quiet. Then the sound wave will hit – the emotion you will experience is hard to describe. You will hear and feel the power at this point, and it will continue for the full two minutes of the test. It is so loud you will not be able to hear the person next to you, even if you are yelling, which I promise you will try to do. But wait, this is just the beginning of the rocket ground test experience.

"During the firing, continue to use your senses. The avionics, or computer, will move the nozzle back and forth to simulate the flight path of OmegA. If you pay close attention, you can hear and feel this motion as the rocket thunder will get a little louder or softer as is the nozzle moves. I would describe the feeling as a light wind.

"The ground also rumbles below your feet as the rocket stage fires. Once the firing completes, a large fire extinguisher called a quench arm will move into the motor to put out the fire so the engineers can analyze the motor’s state at that exact moment – and like that we are right back to rocket scientists loving to collect and investigate data!"

Northrop Grumman’s deep roots in rocket expertise

Northrop Grumman OmegA test fitr

Northrop Grumman has conducted tests like these for more than 50 years. In fact, the company can trace its rocket roots back to the Mercury program where the company provided the 'Little Joe' booster rocket to test the launch escape system and heat shield for the Mercury capsules in 1959 and 1960.

Northrop Grumman also provided rockets and the lunar lander during the Apollo program and the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle Program. The company currently operates a fleet of rockets that carry small to medium payloads into space as well as cargo to the crews aboard the International Space Station.

OmegA Builds on the foundation incorporating new innovation

OmegA utilizes much of this great heritage as a foundation while incorporating new innovations for its design. For example, the first stage uses technology from the space shuttle booster with the addition of advanced new components and materials such as cases made of composites rather than steel. 

Using common hardware and facilities like the test stand helps Northrop Grumman keep OmegA’s cost down. So does utilizing components the company knows work when launching to space, which also boosts the reliability of the rocket. With critical missions supporting national security, both of these traits are vital for mission success.

Trina concludes: "Now, back to you, standing in Northrop Grumman’s viewing site. The ground test just finished, and my guess is you are in awe of what you just experienced. Go ahead and check this off your bucket list, and let me know if you feel as I do—you find it hard to adequately describe in words the pure awesomeness of physically experiencing rocket power!"

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