The clear, blue skies and peaceful calm over Box Elder County were briefly interrupted this week by a towering plume of smoke and a low rumbling that could be felt and heard for miles around.
It was all over in less than two and a half minutes, but that was plenty to wow the hundreds who gathered at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems in Promontory on Thursday to witness the company’s latest test firing of a rocket motor that could become the new standard for American space travel.
On cue, at the end of a final countdown, a blinding jet of white-hot flame exploded from the rear of the motor, which was arranged horizontally on its side and firmly secured to the ground inside a test bay.
Two minutes and 20 seconds later, the flames died down and quiet returned to the high desert, punctuated by cheers and applause from the onlooking crowd. The test firing burned nearly 340,000 pounds of solid propellant to produce upwards of 785,000 pounds of thrust.
The motor is part of Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket, one of several projects competing to be the main provider of launch services to the U.S. space program.
American space flights have been using a Russian rocket motor known as the RD-180 for about 20 years, but geopolitical concerns in recent years have spurred a push to replace the RD-180 with a U.S.-built engine.
“Today’s firing is a significant accomplishment that demonstrates a domestic solution for the RD-180 rocket engine replacement,” said Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems for Northrop Grumman.
Thursday’s test was for the OmegA’s second-stage motor, a segment measuring 12 feet in diameter and about 40 feet long that comprises the middle portion of the OmegA. Last May, Northrop Grumman did a similar test for the first-stage motor, a longer segment that will get the OmegA off the launch pad and into low-Earth orbit.
“The previous test and this one, together those two create what was the RD-180,” Precourt said.
Despite being half as long as the first stage, the second-stage motor burned for about as much time as the first because it was done as a “cold” test, in which the motor sits in the test bay during winter until it cools to 40 degrees. The solid fuel takes longer to burn when it’s cold.
Last year’s first-stage test was a “hot” test, in which the motor is fired when it reaches 90 degrees. Performing both hot and cold tests allows the company to simulate the most extreme weather conditions that could be seen at actual launches.
While the first- and second-stage motors are filled with solid rocket fuel, a third stage will use liquid propellant. That stage is being developed and tested at a NASA facility in Ohio.
Thursday’s test was conducted with 11 primary performance objectives in mind, and more than 500 instrumentation channels to give a wide range of data on the performance of the motor. Employees at the Promontory campus will spend the coming days and weeks poring over that data, looking for anything suggesting that adjustments need to be made.
“We have a lot of work yet to go to validate that our predictions came through,” Precourt said.
The test was a critical step for Northrop Grumman, which is one of four bidders competing for two massive government contracts to provide launch services to the federal government for at least the next five years. The others vying for the contracts are the privately held SpaceX, founded by Tesla CEO and co-founder Elon Musk; Blue Origin, a private enterprise founded by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos; and the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture formed in 2006 between aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Northrop Grumman’s OmegA, SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Blue Origin’s New Glenn and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan are the four competing vehicles.
In October 2018, the U.S. Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman a $792 million contract to complete detailed design and verification of the OmegA and launch sites.
Developed to support the U.S. Space Force’s National Security Space Launch program, Precourt said the OmegA remains on track for its first certification flight in spring 2021.
In another sign of progress, he said Northrop Grumman recently became the first commercial tenant in the vehicle assembly facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Crews are currently working to modify a launch platform there to accommodate the OmegA in time for next year’s certification flight.
“We’re meeting our customer’s needs on schedule,” Precourt said. “We feel pretty comfortable we’re going to get off the RD-180 in the time frame we were given.”
The Bear River Valley Senior Center is an important resource for senior citizens throughout northern Box Elder County, and Tremonton officials are hoping other communities whose residents use the center will step up to help fund it.
Representatives from the senior center and Tremonton City have been visiting with leaders from other area cities, hoping their contributions will help erase a $200,000 operating shortfall at the center.
“We’re going around to all the cities the senior center serves to give them an overview of what we do, how we do it, and how cities can help us,” Tremonton Community Services Director Marc Christensen said.
Senior Center Director Jenny Christensen said it serves more than 1,000 seniors annually, offering meals, classes, transportation services, exercise programs and other activities, most of them free of charge, and serving as an important community gathering place. It also offers insurance and benefits counseling to seniors on Medicare, among other functions.
“Our main, number one thing is nutrition,” Christensen said. “We want to keep these seniors healthy and in their own homes for as long as possible.”
The center’s largest source of funding is from the State of Utah, which funds the center through the Bear River Association of Governments. Box Elder County chips in $54,000 annually to cover the cost of residents of unincorporated areas who use the center.
Marc Christensen said Tremonton residents account for about 40 percent of senior center users, and the city pays $82,000 a year to cover that use. But as the center is a Tremonton City facility, the city is also on the hook for any budget shortfall that occurs, and officials are looking for other cities to step up to the plate.
He said any contribution from other cities is voluntary, and the center will continue to serve their residents whether or not a city chooses to chip in.
“We’ll continue to serve them because we feel strongly about it,” he told the Garland City Council at a recent meeting.
He said Garland residents account for about 13 percent of senior center users. Based on the calculation used for the county portion and Tremonton’s share, that would come out to $27,000 per year.
“We’re not here to ask for the money, just to let you know what we do, and what the figures are,” he told the Garland council.
