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NASA's Hydrogen Outpost: The Rocket Systems Area at Plum Brook Station"There was pretty much a general knowledge about hydrogen and its capabilities," recalled former researcher Robert Graham. "The question was, could you use it in a rocket engine? Do we have the technology to handle it? How will it cool? Will it produce so much heat release that we can't cool the engine? These were the questions that we had to address." The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Glenn Research Center, referred to historically as the Lewis Research Center, made a concerted effort to answer these and related questions in the 1950s and 1960s. The center played a critical role transforming hydrogen's theoretical potential into a flight-ready propellant. Since then NASA has utilized liquid hydrogen to send humans and robots to the Moon, propel dozens of spacecraft across the universe, orbit scores of satellite systems, and power 135 space shuttle flights. Rocket pioneers had recognized hydrogen's potential early on, but its extremely low boiling temperature and low density made it impracticable as a fuel. The Lewis laboratory first demonstrated that liquid hydrogen could be safely utilized in rocket and aircraft propulsion systems, then perfected techniques to store, pump, and cleanly burn the fuel, as well as use it to cool the engine. The Rocket Systems Area at Lewis's remote testing area, Plum Brook Station, played a little known, but important role in the center's hydrogen research efforts. This publication focuses on the activities at the Rocket Systems Area, but it also discusses hydrogen's role in NASA's space program and Lewis's overall hydrogen work. The Rocket Systems Area included nine physically modest test sites and three test stands dedicated to liquid-hydrogen-related research. In 1962 Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Karl Abram claimed, "The rocket facility looks more like a petroleum refinery. Its test rigs sprout pipes, valves and tanks. During the night test runs, excess hydrogen is burned from special stacks in the best Oklahoma oil field tradition." Besides the Rocket Systems Area, Plum Brook Station also included a nuclear test reactor, a large vacuum tank, a hypersonic wind tunnel, and a full-scale upper-stage rocket stand. The Rocket Systems Area operated from 1961 until NASA shut down all of Plum Brook in 1974. The center reopened Plum Brook in the late 1980s and continues to use several test facilities. The Rocket Systems Area, however, was not restored. Today Plum Brook resembles a nature preserve more than an oil refinery. Lush fields and forests separate the large test facilities. Until recently, the abandoned Rocket Systems Area structures and equipment were visible amongst the greenery. These space-age ruins, particularly the three towers, stood as silent sentinels over the sparsely populated reservation. Few knew the story of these mysterious facilities when NASA removed them in the late 2000s.
Document ID
Acquisition Source
Glenn Research Center
Document Type
Arrighi, Robert S.
(Alcyon Technical Services-JV, Inc. Huntsville, AL, United States)
Date Acquired
October 6, 2016
Publication Date
September 1, 2016
Subject Category
Ground Support Systems And Facilities (Space)
Propellants And Fuels
Report/Patent Number
Funding Number(s)
WBS: WBS 736466.
Distribution Limits
Public Use Permitted.
Rocket Systems
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