As told by Kendra Kastelan
3, 2, 1 – I watch the clock as my stomach churns. It is a familiar feeling that brings me back to my swim meet days.
“Fire!” I blink under the blue skies of the Northern Utah rocket testing facilities and focus my eyes on the mountainside where the test is taking place.
It is silent.
The crowd stands still, watching the ignition, flames and growing plume exiting OmegA’s second stage motor. Nearly seven seconds in, the ground finally rumbles from the 339,000 pounds of propellant burning several hundred yards away. A little over two minutes later, the rumbling stops. Everything looks to have fired normally, though data and inspections will confirm this after several weeks of intense analysis. I feel amazing knowing that I contributed to the test’s success. Pretty cool, especially considering this is my first job out of college.
Shaping Space Security
OmegA is Northrop Grumman’s new rocket being built for national security missions. The company is currently in competition with other providers to earn a United States Air Force National Security Space Launch program award to launch critical government satellites and payloads. OmegA’s first and second stages uses solid propellant and the upper stage is a liquid fuel system. The first stage was successfully tested in May 2019 and this test of the second stage took place in February 2020. Together, these tests meet the Air Force’s objective of having a U.S.-made propulsion replacement for the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine that currently power many national security missions launched on Atlas rockets.
Building OmegA is like putting together a giant puzzle. It’s a 210-foot-tall challenge with more than 600 employees working in parallel. That’s a lot of brainpower for the OmegA team, and a lot of people to show me the ropes. I started with the company in June 2019, after graduating from Brigham Young University in May. I first worked in rocket motor case insulation, then moved to the nozzle team less than six months ago to help with second stage nozzle development.
From Rocket Pad to Launch Pad
A rocket’s nozzle is key to producing its power. When the propellant inside the rocket motor burns, high temperature gases fill the chamber. As pressure starts to build, it looks to escape and goes through the nozzle at the bottom of the motor to get out. Engineers, like me in my current role, can design the nozzle to control how much acceleration, or thrust, a rocket motor produces when fired, helping get the rocket off the ground.
Like many other design engineers, I am the first step in the development of a single component, a small piece of this OmegA puzzle. Computer-aided design (CAD) software lets me draw and manipulate each aspect of the motor’s nozzle before turning over my model to the nozzle manufacturing team to build. Using model-based systems engineering (MBSE) principles, I can connect to a network of models to see a full view of the nozzle and break it into smaller sections without it being physically built. We can also see alternate views to consider material thickness and even have other teammates run a simulated firing to see how it will hold up during launch.
Without these systems, creating the final design of the nozzle and connecting it with the larger OmegA rocket would be difficult. With them, we avoid costly hand-drawn changes to the nozzle design and overly complex planning and instruction for nozzle build. Engineers are able to view and interact with an accurate and realistic 3D model of the final product and run thorough analyses to simulate what kinds of forces will act on the nozzle during burn. Utilizing the CAD software in a larger MBSE framework, we decrease the amount of time used between the initial concepts and building the final product, increase productivity and make a better nozzle.
Childhood Dreams, Now a Reality
After starting with the company, my interest in my work here took off. I began building relationships with senior engineers, and my experience with the CAD software led to the nozzle design role. I come to work each day for this — the relationship-building, the hands-on experience, the endless opportunities and those two breathless minutes watching long hours and collaborative efforts succeed.
While we are preparing OmegA to perform critical missions, the rocket is helping me achieve my childhood dreams to explore the unknown, develop something bigger and never stop learning. With such a diverse team and MBSE, we are pushing the boundaries of cost, performance, ride quality and reliability, and learning there is no limit to what we can do.
Looking back on the second stage test, my butterflies are replaced by pride and gratitude for the opportunities the OmegA team have given an early-career woman in engineering to keep pursuing her dreams.
Jodi is a design engineer for the OmegA rocket in Promontory, Utah. At an early age Jodi developed an interest in aeronautics and aerospace, encapsulated by the thought of going into the unknown and exploring the undiscovered. She joined Northrop Grumman in June 2019.
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