Edwards Air Force Base - Facilities - Air Force Rocket Research Laboratory

Air Force Rocket Research Laboratory

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Propulsion Directorate maintains a rocket engine test facility on and around Leuhman Ridge, just east of Rogers Dry Lake. This facility traces its roots to early Army Air Corps activities.

In 1934, Colonel Hap Arnold assigned an Army Air Corps officer to survey a 300-square-mile (780 km2) area of the California desert in order to establish the Muroc remote bombing range. Luehman Ridge, the granite ridge, where two-thirds of the nation's high thrust static rocket stands are located, is named in honor of that young second lieutenant. Arno H. Luehman rose to the rank of Major General, USAF, before his retirement.

In the late 1940s, during the time of the United States Air Force formation, the facility was selected as a rocket test site. The first test stands were activated in 1952. The Rocket Engine Test Laboratory (RETL) and its personnel conducted "test and evaluation" of rocket sled engines as well as rocket engines for the Bell X-1A, Boeing-Marquardt BOMARC, North American NAVAJO, MACE, Convair ATLAS, Douglas THOR, and other systems.

A major expansion of the facilities in 1957 created the basis for today's full-spectrum research facility encompassing more than 65 square miles (170 km2) of the northeast corner of Edwards Air Force Base. It is currently (2008) valued at more than a billion dollars.

In 1959, elements of the Power Plant Laboratory at Dayton, Ohio, were relocated to the Edwards Rocket Engine Test facility. Also in 1959, the first tethered, vertical launch tests of the Minuteman I rocket were conducted in underground test silos. Shortly after these tests, the Minuteman I rocket completed its development and entered the U.S. Air Force's strategic arsenal.

During the 1960s, the need for continued operations and development of both future space and ballistic missile launch systems was signified by the re-designation of the site as the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory in 1953. Work began at this time on large segmented solid rocket motors, alternative liquid rocket engine boosters, high-speed turbo machinery, upper stage propulsion and satellite propulsion, all driven by the need to lessen the cost and complexity of the systems in use. The lab's personnel helped develop the powerful Saturn F-1 rockets which powered the Apollo manned moon missions. The F-1 was an outgrowth of the Air Force E-1 engine research program that transitioned into NASA's Saturn V rocket. In order to accommodate the testing of such large engines, a huge complex of multi-million pound static test stands was constructed on the northeast end of Luehman Ridge. The F-1's thrust chambers, nozzles, and entire engines were validated for NASA and tested with more than 5,000 firings on Luehman Ridge. Each rocket engine generated more than 1,500,000 pounds-force (6,700,000 N), consuming more than three tons of kerosene and liquid oxygen per second.

The late 1960s and 1970s saw the incremental integration of the Minuteman II into the United States Nuclear Arsenal. Also the inception and research and development of both the Peacekeeper and Small ICBM programs. This research continued throughout the 1980s while the Titan II ballistic missile was being phased out and utilized for early spacecraft launch. In this same period, research into the Air Force's XLR-129 liquid rocket engine had progressed. This engine's high speed turbopump mechanisms developed by the lab and its industrial partners provided the basis for the Space Shuttle's Main Engines. Large segmented solid rocket booster research and testing and the lab facilities insured that the industrial and technological basis for development of future large launch vehicles would be maintained.

In the mid-1980s, the facilities were reorganized and renamed the Air Force Astronautics Laboratory. Its personnel were busy with helping the nation recover from launch failures of the Titan 34-D and the Space Shuttle. Tests of O-rings at the lab independently verified the lack of resilience at very cold temperatures, helping to answer questions regarding the solid rocket boosters used on the Shuttle. At the same time, a large test stand capable of measuring more than eight million pounds of thrust was converted from a former Saturn F-1 large engine test stand to the first vertical large solid rocket booster test stand in the nation, capable of holding the booster in an upright position during the entire firing sequence and measuring its massive thrust. The tests were conducted successfully and assured the nation of access to space for Air Force launch vehicles.

