Rocket Propulsion Test Program Manager Christine Powell discusses chemical propulsion testing at NASA’s world-class facilities.
The Rocket Propulsion Test Program Office provides the program management structure necessary to optimize the use of NASA’s chemical rocket propulsion test assets while ensuring an agency core capability for chemical rocket propulsion testing is maintained. The program office manages a portfolio of NASA chemical rocket propulsion test facilities located at Stennis Space Center, Glenn Research Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, and White Sands Test Facility.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- The importance of NASA’s rocket propulsion test activities and capabilities
- Rocket propulsion testing for the Artemis Program
- Changes in rocket propulsion testing in recent decades
Christine Powell is the Rocket Propulsion Test (RPT) Program Manager. Powell is responsible for managing NASA’s RPT portfolio capabilities at the Stennis Space Center (SSC), Marshall Space Flight Center, Glenn Research Center, and White Sands Test Facility. Her responsibilities include management of the program’s annual budget, risks, and test assignments as well as strategic planning for NASA’s key RPT objectives. Prior to her current role, Powell served as Assistant Director of SSC’s Engineering and Test Directorate (ETD), leading the Office of Project Formulation, Planning, and Control. She previously served as Chief of the ETD Systems Engineering Branch. Powell joined NASA as an intern in 1991 at SSC and moved into a leadership role by 2004 after working in positions as an Instrumentation Engineer and a Systems Integration Engineer. She has a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Mississippi State University and a master’s in engineering management from the University of New Orleans.
Christine Powell: Developing and testing rocket propulsion systems, it’s really foundational to spaceflight and to everything that we’re trying to do with spaceflight.
Whether the payload is a robotic element or a science payload or a satellite to release or a crewed mission, the propulsion systems used to launch have to be safe and reliable. And so, we utilize our unique test facilities across the nation to help in that process.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned, and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
The Rocket Propulsion Test Program establishes and maintains world-class test facilities. The program provides integration for NASA and its customers to obtain safe, efficient, and cost-effective chemical rocket propulsion test services. The program office resides at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, and Christine Powell is the program manager.
Christine, thanks so much for joining us today on the podcast.
Powell: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
Host: Could you start by describing the Rocket Propulsion Test Program?
Powell: Sure. Absolutely. So the Rocket Propulsion Test Program is what is known as a capability portfolio. Now the physical program office is located at Stennis Space Center in south Mississippi, but I report up through the Space Operations Mission Directorate organizationally at Headquarters, and we’re responsible for managing the budget, the risk, the strategic planning, and the sustainment of NASA’s chemical rocket propulsion test capabilities across four of NASA’s centers. And these capabilities are the test stands themselves and the infrastructure but also the people and the skills and everyone on the team that’s responsible for maintaining and operating these systems. And we do have facilities at the Glenn Research Center in Ohio as well as the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, here at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi as well as the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico.
Our responsibility is providing test services to provide data for our customers to help validate their initial design concepts as well as to increase confidence in their performance and their manufacturing and operations to help ensure successful launch readiness, not just for NASA programs like Artemis, but for a variety of customers within NASA and outside of NASA such as the DOD and our commercial partners.
So, on average across the entire portfolio, we typically conduct over 500 tests per year. And I can say that for fiscal year ’23, we were much busier with a lot of our commercial partners and actually tested over 700 times with more than 50,000 seconds of hot fire testing alone. So a lot of activity across the portfolio, across the four centers for NASA.
Host: When someone visits the Stennis rocket propulsion test facilities for the first time, what would you say usually surprises them most?
Powell: I would say the size. A lot of people come to Stennis, and they have these visions in their head that there’s a test facility somewhere and they don’t realize how extensive the entire test complex is. For those who have driven along Interstate 10 and crossed over the Pearl River and looked out across the trees, you can actually see several of the larger test stands sticking up above the treetops. And so, the size is one of the things that surprises people a lot.
Also, the variety of testing that’s conducted at Stennis. So like I said, they have that vision of the very large test facility where we conducted perhaps the core stage testing for the Artemis 1 launch, and they don’t realize that we actually do conduct a lot of variety testing for different size engines and thrusters as well as parts of rocket engines such as turbo pumps and thrust chambers and injectors and much more.
