Tuesday, January 28, 2014



Who doesn’t love a good launch? This past week I attended the launch of the TDRS-L and also toured the Kennedy Space Center. It gave me some perspective. What goes into a launch? Back a few weeks ago I attended the GPM Media day at Goddard and saw all the testing that went into the satellite once the design and creation phases were done. Basically it was all that happens up to when it gets shipped out to the launch site. But what then? We see a cool rocket and separation, but alas we’re skipping a few steps. So why don’t we start at the beginning? :

Kennedy Space Center (aerial view is pictured) is made up of the many stops along the way from the VAB (Vehicle Assemble Building), the Colossal Crawlers/transportation to the launch pads, and then there is the design of the specific launch site itself – a flame deflector or Flame Trench. Of course while the rocket sits on the launch pad it is monitored and controlled from the four-story launch control that sits about 3-4 miles away (there are several launch pads). Oh, and there is the Service Structure as one might need to access and service the vehicle and a launch tower AND there is more - Large cryogenic tanks located near the pads stored the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, there’s the emergency evacuation system and the sound suppression water system & a few lightening towers.

VEHICLE ASSEMBLY BUILDING: First the stats: the VAB is 526 feet /160.3 m tall, 716 feet /218.2 m long and 518 feet /157.9 m wide. It covers 8 acres and encloses 129,428,000 cubic feet of space. Above please find pictures not only of the building with its awesome flag that when painted back in 1976 (to celebrate the bicentennial) was the largest in the world, but also of the inside, the four massive sections each with its own set of bay doors – all considered the largest doors in the world. To give you a reference point the doors take 45 minutes to completely open/close and stand at 456 feet tall. The VAB houses five overhead bridge cranes; two of which are capable of lifting 325 tons, and 130+ other devices for lifting.

In the case of TDRS-l, First the product is assembled, the Astrotech’s Payload Processing Plant had the honors. The payload is encapsulated in its ‘payload shroud’. Located in Titusville, Astrotech is a neighbor to Kennedy and can easily transport the system - best done at night. Again in the case of the TDRS-L its vertical assembly was handled at Launch Complex 41, a site used by United Launch Alliance which previously handled the Titan and now the Atlas V.

But back to the VAB – Above you can see some of the pictures of the Shuttle inside the VAB. With the cranes and other lifting capabilities mentioned it is an easy concept to grasp. Also easy to understand is the amount of care that must be taken when lifting something the size and weight of a shuttle or perhaps the rocket itself.

The actual concept of the VAB building began around the time of the Saturn V. Up until then all launch vehicles were assembled vertically on the launch pad, but with the Saturn V this wasn’t possible. Assembly would take weeks due to contractors and manufacturers located all around the country. Add to this the fact that the air was salty and the weather could get nasty. The VAB was built to protect the Saturn V from the elements during assembly.

But then a new problem existed; transporting the rocket from the VAB to the launch site.

Many ideas were tossed around from a canal between the VAB and the launch site – nixed due to engineering difficulties including the suction that formed between the walls of the canal and the barge. Considered next was a train, but that wouldn’t work due to the soft malleable land and the rigidity of the rails. Finally the best answer found was the oldest answer. Evaluating a massive shovel developed with an old coal mining technology it was decided to be perfect. The ride was slow, very slow, extremely slow, but she was steady and totally free of any vibrations… And so three years later the Crawler was born (aka Colossal Crawler) actually two of these vehicles were born as NASA always has a back-up!

Crawlers;  This transport vehicle consists of four crawlers rolling on treads that are made of one-ton links. This supports the platform that is large enough for a baseball diamond and honestly resembles a portion of the deck on an aircraft carrier. It contains two engine rooms and can fly along at 1.5 mph. Or it can move slower which is most often the case. (note: Ever notice that as you slowdown in your car you have to pay more attention to steering? Imagine what it must be at these speeds.) In addition to its traveling abilities, it also has hydraulic lifts that are capable of lifting the vehicle out of the VAB and ultimately to the launch pad. This process is easily a five hour or more drive; all depending which launch pad is being utilized.

Used to transport the Saturn 1B & Saturn V during Apollo and Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz programs and then used for the Space Shuttles, the crawlers have been around quite a while, witnessed quite a bit of history.

But maybe you are still worried about the topple effect, don’t. The crawler uses a leveling system to maintain the Mobile Launch Platform level. A separate laser docking system aims to provide pinpoint accuracy when the crawler transporter and mobile launch system are located either in the VAB or at the launch pad.

But if you are still worried, operations require that there are there are 30 engineers and technicians and drivers to operate the vehicle.

NASA has two of these, one primary and the other back up but now the backup is getting an upgrade. With a lifting capacity of a mere 12 million pounds she has been modernized to carry a full 18 million pounds. NASA is getting ready for the SLS and now so is the crawler. This vehicle has seen a lot in her 50 years and now, she is going to see a lot more; sending off flights to the Moon or to Mars and then  beyond.

Service StructureAs you can imagine fueling a space vehicle or loading the cargo or loading the astronauts (stay tuned!) requires a bit of assistance. Enter the Service Structure. This is quite simply a supply tower that includes an elevator permitting access to all levels/stages of the vehicle. Before it is a go for launch, all connections between tower and the craft are severed. In addition the bridges these connections pass over swing down and away. If contrasted with a Launch tower the main difference would be that these do not guide the rockets as they lift off.

Launch Tower: Three launch towers that once existed no longer do. I am referring to the shuttle launch towers. Once there were fixed service structures and rotating service structures both used to support the shuttle fleet. The basic plan for the not so distant future is to use the Mobile Launcher or one of the Mobile Launcher Platforms.

Construction is planned for two elevators: Sadly not the infamous Space Elevator but electric elevators that can reach each level of the ML, and the MLP.

Look specifically at Launch Pad 39B  - cables, storage tanks for hypergolic fuels, instrumentation for monitoring & controlling the ground systems, all have been removed and in their place a new weather system that monitors meteorological conditions that detects lightening. Also three new lightening towers have been installed.

***AS of December 2013 NASA has completed the Orion Launch Abort System (LAS) tower in plenty of time for the unmanned Flight Test due in September 2014. This potentially lifesaving device is designed to keep the astronauts safe by pulling the Orion spacecraft away from a failing rocket should a problem arise during launch.***

Fire Trenches/Flame Deflectors: Above are several pictures showing the fire trench. As you can see it is in-between. Having had Apollo era bricks it was time to take them out and replace with a new universal flame deflector that will support not only the new space launch system but also a variety of commercially designed vehicles. Its purpose is to draw the rocket exhaust away from the launch vehicle and launch pad limiting the risk for damage.

Sound Suppression Water System:Quite simply a Sound Reduction System does what it says, it reduces acoustical levels within the orbiter payload to about 142 decibels whereas the design requirement is 145.

Pictured is a test run on the system: Water released onto the Mobile Launcher platform (39A). This particular test was run after the replacement os the six main valves which had reached the end of their service life (20 + years) Just prior to the main ignition water is release from a 290 foot high, 300,000 gallon tank and simply flows using gravity. The system includes six 12-foot high quench nozzles (called “rainbirds’). Nine seconds after liftoff peak flow rate is 900,000 gallons a minute.

There are many more details to a launch, but I thought a glimpse behind the curtain might prove interesting. (Obviously there’s the control room...) Here’s the reward; the TDRS-L night launch, cause who doesn’t love a launch?

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