There’s a big problem with Kennedy Space Center playing host to the Constellation Program: The heavy-lift rocket, Ares V, may be too heavy for the infrastructure to cope with. The crawlerway is a 40 year old road designed for the Saturn V (Apollo Program) crawler-transporters and is currently used to carry the Shuttle up to 6.8km (4.2 miles) from assembly building to launch pad. The crawlerway may be unable to withstand the weight of the fully-laden Ares V, transporter and mobile launch pad; a combined weight 33% heavier than anything the Kennedy crawlerway has ever supported. With the Constellation budget getting tighter every day that passes, the possibility of a multi-billion dollar crawlerway upgrade will only create more problems for NASA…
It seems the Good News:Bad News ratio for NASA’s Constellation Project is getting smaller with every news item that is posted. This week, the good news is: NASA may have solved the Ares vibration problem, but the bad news is: NASA has just released images of the failed Orion parachute test, the Constellation spacesuits will need to be produced by a different manufacturer and now we have concerns for the sub-standard infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center. So this week’s ratio so far is 1:3… not good. OK, that wasn’t a very scientific statistical analysis, but it is clear that the Constellation is off to a bumpy start. You could argue that bad news is more likely to make the headlines than good news, but the complications for NASA are becoming problematic and many are concerned that the gap between Shuttle decommissioning and Constellation launch could widen. This issue is now cropping up in the US Presidential race, with both frontrunning candidates (Obama and McCain) making promises for increased space agency funding.
So what is wrong with Kennedy’s crawlerway? The combined weight of NASA’s Ares V cargo launch vehicle, its mobile launcher and Constellation crawler-transporter may be too heavy for it to support. After all, the 6.8 km (4.2 mile) crawlerway was built with the Apollo program’s Saturn V in mind, 40 years ago. Fortunately it didn’t require an upgrade when transporting the Shuttle, but the difference in weight from the Shuttle to Ares V is stark. The fully-laden Shuttle (plus crawler and empty external tank) has a mass of 7.7 million kg (16.9 million lb); the fully-laden Ares V could weigh as much as 10.9 million kg (24 million lb). This mass increase could cause significant damage to the crawlerway and, ultimately, damage to Ares V should the existing road be used.
The crawlerway is designed as two 12 metre-wide lanes, separated by 15 metres. It has a surface of the road has 20 cm of river gravel on top of 90 cm of compacted limerock. Under that is two layers of “select fill” 1.1 metres deep.
“Given the projected weight of the Ares V vehicle, mobile launcher and transporter, the total weight is about 33% higher than the crawlerway has ever supported there is a possibility that the crawlerway could fail to support the load, resulting in severe impacts to the Constellation programme.” – Constellation vertical integration element risk assessment.
Unfortunately, in July, NASA administrator Michael Griffin stated that there was no Constellation money left for Kennedy upgrades. So what can be done? For now it looks like Ares V will have to stay inside the assembly building until NASA comes up with a plan (or roll it down the crawlerway and hope for the best! This is probably why I’m not a NASA employee…)