ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. --
Today at AEDC, scientists are analyzing new composite materials and engineers are testing cutting-edge rocket sensors and putting kill vehicles and kinetic energy interceptors into simulated orbit to ensure the United States triumphs against terrorists, rogue nations or any other threat.
For the 17 members of the 718th Test Squadron (TS) and hundreds of contractors with the center's prime contractor, Aerospace Testing Alliance (ATA), who supports space testing, things just don't get more serious than that.
With $1.7 billion in facilities used to support space and missile systems testing, 718th TS Commander Lt. Col. Dan Miller said the folks at AEDC provide the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) with state-of-the-art engineering and testing capabilities that aren't available anywhere else.
For decades, Arnold's scientists and engineers have played a vital role in the nation's strategic deterrent forces.
With the most advanced and largest complex of space and flight simulation facilities in the world, the scientists and engineers have tried and tested every one of the nation's top aerospace programs including the Atlas, Titan, Minuteman and Peacekeeper Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), NAVSTAR Global Positioning System satellites, Polaris, Posiden and Trident submarine launched ballistic missile, air launched cruise missiles (ALCM) and Tomahawk cruise missiles and the Army's Patriot surface-to-air missiles.
As MDA continues to develop America's defensive capabilities, AEDC teams stay busy.
"We support a lot of areas," Colonel Miller said. "There are three phases to missile defense: you can hit the missile in the boost phase early on; you can get it in the midcourse when it's up in space; or in the terminal or high-altitude phase when it's coming back down."
The center's scientists and engineers work in all three phases. They test everything from rocket motors, to airborne and space based sensors that try to locate and track the missile as it's taking off to kill vehicles that separate from a rocket at a specified location in the midcourse phase and wipe-out ICBM threat clusters, he said.
They also conduct aerothermal heating research on a myriad of materials and carbon composites used in the MDA program.
"Coming from a materials background and then seeing all the new materials used in the mirrors and sensors and seeing them actually in a working environment is definitely interesting," said Capt. Jennifer Stuckey, 718th TS space and missile systems test manager.
The captain, who was more fascinated with mechanical engineering during high school, now has a bachelor's in chemical engineering and a master's in materials science and engineering, said she never dreamed of working on something so important.
"I was always interested in taking things apart," the five-year veteran explained. "It was my high school chemistry teacher who really got me interested in the materials aspect.
"This is a challenging job with many partners. We're just a piece of missile defense, but we provide the environment that allows this type of testing to occur. We make sure the missile does what it's designed to do."
MDA has invested nearly $50 million to upgrade the center's 10-V Vacuum Chamber for kill vehicle (KV) testing alone. The KV is controlled by a $25 million sensor that engineers are testing in the center's cutting-edge hardware-in-the-loop simulator, 10-V.
"The sensor is complicated," Colonel Miller said. "It has to survive the launch environment, go out into space, and from space it must be able to locate and discriminate between the real target and decoys, track closely spaced objects, and pass information to the interceptors. In a way, it asks itself, 'What is the target? What isn't the target? It could be a decoy. If I have multiple targets, which one do I get?' Within the test facility it generates assorted scenes, and threats are simulated to test the sensor capabilities so in essence it simulates flying against targets you can't fly against like other people's assets."
Additionally, KV sensor testing helps ensure a faulty sensor is not launched against a threat, saving $150-200 million, which is the cost of launch, depending on the type of test, said Jim Burns, a space test engineer in the 718th TS.
"If MDA learns something here in the simulator, it's a bargain," he explained. "If we learn it on the ground here - save one flight test, the cost paid for their investment. It can get really expensive. And, there are some types of flight tests you simply can't do because they are too expensive - you have to do it on the ground."
Another advantage is engineers can do hundreds of missions in the simulator in just a couple of days.
"We generate a scene that simulates space," said the colonel who spent the earlier part of his 19-year career working on strategic systems like the Peacekeeper. The key of the hardware-in-the-loop capability is that we can stress the performance of the sensor against many simulated threats, threats that the sensor will never see from space until it must perform. For instance, here are the stars. The simulator looks up there and says 'OK, I've got my orientation.' Then it looks to the target, and we can put multiple targets in there."
Colonel Miller said the missile defense business at AEDC will continue to be heavy. The center is the only place MDA can conduct high-altitude rocket testing, and the hardware-in-the-loop simulator for the kill vehicle is also an AEDC-unique capability.
"There are some things we do that are very specialized and unique and are vitally important," he said. "We have the only ARC heater facility that can do that kind of materials testing in the entire Department of Defense," the colonel said. "We touch all aspects of the missile defense mission."
MDA officials are planning to conduct a flight test of a kill vehicle this summer.
"It's an important flight, and they have to have some answers out of that 10-V chamber before they do the flight test," the colonel said. "This is critical to them. They're going to put multiple targets up and let the KV do its thing. They want to simulate the mission in the hardware-in-the-loop chamber to reduce the risk during the flight test."
The boost and midcourse phases of ground-based missile defense are becoming increasingly important as enemy threats become more unpredictable. Intercepting a missile in the boost phase while it is still over their country can destroy the missile regardless of its range and provide global coverage.
A midcourse intercept provides wider coverage and a longer window of opportunity. And while the terminal phase is crucial, it's a little late in the game and getting more difficult with maneuvering re-entry vehicles. It leaves little room for error with only a 30-60 second window as the warhead falls back into the atmosphere.
The Patriot missiles that shot down Scuds during Operations Desert Storm are a perfect example of the type of hardware used in the terminal phase.
"That's your last hope. What if they had been chemical or nuclear? They're in your front door at that point," he said.
Missile defense is an evolving, important mission, according to the colonel who holds both a bachelor's and doctorate in mechanical engineering and a master's in aeronautical engineering. "It's a complicated program and we make a significant contribution to this joint, DoD program.
"What we're trying to do is extremely challenging," he said. "We play an irreplaceable role in the development and sustainment of space assets and strategic weapons, from an offensive and defensive standpoint."
Scattered among the different test facilities here, a lot of people specialize in a myriad of different disciplines, and understand the scope of what they do - their daily contribution to national defense.
People like Captain Stuckey take their job to heart.
"What we're doing is going to protect somebody's sons and daughters - maybe even protect us on the homefront," she said.
Mr. Burns, a former Air Force satellite operations officer, whole-heartedly agrees.
"There are the Blue Star and Gold Star Mothers and organizations like that," he said, describing the importance of AEDC's role in missile defense. "I don't want some mother to have to put a gold star in her window because of something we didn't do here. Not on my watch."