The 1990s saw the consolidation of the myriad Air Force laboratories across the nation into four "SuperLabs". The Edwards rocket testing facilities, by then known as the Astronautics Lab, became an integral part of the Phillips "SuperLab", combining with the Geophysics Lab, Space Technology Center, and the Weapons Lab. The facility was renamed the Phillips Laboratory, Propulsion Directorate. Research at the Phillips Lab focused on the furthering of rocket propulsion technologies through several efforts. Efforts to develop Space Based Interceptors were considered in support of theater missile defense on the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) program. The High Energy Density Matter (HEDM) project pushed the world of basic research in the area of physics and chemistry to find rocket propellants to surpass the capabilities of propellants existent at that time. The Titan IV Solid Rocket Booster static testing began and successfully ended its validation tests and acceptability as the newest booster in the Air Force, providing an additional 25 percent boost to the Titan launch system. Research and tests were conducted involving the nation's candidates for its next-generation launch systems, X-33, X-34, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), and a master plan for rocket propulsion technology covering 15 years called Integrated High Payoff Rocket Propulsion Technology (IHPRPT). The IHPRPT plan is a DoD/NASA/Industry initiative that lays out the goals and blueprints for achieving a doubling of rocket propulsion capability by 2010, covering space launch vehicles, tactical and ballistic missiles, and spacecraft propulsion.

A major milestone for the research lab and facility occurred on 2 October 1997. A ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the activation and completion of improvements to the lab’s historic Test Stand 1A. The stand is about to embark on its third era of testing the nation's rocket propulsion and launch capabilities. Initial use of the static test stand occurred in the 50's for full-up system testing of Convair's Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. The test stand was modified in the early 60's for use in developing and testing the Apollo era Rocketdyne F-1 rocket engine that propelled man to the moon. The third era supports the efforts of Boeing/Rocketdyne, a candidate for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launch program. Their Delta IV family of launch vehicles relies on a new core rocket engine technology called RS-68. The engine is designed to generate 650,000 pounds of thrust and is fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

The AFRL combined all four Superlabs and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) into a single lab commanded by Major General Paul, headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB Ohio. The configuration of the nationwide lab is based on research and development topics. The Edwards facility is part of the new Propulsion Directorate which combines Wright-Patterson (Aeropropulsion) and Edwards (Rocket Propulsion) research efforts. No personnel moves were required. The Edwards rocket propulsion facility has approximately 500 researchers, engineers, technicians, and support staff split almost 50/50 between government/military employees and support contractors.

The rocket propulsion group leads a national plan called Integrated High Payoff Rocket Propulsion Technology (IHPRPT) to identify needs, timetables, and demonstrable goals for improvements to rocket propulsion technology. Participants in the plan include all military services, industry, and NASA. The rocket group's research and test projects are integral with the plan and its goals. Their efforts covers ballistic launch, spacelift, tactical, and spacecraft propulsion research and development, with the end goal of doubling the nation's rocket propulsion capabilities by 2010. A key item in that plan is liquid fueled rocket propulsion component integration and testing, called Integrated Powerhead Demonstration or IPD. When complete, IPD technology will be available for application in future liquid rocket engines to enhance performance and save weight and costs. IPD is a combination of research efforts and validation testing to provide new, more efficient portions of the rocket engine that precondition and pump liquid fuels and oxidizers into the main engine. Dual-use components like Hydrostatic Bearings can be applied to rocket engines and commercial refrigeration units. Other efforts at the lab include electric and solar propulsion research, High Energy Density Matter (HEDM) propellant research, and Theater Missile Defense testing.

For more than half a century, the facility and its personnel, teamed together with government and industrial partners, have provided the United States with rocket propulsion that fits the needs of the nation and anticipates the future of propulsion technology. The Edwards Research Site, sometimes called 'The Rock', or simply 'The Lab' by those who work there, is part of the AFRL Propulsion Directorate, which is headquartered at the Wright Research Site, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

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