So across the entire portfolio, we can simulate vacuum, we can simulate different altitude environments as well as general sea-level testing. And customers have come here from all over the nation, including some who have come from overseas to look for these unique capabilities to test really a huge variety of pieces of hardware to enable space and launch operations.
Host: What’s happening at Stennis with Rocket Propulsion Test between now and early 2024?
Powell: So recently Stennis finalized a lease agreement for Relativity Space to use the A‐2 Test Stand, and several months ago, a similar agreement was signed with Rocket Lab for the use of the A-3 Test Stand. So ’24 is going to be very busy for these companies. They’re working to reconfigure these test positions to support their own test campaigns, and Stennis will support them in their endeavors.
There’s site services and some of the support facilities that NASA operates to ensure that not only are the NASA missions successful, but the onsite commercial partners are successful as well. So there’ll be a lot of activity there. In addition, the center has agreements to provide test support for other commercial partners, in particular in the E-Complex at Stennis. And then on the A-1 Test Stand, the RS-25 test team will continue testing the RS-25 engines to support the future Artemis Program launches. And then additional work is still continuing at the B-2 Test Stand in support of the Exploration Upper Stage testing that will also happen. So there’s a lot of activity happening in ’24.
Host: How exciting is it to be part of this testing for the Artemis Program?
Powell: Oh, it’s amazing. It’s absolutely amazing. I think back to when I started with NASA and imagining what my career was going to be like, and you’ve seen the movies, so to speak, and you’ve seen the news reels of Apollo and when space shuttle first started, but to be here in the agency to see this once-in-a-generation program, it’s absolutely exhilarating.
I was fortunate enough to be at Stennis during a lot of the buildup activities at the B-2 Test Stand for the core stage test activities, and was here on site when the team tested and then was able to go watch the actual launch. And it just was all very surreal. I mean, standing there watching Artemis 1 lift off the pad and hearing the roar of the engines across the way, and it just seemed very surreal. But to sit there and watch all the work that this amazing team has done to put all of those pieces together, and to launch, and to successfully operate and complete that activity has been inspiring for me. It’s kind of reinvigorating as well.
Host: Christine, let’s talk about your career path from internship to leadership. You’ve been with the agency for a while?
Powell: Yes. So I started back in January of 1991 as a cooperative education student. I believe it’s the Pathways Program now. And I’ve been here with the agency in some form or fashion ever since. So my first job while I was in college was working out in the E-Complex at Stennis, and I was very fortunate to have some amazing mentors and work with some outstanding engineering and technician personnel. They really guided me through that whole process and allowed me to see the things that I was learning in college being brought to life in real-world application. And so I was able to go back to college on my semesters where I did go back to class and share my experiences with other interns and other students, and really began to understand how significant that was in shaping the future path that I was going to take.
I wasn’t really sure when I started college exactly what I was going to do, I guess when I grew up, so to speak. But I knew I wanted to do something in engineering. And when I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to intern with NASA, and get in the field, and work with the team, and operate console for some hybrid engine testing and design and install communication systems and video systems and control systems as a student, that really just solidified my confidence in pursuing engineering as a career. And so I was one of the few, the year that I graduated, that was hired on with our companies that we had interned with. There was actually a hiring freeze on for NASA, but they had some limited ability. And I and another co-op student at the time were both transferred to permanent positions at that time. And I basically grew up in the Propulsion Test Area and had some amazing experiences in a variety of roles and just really had some outstanding mentors along the way that helped guide me, and not just with me, but with anyone that I’ve worked with.
They’ve never allowed us to limit our vision of what we wanted to be. And for me in particular, there weren’t a lot of women in engineering when I was going through college, and there weren’t very many in particular in the Propulsion Test Area when I did graduate. And so they never treated me any differently than any other part of the team. And I had peers that worked in other companies that were women in engineering, and they were treated very differently. And I never had that with NASA. I was always basically told, ‘Your path forward is wide open. Tell us what you want to do, and we’ll help you get there.’ And so, I was really fortunate to have people in my life and in my career who helped identify different opportunities and also pushed me to step outside my comfort zone and outside where I thought I should be and to take on opportunities and just try different things and experience different things.
