Story by Connie Braesch on 07/02/2018Since long before Neil Armstrong took "one giant leap for mankind" onto the moon July 20, 1969, people have been in awe of our place in the universe. For decades, scientists and engineers have sought to reveal possibilities in what was thought impossible.
As space exploration enters a new phase with the commercial space-launch industry sending larger, more efficient and reusable rockets into space, so does the need for reliable, quality sources of propellant.
As the Department of Defense Integrated Materiel Manager for space and space-related products since 2001, the Defense Logistics Agency Energy has provided fuel sources for a variety of DoD, federal and commercial missions as well as research.
Provider of Choice
Averaging about 15 launches per year, DLA Energy Aerospace Energy powers the rockets carrying vital satellites and other spacecraft to improve communication, weather forecasting and knowledge of the solar system.
While DoD and NASA are prominent DLA Energy customers, in recent years private space companies were added to Aerospace Energy's customer list under the Commercial Space Launch Act. The CSLA was passed by Congress in the 1980s to encourage private industry to develop space-related technology.
"One benefit offered by the legislation was access to government infrastructure and resources, including the services DLA provides in managing and distributing the fuel and related products used for these activities," said Ken Grams, director of DLA Energy Aerospace Energy Customer Operations. "With the emergence of several new launch/space companies in the last few years; the legislation is certainly achieving its goals."
In fact, when the first privately built and funded spacecraft from Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, connected with the International Space Station in May 2012, it used DLA Energy Aerospace Energy products to get there.
Aerospace Energy also provides propellants for another commercial company, United Launch Alliance. ULA rocket launches carry DoD or NASA equipment, including a satellite used to detect ballistic missile launches and provide advance warning of nuclear attacks; satellites designed to improve ground communications for U.S. forces on the move; and a satellite to study the Earth's carbon dioxide levels and their effect on climate change.
While the commercial space launch industry is gaining prominence, DLA Energy Aerospace Energy has a long history of supporting federal agencies like NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service (both agencies of the Department of Commerce).
When NASA's Orion deep-space capsule was launched in December 2014, it carried Aerospace Energy products. It was the first mission since Apollo to carry a spacecraft built for humans to deep space. It was also the first time this next-generation spacecraft was tested against the challenges of space, and the first operational test of a heat shield strong enough to protect against 4,000-degree temperatures.
In February 2015, Aerospace Energy provided the products for a joint NASA and NOAA mission that launched a commercially owned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Deep Space Climate observatory satellites into space. The satellites, powered by Aerospace Energy hydrazine, serve as a NOAA weather platform to monitor the solar wind and provide early warning of geomagnetic storms that could affect satellites, communications and power grids.
As NASA's unmanned Juno spacecraft headed toward Jupiter in July 2016, it carried propellants provided by DLA Energy to help steer and maintain its position once in orbit, where it would remain the next 20 months.
Aerospace Energy also helped NOAA launch a rocket carrying a satellite system to improve weather forecasting and detect climate patterns, help emergency managers respond to events and help communities recover from severe storms.
While supplying products to support space exploration isn't rocket science, it does involve careful planning and complex supply-chain management.
In a car or airplane engine, fuel mixes with oxygen in the air to produce combustion. Rockets and satellites also rely on a fuel and an oxidizer, but because of the large quantities needed and because there is practically no oxygen in space, the satellites have to take the oxidizer with them or rely on a monopropellant grade of the fuel.
"For instance, for boost you might have liquid hydrogen, which is the fuel, and liquid oxygen, which is the oxidizer," Grams said. "It's the combination of the two that causes the reaction to create the energy required to send the tonnage up into space."
Grams added that the fuel of choice for satellites is hydrazine and the oxidizer is dinitrogen tetroxide, due to their stability and long shelf life. They're know as hypergolic propellants, meaning that when they're combined, they self-ignite. DLA Energy Aerospace Energy stores both.
Of the 92 products DLA Energy Aerospace Energy provides, 11 are specific to space missions: rocket propellant-1 and -2, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, helium, gaseous nitrogen, dinitrogen tetroxide, hydrazine, methane and isopropyl alcohol.
For example, when NASA launched a rocket carrying the New Horizons spacecraft bound for Pluto in January 2006, it carried a variety of Aerospace Energy products.
The Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket itself lifted off with more than 91,000 gallons of propellants, quickly reaching 36,000 mph, more than 47 times the speed of sound.
Other chemicals onboard supported a variety of functions, according to the rocket's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin. Liquid nitrogen was used to chill the gaseous helium, which cooled the rocket's Centaur engine pumps. Gaseous helium pressurized propellant tanks, provided purges and operated valves. Gaseous nitrogen purged the various rocket compartments. Hydrazine helped position the spacecraft before separation and settled the fuel in the tank. Rocket propellant-1 and liquid oxygen powered the rocket's RD-180 engine in stage 1, and liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen were used to power the Centaur engine in stage 2.
