Putting the Space Launch System Green Run Hotfire Test in Perspective: A Personal View

Image Credit: NASA TV

What does refitting an old jalopy while in high school have to do with this weekend’s Space Launch System Green Run hot fire test?

While in high school as a young male with a skull full of mush in the late 1970’s and being in one’s late teens you either had a passion for sports or getting your finger nails dirty while under some old overworked, tired, monster of a car that was constantly flying apart at the seams. You would end up spending a good part of any allowance or hard-won funds from some small weekend or seasonal job just keeping the car alive. The latter was my lot in life with an old cranberry red 1972 Chevrolet Vega Hatchback .

Since inheriting the car, I found it more economical to keep it alive with parts from any junkyard I could scavenge from. It was usually the first option before being forced to visit the neighborhood auto parts store and buying the thingamabob brand new at bust-out-retail prices. While going on these fishing expeditions I’d find some other rare gems that could not be passed up. Like the remains of a rare 1973 Pontiac Astre from Canada with its interior and exterior accoutrements (all Pontiac branded) still intact. Pontiac didn’t release its version of the Vega in the United States until 1975 so this find was a gold mine. I quickly grabbed what I could off the Astre carcass, drained my wallet, and transformed my little Vega from something ordinary to something you don’t see every day, but I digress.

The car’s “glass jaw” was its powerplant, a four cylinder all aluminum monstrosity that didn’t even belong in a sewing machine. It was burning oil and destined to become a useless molten mass in a mere few hundred miles. A case of Arco Graphite motor oil was kept in the hatch at all times in an attempt to stave off its inevitable meltdown. The saving grace: General Motors had designed the engine compartment to accommodate an 8-cylinder engine. So shade tree mechanics, if they knew what they were doing, could convert the little humble Vega/Astre into something that could suck the headlights out of a Corvette of the day in about a weekend. A daunting task to be sure, but not impossible.

It was one that a friend of mine and I undertook one summer and it was no small affair. Up to that point the most complex job we had done was to help with replacing a clutch in a friend’s beat up Chevy sedan. This was far different and would drastically change the character of the car. It would take a ton of pre-planning, research, and budgeting. There were going to be trade-off’s too. For something we gained in the conversion, there was going to be a loss somewhere else. It was a bold step for two idiots with to much testosteone flowing who barely knew what they were doing with a car that may not be functional afterwards. This was going to be “test like you drive” and we knew it.

We got a line on a refurbished General Motors small block V8 engine and made sure the engine was compatible with the existing transmission. Other ‘plumbing’ in the car had to be replaced or extensively modified and made more robust to make sure the new engine would work. I won’t go through all of it but we really had to make sure this old dog of a car was ready to do some new tricks, running into a plethora of technical brick walls we didn’t expect along the way and yes costing additional precious amounts of money that was hard to come by in the first place. After we carefully pulled the old four-cylinder engine out however, there was no going back. We couldn’t make a mistake or do anything dumb that might prove fatal. This was all “actual road hardware.”

When it came time to turn the key for the first time on the “new to this car” powerplant, we were apprehensive and had no idea what to expect. The engine fired OK but it ran really rough and we could tell something was just not right. We didn’t expect success on the first try so we went back did some additional fine tuning and tried again and still, no joy. We would have to do this quite a few more times before we felt confident enough to just take the car for a short run around the block.

Finally, after three additional days of trial and error work, too much lousy tasting instant coffee, very little sleep, getting cranky, and needing a serious shower, the little cranberry red with black racing striped “when I grow up I want to be a Pontiac Firebird” Chevrolet Vega with an identity crisis slowly left its chrysalis to the strains of “Leaving Drydock” by Jerry Goldsmith from the “Star Trek the Motion Picture” soundtrack. It made its first short 4-minute run around a neighborhood in Central New Jersey and still it needed some tweaking here and there. The “shake-down cruise” would be later that day with the hour ride up the New Jersey Turnpike and home to Hudson County at a grandfatherly fifty-five miles an hour with my friend’s 1977 Buick Regal following close behind. We still didn’t have the confidence yet to fully discover what this little “mouse that roared” was capable of. In time, as we got to know the idiosyncrasies of the engine, learned more about what we had, and gained more confidence, we were ready to unleash this ‘perfect sleeper’ on unsuspecting Ford Mustangs and Dodge Chargers of the day, knowing full well that additional modifications would be required as time went along.

Did everything go as planned during the switchover? No. We had to improvise along the way to make things work. Did it stick to the budget? No. We ended up going way over the planned allotment due to the snags we ran into. Did the changeover take the time we thought it would? No. It took far longer due to the curve balls the machine itself threw at us. Did we learn things along the way? Yes. Not only about the beast we were building and would have to maintain, but about ourselves. That we could take on a bold challenge and prevail. Was it worth it in the end? Ask the driver of the Plymouth Road Runner that had to explain to his friends how a tiny proletarian hatchback just blew his doors off at the last stoplight.

I’m not saying that we kids in the late 1970’s did anything nearly as impressive as the teams over at NASA, Boeing, and Aerojet Rocketdyne did this weekend. However, they had to follow the same path. What they were dealing with is something far more sophisticated: A new launch vehicle. The actual rocket that will sit on the launch pad and get the Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft around the Moon and back. So when the combined NASA and contractor teams at NASA Stennis “turned the key” on their engines that had been refurbished for a new mission for the first time, things didn’t go as planned. They’ll do their additional troubleshooting, fine tuning and get it right and the end result will be worth it: the most powerful rocket on the planet. Stand by to have your doors blown off and your headlights sucked out.

Long Time space flight history politics and policy observer. Founder and panel member of the Talking Space