And it really did help provide the steps for me to get here. And so I took on different roles through my career. I started out, like I said, as a co-op student, then a full-time instrumentation engineer. I worked in the control systems area. There were some teams that I basically did anything and everything electrical, whether it was communications, video, console operations for controls or data acquisition, and eventually became a team lead and a branch lead, and eventually was given an opportunity to be an Assistant Director of Engineering at Stennis. And that really opened up my aperture a lot more to be able to see across the organizational lines a lot more, across the centers. I had some experience working with the Chief Engineer’s Office at Headquarters, but that engineering leadership role really helped propel me to that next level of leadership. And my mentor at the time — he still mentors me from time to time — really helped push me outside my comfort zone in a way that I felt supported and didn’t feel like I was just out there on my own.
And then taking advantage of the developmental opportunities from a training perspective, the agency has some amazing opportunities, and the federal agency as a whole has programs such as the Federal Executive Institute, and the APPEL and the knowledge sharing and the courses, and things of that nature that allow us to reach that next step and help prepare us for that next step. And so like I said before, mentorship is huge to me. Developing people is one of the main key elements as a leader that I try to pass on to that next generation of leaders. And I was very fortunate, and that’s what led me to where I am today.
Host: That is all so interesting. What do you think it takes to be an effective leader?
Powell: Wow. So, I think that there’s a lot of different ways to look at this and answer it. And so for me, the main things that are important for me in being an effective leader is being able to know your own weakness, but also your strengths and how to leverage those to support and enable your team. So for me, being open to new ideas, inviting people to the table, listening to their perspectives, not getting distracted and lost with all the noise that’s around us and everything, but really trying to be present for the team and find ways that help them be successful as individuals, which will make the team more successful. And so for me, being able to enable my team for their individual successes is just as important as focusing on the end goal, the end mission. That is important to me, but also the process of how we get there and how I can enable the team members to grow in their own positions and their own capabilities to help the team be successful overall is just as important.
And throughout all of that, maintaining integrity and transparency is also very important in my mind. Sometimes there’s information that we have that we’re not allowed to share with other people. There may be strategic conversations that are happening that we’re asked to keep close hold, and sometimes rumors spread, people know something’s going on, but just being able to have an honest conversation to say, ‘Strategies are in work or things are being discussed, but here’s the boundaries of what I can say, and I can’t say beyond that,’ but let them know that they’re important to the conversation, that you’ll share what you can, when you can, but also just finding ways to help provide clarity in the direction that we’re heading in the support that they need to get there.
Host: Are there lessons learned throughout your career that particularly stand out to you?
Powell: I suppose some of the main things for me aren’t necessarily technical lessons learned, but more personal or I guess from a team or personal growth perspective. Don’t be afraid to try something new. I was always so worried about getting really, really good at whatever it was that was on my plate that I didn’t want to step outside that box and risk rocking the boat a little bit and maybe not being perfect in it, and perfection is not necessarily the best end goal at that point. They always say perfection is the enemy of good enough. Sometimes you don’t have time to be perfect and you just need to be good enough. And sometimes good enough is close enough to perfection that you just need to be happy with it and not focus on maybe the very small percentage of imperfection that’s there.
Early in my career, I got distracted by that very small percentage of imperfection and lost perspective on the successes that I was having that people would come up to me and say, ‘Wow, you did such a great job.’ And I would think, ‘No, I didn’t. Here’s all the things I did wrong.’ And I didn’t really enjoy the experiences or the moment that I was having when I was having it. And I was always afraid to try something new because I was scared that I would either spread myself too thin or step outside the box too far and completely fail and be embarrassed or disappoint my mentor or something like that. And I just needed to take a step back and get different perspective and just be willing to fail and willing to try something new.
Host: What are some of your observations of how propulsion testing has changed over the years?
Powell: Well, I would say that one of the largest changes has really been in the growth of the market relative to space and rocket propulsion testing in general. There are so many more companies. There’s so much more activity related to commercial and academic institutions developing hardware and software not only for launch but also for space applications. And it’s interesting. So, whenever I or any of my team have an opportunity to go to a conference or a symposium for the space community, we’re somewhat surprised but also excited to see the growth in person and to see the impact to the amount of testing being performed both by NASA at our facilities for some of these companies but also the increased capability that these companies and teams have as well.