The rocket's payload, the New Horizons spacecraft, also relied on DLA Energy Aerospace Energy fuels. Its onboard propulsion system required enough hydrazine to power a dozen 1-pound thrusters for orientation and small maneuvering capability to complete its 10-plus-year mission.
"It's very important that the products meet the specification requirements," Grams said. "Especially for the hydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide that's put in a satellite or a space probe. The last thing they want is for something to go wrong with the fuel so they can't get the mission accomplished. So we have tight controls on the purity."
On July 14, 2015, nearly 10 years after launch, New Horizon accomplished its mission and became the first spacecraft to fly by Pluto and its moon Charon, sending back high-resolution photographs of Pluto and Charon.
"Quality assurance has to be exact due to the duration of the missions," said Doug Smith, director of DLA Energy Aerospace Energy Supplier Operations. "Any little imperfection can horribly affect the mission. Because our controls are tight, this mission was a big success. The New Horizons spacecraft traveled more than 3 billion miles over almost 10 years, fueled by our products. So that gives you an example of how important maintaining quality is."
Getting the Goods
From gathering customer requirements to procurement, transportation, storage and testing, DLA Energy Aerospace Energy is a one-stop shop for its customers, Smith said.
"We have quality assurance representatives at the DLA Energy regional offices worldwide who inspect the product. We have a team of chemists internal to DLA Energy who partner with both the Air Force Petroleum Labs at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and Kennedy Space Center [Cape Canaveral, Florida], as well as with the Air Force Research Labs. We manage the containers as well, so customers don't have to go out and procure or manage their own. And we have a team of buyers and customer account specialists who know these products and are experts in them."
"We gather requirements and put them all together. If you buy more of something, you get more interest from industry, which in turn typically gets you a better price," he said.
Getting the aerospace products efficiently from point A to B is part of managing the supply chain, and because these products are hazardous materials, safe handling is a top priority.
"Dinitrogen tetroxide and some of the hydrazine fuels are inhalation hazards, are corrosive and have a lot of different labels on them," Grams said. "So the transportation side of it is not as straightforward as sending something via FedEx. You need dedicated drivers and in some cases dual drivers that are HAZMAT certified."
Smith and Grams don't recall any safety problems in transporting these products. The closest call Smith can remember was when there were wildfires out near Vandenberg several years ago.
"They dug trenches to protect the fuels, so it was a nonevent from a safety standpoint, due to all the hard work the folks did at Vandenberg," he said.
Finding efficient ways to get these products to the customer also helps to keep the costs low.
"A lot of the products start out in the normal atmosphere as a gas, but we buy them as a liquid," Smith said. "They're usually hundreds of degrees below zero, but you get a lot more product if you get it in a liquid that you can turn into gas. And it's a lot more efficient to move it that way too."
At Vandenberg, DLA Energy Aerospace Energy contracts a gaseous nitrogen plant where the product is converted from a liquid back to gas on-site.
"The plant has pumps and vaporizers to convert the liquid to gas, pump it up to a high pressure and push it out via pipeline to the south base launch complexes," Smith said.
Also on Vandenberg is a storage facility for hypergolic propellants.
"The products we manage are specialized, and a lot of work goes into ensuring this supply chain runs smoothly," Smith said. "Being a part of space missions as the logistics supplier for the propellants is something very special. The team isn't just negotiating contracts, placing orders, managing inventory or creating transportation movements; they're [also] impacting historic exploration and scientific discovery."
The Future of Space Propellants
With DLA and its customers looking at ways to be more cost-effective and efficient, partnering during the research and development is important.
"Rocket scientists are always looking for a better, safer fuel," Grams said. "We try to get involved in the early stages to help them develop specifications. We're there at the front end to help them avoid issues that can arise in the procurement process at the tail end."
As a member of the Joint Army Navy NASA Air Force Interagency Propulsion Committee, DLA Energy Aerospace Energy promotes and facilitates the exchange of technical and programmatic information among the military, defense agencies, NASA, U.S. industry and academia to respond to current and future aerospace propulsion needs.
"We come together to make educated decisions on investment strategies inclusive of the propellants to support their projects," Smith said. "Wherever space launch goes, we're trying to position ourselves to support their needs."
Aerospace Energy is also partnering with the Air Force Research Labs looking for the fuel of the future, Smith said. It's part of a group looking at cleaner aerospace energy products, as well as a satellite project that could use a "green" monopropellant.
"It could be a replacement for hydrazine at some point," Smith noted.
As the desire to explore and challenge our limits pushes the boundaries of science, DLA Energy Aerospace Energy will be there, ensuring the agency's whole-of-government partners have a reliable and high-quality source for their space fuels.
While we might still think of movies like Star Wars, Alien, Interstellar and The Martian when we think about space travel, out-of-this-world space exploration isn't just for Hollywood.