CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — The challenges for the Engineering Services Contract (ESC) are growing right along with NASA’s new direction. The ESC is refurbishing the infrastructure at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and while this encompasses the “nuts and bolts” of what is required to launch spacecraft to orbit, it is not the only thing that the ESC provides the space agency—far from it.
The ESC may be involved with the redevelopment of Launch Complex 39B, as well as the structures that support it, but the contract, managed by QinetiQ North America, also handles cutting-edge scientific research. This research could revolutionize the manner in which space flight is conducted.
Imagine spacecraft traveling to other worlds far lighter than they are today. They would refuel themselves and gain heat shields on worlds that have far less gravity than what is found here on Earth. The science conducted for NASA by the ESC could see spacecraft developed that have self-healing components that could tell astronauts the extent of the damage that their spacecraft has suffered. Both of these would save crew from conducting dangerous extravehicular activities.
Even unmanned missions benefit from the research that the ESC does—probes with the ability to refuel themselves using resources abundant on the worlds they are exploring, and space sentinels that attach themselves to wayward near-Earth-objects (asteroids or comets) and use the ice of these space wanderers as propellant to knock them off course and ensure the safety of our home.
To say that the tour the ESC provided to AmericaSpace was an eye-opener doesn’t begin to cover it. AmericaSpace expected to be shown big, lumbering machines and extensive projects. While it was true that we would see those things, we also saw tiny wires that could repair themselves and other technologies that could usher in a new edge of space flight and exploration.
ESC’s Vice President and Program Manager Mark Nappi sees this as a challenge, but one that QinetiQ-NA is more than capable of accomplishing.
“We’re learning to do less with more,” Nappi said. “During the shuttle era we had enough funds to do things very efficiently, and we had a lot of latitude to invest in our future. These days, we’re running on, essentially, a shoestring budget while we develop systems that can accommodate a range of vehicles. Today we’re focusing on SLS, but we’re working on ways to do this while supporting the efforts of NASA’s growing family of commercial partners as well—this is no small feat given the budgetary constraints.”
For NASA’s Pat Simpkins, the work the ESC is doing will serve to not only produce a true 21st century space port, but it will also empower NASA to conduct crewed deep space missions for the first time in more than four decades.
“It was a bit of a siren call when the last vehicle built in the United States to travel to the International Space Station was a capsule that wasn’t designed and built at Johnson Space Center, which flew on a rocket that wasn’t designed and tested at Stennis or Marshall (Space Centers), on a recovery system that wasn’t designed and built at Langley Research Center, and wasn’t launched from Launch Complex 39 A or B,” Simpkins said. “That hasn’t been the case for 45 years, so it is a wake up call. There are a lot of people that think we went out of business when we stopped launching the shuttle. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every human space flight endeavor from the United States has been integrated and flown from here … that is still the case, whether that space ship has another organization’s logo on it or not. We’re providing the expertise and infrastructure. Even if they are launching from somewhere else, they still use our help. So what the public should take with them isn’t that ‘we’re done with shuttle.’ They should take with them: ‘We’re getting ready to explore deeper into the solar system than ever before.’”
AmericaSpace would like to thank Mark Nappi, Pat Simpkins, and Sam Gutierrez, as well as NASA’s Amber Philman, for making this series possible.