The California Story (Part 3)

A little more than a week after our quadrennial national election, we wonder about our future in space. As space and aviation bloggers, we yearn for the clarity of a “We choose to go to the moon” moment. Time and time again, we have seen the power of space exploration to inspire, to inculcate aspirations to learn, to imagine, to engage. At our own institution, Chapman University, we once saw a young woman get up during an event in Memorial Hall and ask astronaut Mike Massimino, “How can I become an astronaut?” As we mentioned in the second part of this series, named after California Science Center’s newest exhibit, “The California Story,” Doug was surrounded by a class of fifth-graders pointing at the displays related to the space shuttle and challenging each other on their knowledge. Space inspires.

“The California Story” exhibit of space shuttle Endeavour nurtures that inspiration at the museum. In the first part of this series, we interviewed Ken Philips, who’s curating that exhibit. In part two of this series, we gave a general overview of the exhibit: space potty, Endeavour’s tires, scads of photos and videos, a couple of shuttle simulators, and a wide range of other displays. This week, we look at the part of the exhibit that captured and held Doug’s attention: the ROSC, or the Rocketdyne Operations Support Center. The ROSC is a launch control center dedicated to a single component in a shuttle launch: the space shuttle main engine (SSME).

The SSMEs are the three rocket engines attached to the tail of the shuttle orbiter. They are liquid propellant engines—as opposed to the solid fuel boosters—that burn a chemically potent mixture of cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which are fed from the large, orange external fuel tank. After the hydrogen and oxygen combine in the burning process, the exhaust that escapes from an SSME is essentially super-heated water vapor. In other words, it’s thrust. These SSMEs provide power.

Doug had stopped and gawked at the ROSC exhibit shortly after arriving at the Media Day event, but it wasn’t until he was chatting with Ken Phillips that Doug found out that the person responsible for bringing the ROSC to the California Science Center, Rocketdyne’s Dean Patmor, was at the day’s event. Phillips motioned towards Patmor, blue-shirted and standing nearby. After a quick introduction, Patmor related the story of how he arranged for the ROSC to wind up as a permanent part of “The California Story.”

Patmor’s efforts began eighteen months ago when he realized that Rocketdyne might be forced to scrap the ROSC. For thirty years, every single launch of the shuttle program, Rocketdyne engineers sat watch in the ROSC. But when the shuttle program ended, ROSC became a man-rated system without any launches to support. The ROSC would be “too expensive to maintain,” as Patmor put it, until NASA’s next human-rated launch system comes online. Fearing the loss of the historic control room, Patmor first contacted the California Science Center to see if they would be interested in giving the ROSC a part to play in the exhibit that they were creating for Endeavour. Once he had that part in motion, he broached the subject with his own management. Patmor’s approach is familiar to us at Lofty Ambitions: ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

During its working life, the ROSC was responsible for monitoring the SSMEs’ mind-boggling performance numbers in real-time. Here are just a few of those numbers. The SSMEs’ operating regime encompasses a temperature range 6500º F (-423º Fahrenheit to +6000º Fahrenheit). The engines’ high-pressure fuel turbopump delivers the hydrogen fuel to the combustion chamber under such great pressure (6,515 psia) that it could pump its contents thirty-six miles high into the atmosphere. During the shuttle’s eight-and-a-half minute ascent into orbit, the people in the ROSC kept a watchful eye on those numbers and more. For visitors to the exhibit, the monitors and screens of the ROSC display meaningful, but simulated, launch data. Using real launch data would be an ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) violation.

Doug asked Patmor to tell him one thing about the ROSC that no one else knew. Patmor demurred and explained that he couldn’t imagine that there was an aspect of the ROSC that wasn’t known in his community. But prompted by a colleague from Rocketdyne, Communications Specialist Erin Dick, Patmor led Doug into the consoles to show him the pizza button. This tiny, square, red button controlled one of the voice communication loops that engineers used to communicate. Patmor explained that, once a launch sequence begins (starting with tanking the shuttle about nine hours prior to launch), the engineers are stuck there for the duration. It was customary to provide meals for the ROSC team, hence the need for a pizza communication button.

The Lofty Ambitions duo: delirious from sleep deprivation or thrilled to see Endeavour once again?

As befits their name, Rocketdyne is still in the business of designing, building, testing, and launching rocket engines. Currently, they are focused on upgrading the eighteen remaining SSMEs—sixteen flight engines and two for development purposes—for their next role: flying on the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS, NASA’s next heavy launch vehicle, will make use of four (or perhaps five) of the refitted engines on its core stage. As an aside, Patmor added that once the proposed SLS got going, he fully well expected to be called back from retirement to help to design the SLS control center. A new kind of ROSC will emerge.

And so the story goes. When kids see Endeavour at the museum, they will wonder what it’s like to go to space. When they see the space potty, they’ll start to realize the complexities of traveling beyond our world. When they see the ROSC, they’ll begin to think like engineers and come up with new, unexpected reasons to have an extra button on a console. “The California Story,” as much as it evokes nostalgia, is designed to inspire a future of space exploration.

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