SLS core stage – and ‘test voice’ – ready for next hot fire

The voice of NASA’s Space Launch System Green Run gears up for countdown.

March 17, 2021 in Space

“No forgiveness.” That’s how Boeing Test Director Ronnie Martin describes the Green Run test environment for NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, core stage.

“This is my first time on a program that uses the actual flight article for qualification testing,” said Martin. Having worked at several major launch sites across the United States, Martin has been part of 165 rocket launches, as well as decades of rocket testing.

Now he’s test director for SLS – the countdown voice heard leading up to the exciting hot-fire phrase, “we have engine start.” He doesn’t give any thought to his audience during the countdown sequence, because his focus as director is 100% on the test. And this Green Run test series is particularly challenging.

“Testing with the actual flight article has the advantages of saving time and development cost,” said Martin. “But in addition to meeting flight test requirements to verify the cryogenic stage’s design and build, we also have to operate this one-of-a-kind vehicle in a very controlled and safe manner to ensure it stays fit for flight.”

To meet the challenge, Boeing assembled a test team of skilled avionics, hydraulics, propulsion, ground electronics and testing specialists from around the country, from inside and outside the company.

“That’s phenomenal, bringing together a new team from Boeing, NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne, who have developed the extraordinary discipline needed for a complex test campaign like this,” said Martin.

It’s a team packed with experience from rocket, space shuttle and satellite launches as well as aircraft tests. But it also includes a new generation of test team members who were initially unfamiliar with the demands and protocols of operating from a Test Control Center, or TCC, in a complex and dynamic test environment.

“During our first team training exercises in the TCC, we had a fair amount of chatter over the communication channels,” said Martin. “Now when you listen to the voice communications over the com nets, you can’t tell the difference between the Green Run team and a seasoned Delta rocket or shuttle launch team.”

Martin remembers his first job at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where he was put to the test inside a General Dynamics Atlas E engine section.

“If I had been claustrophobic, I’d probably be working in an entirely different industry,” he said.

He’s worked launch operations, primarily as a propulsion engineer, since he graduated in 1984 from Embry-Riddle with a degree in aeronautics. Inspired by the Apollo space program, he’s doing the work he loves, and credits his family with that gift.

“We have moved so often for launch operations work, and my wife always made it a bit of an adventure for our kids,” he explained.

Martin has worked along the United States’ East and West coasts on launch programs including Atlas/Centaur, space shuttle, Delta II/III/IV and Antares, and served as a Rocketdyne technical representative for RS-27 & MA-5 engine systems, a Delta II propulsion engineering manager, test director for Delta IV CBC static fire, standing up a team at Vandenberg Air Force Base for the Ground-based Missile Defense program as site operations manager, and at NASA Wallops Flight Facility as launch pad 0A operations manager.

Supporting the SLS Green Run project since the beginning, he was responsible for test case planning, test procedure development, team training and daily TCC test operations, as well as working related software development with NASA.

“Our primary objective is to test the core stage to satisfy the program design verification requirements, but also send it to Kennedy Space Center well-cared for and ready to launch on the Artemis I mission,” he said.

After a successful hot fire, Martin will close out the test reports and support the next Boeing test director, who is preparing for the Exploration Upper Stage Green Run campaign for future SLS variants at the same test stand. And he’ll keep his ears open for a highly anticipated communication:

“I’m looking forward to hearing ‘go for launch’ out of Kennedy Space Center.”