Experiencing Rocket Power: Why you should attend the OmegA First Stage Ground Test

By Trina Patterson (a.k.a. Ms. Rocketheels, dubbed after wearing noncompliant shoes to a launch)

For many individuals seeing a rocket soar to the heavens is an item on their bucket list, as it should be. 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: Rocket Motor Test

The good news for you is that you can add a ground test to your bucket list and check it off this month! The days are counting down until Northrop Grumman will test the first stage of its new OmegA rocket, an intermediate/heavy-class rocket designed to carry critical national security payloads for the U.S. Air Force.

So mark your calendars, and schedule your travel. The OmegA first stage test will take place May 30, 2019, at 1:05 p.m. MDT at Northrop Grumman’s rocket motor test facility in Promontory, Utah. Attending in person may be ideal, but we’ll also be bringing you live coverage at www.northropgrumman.com/OmegA.

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!) 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.

OmegA is the solid rocket booster built for NASA’s Space Launch System​​​​​

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

What to Expect at the Solid Rocket Motor Test

Let me try to describe what you will experience at a Northrop Grumman solid rocket motor test and provide some pointers for first-timers. If you’re able to make it out to watch in person, you will want to arrive early as there is only one road out to the test viewing location. (Rocket tip: bring some books to read and snacks, but no BBQs grills or anything with a flame; they’re not allowed at rocket facilities.) Northrop Grumman’s public viewing site is just over a mile away from OmegA’s first stage, which is much closer than you can get to a rocket launch; most launch viewing locations are at least three miles from the pad.

Once you arrive there will be a flurry of activity and excitement from the crowd. You will hear speakers amplify the audio from the control room as the Northrop Grumman test team goes through all their checks during the countdown. Most of this may sound like a foreign language as rocket scientists tend to turn acronyms into actual words they use to communicate. Don’t worry, you’ll recognize key phrases like “all systems ‘go’ for test” and “3, 2, 1, fire.”

Bird’s eye view of OmegA solid rocket motor​​​​​

Here’s a bird’s eye view of a solid rocket motor in the test stand as we prepare for the test fire.

If you look in the distance, up on the side of the hill, you will see the OmegaA first stage. The stage is 80 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, but you will see it positioned horizontally on the 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 will produce 2.1 million pounds of thrust!

Collecting Data Makes for Happy Rocket Scientists and Technicians

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 start to get exciting at the viewing site. At the one-minute mark, a siren will sound. Safety is our number one focus during a launch and test. 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.

Tips to Maximize Countdown and Test Fire Experience

OmegA test fire creates a rumble in the desert​​​​​

We always have a big turnout for these tests. There’s nothing like feeling the rumble of a test fire!

As the countdown continues you will hear the test conductor call out, “T-minus 30 seconds.” If you look around the crowd, everyone will have their phones out. If you truly want to EXPERIENCE the test, my advice to you is DON’T do this. Northrop Grumman will capture amazing photos and videos of the test you can share with all your family and friends. Watch this one with your eyes! If you insist on capturing the test with your device, hold it, but don’t view the test on a screen.

Your heartbeat will start racing, or at least mine does, and this is what you will experience next:

  • The test conductor will count down, “T-minus 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, fire.”
  • 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 (Rocket science fun fact: the nozzle is part of the thrust vector control system, which is a rocket’s version of a steering wheel.).
  • 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 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 cases made of composites rather than steel. (Rocket science fun fact sidebar: Composites are super strong and weigh a lot less than steel, and the lighter the rocket, the more payload you can carry into space, which is a good thing).

Using common hardware and facilities like the test stand you will see helps us keep OmegA’s cost down. So does utilizing components we know 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.

What’s Next After OmegA’s Test?

Following the successful test, the Northrop Grumman and U.S. Air Force OmegA team will analyze the date and prepare to conduct another ground test in the fall, this time of rocket’s second stage. Both of these milestones lead up to the first launch of Northrop Grumman’s largest rocket in 2021. (Read more about OmegA here)

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!

Go OmegA!