Similarly, there has been a lot of advancement in technology and materials development. So much has improved from an instrumentation perspective and controls, logic, computer systems that we are much more effective at controlling our systems and being able to provide a better quality data set to our customers. Another area has been just the materials themselves that the hardware is made out of. It’s now more and more additive manufacturing and 3 D printing, and the speed with which these new materials can be developed and the speed with which the parts and the engines themselves can be manufactured has increased. So, the result is we have new materials, new manufactured parts, and we need to test these, and we need to understand how the material responds under these controlled conditions and how the new manufacturing techniques may have impacted the quality of the part as well.
There’s also been a great deal of advancement in computer-aided design and simulation for hardware designs so that developers are able to an extent to reduce the amount of testing needed. However, a great deal of that simulation and analysis is actually built on real-world operation and testing. So as new materials are developed, we need to better understand how they will behave as the new manufacturing techniques are created. We test to determine how this new process affects the quality of the part and as engine developers try new propellants or new ways of blending propellants. Again, we need to test more to gain confidence in understanding how the hardware and thus the launch operations will perform so that we can protect any personnel, whether it’s the crew or the staff as well as the public, and ensure mission success.
Host: How have you seen NASA’s increased emphasis on safety impact rocket propulsion testing?
Powell: Well, this line of business can be very hazardous due to the nature of what we’re trying to do. We’re in essence creating controlled explosions under controlled conditions and collecting data to see what happens. And so safety has always been a huge factor in what we do. I think in the 2022 employee survey, over 96 percent of the Stennis employees, as just a sampling, felt that they were protected from workplace health and safety hazards. They felt like they had their organizational support, their procedural support, their team support to stay safe. And that’s one thing that the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, as well as the engineering and the test organizations are always focused on. They’re frontline with making sure that everything that we do from a propulsion test operations’ perspective is done safely. And that’s a huge piece of emphasis at all of the rocket propulsion test centers, and that’s why we test. Sometimes we don’t know what’s going to happen under certain conditions, and we test to see what happens, and there’s always that risk. So everything we do, safety has to be number one.
Host: What are your thoughts on the importance of NASA’s rocket propulsion test activities and capabilities?
Powell: So, developing and testing rocket propulsion systems, it’s really foundational to spaceflight and to everything that we’re trying to do with spaceflight. So, if you think about it, whether the payload is a robotic element or a science payload or a satellite to release or a crewed mission, the propulsion systems used to launch have to be safe and reliable. And so we utilize our unique test facilities across the nation to help in that process. We’re a critical step in ensuring the safe and effective execution of our engine test programs. It’s critical to any rocket propulsion development activity. So our mission within the Rocket Propulsion Test Program is to support all of our customers and to do our part to ensure that they’re successful. So notionally, our computational analysis techniques, our modeling has improved significantly over the years, but a lot of those models and that analysis is grounded in real data.
And so there’s still an element of verification and validation, whether it’s at the prototype phase or the manufacturing phase or pre-launch certification that relies heavily on physical testing. And so we provide that confidence for the hardware that is going to be experiencing very tough conditions throughout flight. And it’s critical for ensuring safety of our crews and our human element in that mission. And as additive manufacturing and materials technology evolves, testing of that new machine or that new metal or that new material is going to be critical to ensuring that we understand just how these systems will perform and where their operational limits may lie and how safe they are, not only for the crew, but also for the general public.
And so that’s something that the automotive industry and the airline industry matured through. They’ve had all of that development cycle and everything, and they still develop new materials and go through testing as well. And it’s no different from launching rockets. If there’s going to be a launch and there’s a possibility of the public being at risk or the crew being at risk, we have to understand what those operational limits are so that we can make sure that everyone is safe.
Host: Well, it has been great getting to chat with you, Christine. Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us today.
Powell: Oh, no. Thank you. I appreciate it. It’s been great.
Host: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Powell: I would just thank you for your time and thank you for the knowledge sharing and all of the podcasts and everything that you’re providing. It’s always wonderful to hear other perspectives and to get insight into other areas.
Host: Christine’s bio and links to topics discussed during our conversation are available at appel.nasa.gov/podcast along with a show transcript.
If you’d like to hear more about what’s happening at NASA, we encourage you to check out other NASA podcasts at nasa.gov/podcasts.
As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.