He said Tremonton recognizes that Garland residents shop at Tremonton grocery stores and other businesses, therefore contributing to the city’s tax base. However, sales tax revenue is used only for capital improvements at the center and doesn’t help with the cost of day-to-day operations, he said.
Jenny Christensen said the largest expense by far at the center is food. The center offers lunch every weekday and charges $7 a plate for visitors under 60 years old, which roughly covers the cost of the meal. However, seniors 60 and older are offered meals and asked only for a donation.
The center also participates in the Meals on Wheels program. It employs paid drivers to deliver meals to homes throughout the area, as well as take seniors to doctor appointments, grocery stores and other destinations, and she said demand for those services have been rising rapidly.
“Normally we’ll peak in December and then it starts to go down, but this year it just keeps going up.”
In order to qualify for the state portion of its funding, she said the center is not allowed to ask seniors for more than $3 per meal, “even though that meal costs about $7.50.
“We have a pretty good return,” she said. “A lot of people pay the full bill every month, but some will just send a $20 bill or something, and some don’t send anything, and that’s fine — we will continue to serve them.”
She said the center is looking at saving money by finding volunteer drivers, and is also looking for instructors for cooking, art and other classes.
Garland Mayor Todd Miller said senior center funding is not something his city has budgeted for in the past, but that he and the council would work to see what they might be able to fit into their budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
“I feel like we should be helping,” Miller said. “We’ve just never had this conversation.”
The UTOPIA high-speed fiber optic network is becoming a more popular choice for internet service among the Utah cities that participate, and the man at the helm of the network says Tremonton should start seeing the financial returns it has been hoping for in the next couple of years.
Eighteen years after becoming one of the first cities to get on board with the ambitious fiber-to-the-home project, Tremonton is still making substantial payments on the bonds issued to finance the building of the network.
Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA, visited the Tremonton City Council to give an update on the progress of the network, its growing customer base, and how proceeds from the network are starting to increase in a way that will eventually benefit the city.
UTOPIA, an acronym for the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, was founded in 2002 and issued its first bonds in 2004, with 11 original member cities, including Tremonton, pledging to back those bonds. The financing has been used to build an extensive fiber network in those cities, and Timmerman said the project is now seeing strong returns after some tumultuous early years.
The first bonds for UTOPIA were issued in 2004, with Tremonton and 10 other northern Utah cities getting in on the ground floor. But the early years were a struggle, and Timmerman said that in 2007, the financial situation of UTOPIA had deteriorated to the point that bond refinancing was necessary.
“It was on the verge, and that’s probably a light way to put it,” Timmerman said. “Cities were fed up with the debt burden, and it was losing a lot of money just on the operating side. There were not a lot of revenues from customers on the system, and it was a really hard time.”
At the time of the bond refinancing, UTOPIA was looking at about $185 million in debt.
Under the new bond terms, member cities would make payments that escalated every year, with the agency returning enough money to the cities to at least cover the difference in payments from year to year.
Part of the new bonds were used to finish building out the network in Tremonton, and while there are still pockets where the service isn’t yet available in the city, Timmerman said there has been a lot of interest among local residents in recent years.
He said about 35 percent of homes and businesses in the city that have access to UTOPIA fiber are now subscribers (about 1,000 total customers), and with the network buildout expected to be finished over the next few years, the city should see even higher take rates.
“There are some very patient people out there in neighborhoods that have been part of UTOPIA since 2002 and still don’t have services, but it’s being built out faster than it ever has been,” he said.
The early years of the network were marred by low take rates (not many customers signing up for the service), and member cities have been bearing the brunt of the cost. Tremonton’s annual obligation on the bond payments is currently more than $300,000 annually, with the bonds scheduled to expire in 2040.
In 2010, the Utah Infrastructure Agency (“UTOPIA phase two,” as Zimmerman described it,) was formed as finance mechanism for funding network expansion into new cities and areas. Instead of member cities directly backing bonds, the UIA model is for individual customers to back the bonds by signing long-term service contracts or paying a lump sum up-front. UIA cities issue the bonds, which are repaid through revenues from customers.
Tremonton opted not to join as member of UIA, but remains part of UTOPIA, placing it in a unique situation.
Even though Tremonton is not a member of UIA, “we kind of consider you part of both families,” Timmerman told the Tremonton council.
He said UIA has invested more than $170 million in infrastructure, and all of that is now paying for itself.
“It’s being built out faster than it ever has been, and we’re adding customers,” he said. “We used to celebrate 100 (new customers per month), and we may break 600 new customers this next month.”
As revenues have increased, so have payments to cities to help neutralize the higher cost of the debt, although they still haven’t come close to reaching the break-even point.
Tremonton received $15,000 in repayment from UTOPIA last year. Timmerman said the city will receive $33,000 this year, and the hope is that amount will increase by 50 percent next year.
“From the city perspective, that should mean your UTOPIA obligations stay the same,” he said. “As we continue to build out UIA, there should be a significant increase in that amount.”
He said UIA issued a new $45 million bond to build out the infrastructure statewide, and will bond for another $45 million next year, which will complete the financing needed to build out the entire network.
He said the UIA finance committee, and ultimately its board of directors, is still figuring out how to use UIA revenues to help cities repay their UTOPIA bonds, and said it could be another two and a half to three years before that is all figured out. In the meantime, UIA will continue to make remittances so that at least the city’s annual payments won’t increase.
“The desire is to pay off the UTOPIA bonds to get rid of those obligations,” he said.