Remembrance Week Pays Tribute to NASA’s Three Fallen Astronaut Crews

Today, Feb. 1, concludes the most somber week in NASA history as we remember the fallen astronauts who gave their lives exploring space so that others could reach to the stars – venturing further than ever before!

In the span of a week and many years apart three crews of American astronauts made the ultimate sacrifice and have perished since 1967. Heroes all ! – They believed that the exploration of space was worth risking their lives for the benefit of all mankind.

Apollo 1 memorial 1/27/2015. We start a week of remembrances on the 'Space Coast', years apart but so close together.  Credit: Julian Leek
Apollo 1 memorial 1/27/2015. We start a week of remembrances on the ‘Space Coast’, years apart but so close together. Words/Credit: Julian Leek

On Jan. 28, NASA paid tribute to the crews of Apollo 1 and space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, as well as other NASA colleagues, during the agency’s annual Day of Remembrance. Over the past week, additional remembrance ceremonies were held in many venues across the country.

“NASA’s Day of Remembrance honors members of the NASA family who lost their lives while furthering the cause of exploration and discovery,” said a NASA statement.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and other agency senior officials held an observance and wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Jan. 28.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and his wife Alexis lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns as part of NASA’s Day of Remembrance, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. The wreaths were laid in memory of those men and women who lost their lives in the quest for space exploration. Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and his wife Alexis lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns as part of NASA’s Day of Remembrance, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. The wreaths were laid in memory of those men and women who lost their lives in the quest for space exploration. Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

“Today we remember and give thanks for the lives and contributions of those who gave all trying to push the boundaries of human achievement. On the solemn occasion, we pause in our normal routines and remember the STS-107 Columbia crew; the STS-51L Challenger crew; the Apollo 1 crew; Mike Adams, the first in-flight fatality of the space program as he piloted the X-15 No. 3 on a research flight; and those lost in test flights and aeronautics research throughout our history,” said Bolden.

“Let us join together … in paying our respects, and honoring the memories of our dear friends. They will never be forgotten. Godspeed to every one of them.”

12 years ago today on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia suddenly and unexpectedly disintegrated over the skies of Texas during the fiery reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere at the conclusion of the STS-107 science mission. All aboard were lost: Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, and Ilan Ramon.

STS-107 crew of Space Shuttle Columbia
STS-107 crew of Space Shuttle Columbia

Jan. 28 marked the 29th anniversary of the Challenger disaster on the STS-51L mission when it suddenly broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986. The entire seven person crew were killed; including Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Judy Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, Ellison Onizuka, and the first “Teacher in Space” Christa McAuliffe.

STS-51L crew of Space Shuttle Challenger
STS-51L crew of Space Shuttle Challenger

Jan. 27 marks the 48th anniversary of the first of the three disasters when a horrendous cockpit fire at Launch Complex 34 in 1967 killed the Apollo 1 crew of Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee during a training exercise in the capsule.

Apollo 1 Crew
Apollo 1 Crew

Launch Complex 34 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was never used again for a launch and the ruins stand as a stark memorial to the crew of Apollo 1.

An observance was also held on Jan. 28 at the Space Mirror Memorial at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

The Space Mirror Memorial at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center honors all astronauts who perished during their service to the agency. Photo Credit: Talia Landman/AmericaSpace
The Space Mirror Memorial at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center honors all astronauts who perished during their service to the agency. Photo Credit: Talia Landman/AmericaSpace
Deeply humbled to put a rose on Christa McAuliffe's plaque at the Astronaut Memorial Ceremony today 1/28/15.  A little something extra...from one educator to another. Words/Credit: Sarah McNulty
Deeply humbled to put a rose on Christa McAuliffe’s plaque at the Astronaut Memorial Ceremony today 1/28/15. A little something extra…from one educator to another. Words/Credit: Sarah McNulty

Today the fallen astronauts legacy of human spaceflight lives on at NASA with the International Space Station (ISS), the development of Commercial Crew manned capsules for low Earth orbit, and the development of the Orion deep space crew exploration vehicle and SLS rocket for NASA’s ambitious plans to send ‘Human to Mars’ in the 2030s.

There are numerous memorials to the fallen crews. Among them are the tribute plaques to all five space shuttle orbiters that were the brainchild of the Space Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach.

The five orbiter plaques were mounted inside the Space Shuttle Firing Room #4, above the Shuttle countdown clock at the Launch Control Center of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The plaques for Columbia and Challenger, the first two shuttles built, include the crew portraits from STS-107 and STS-51L.

Memorial displays to all five Space Shuttle Orbiters mounted inside the Space Shuttle Firing Room #4 - above the Shuttle countdown clock. These tribute displays highlight and honor the significant achievements from the actual space voyages of the individual Orbiters launched from the Kennedy Space Center over three decades –starting with STS-1 in 1981. Shuttle mission patches since the return to flight in 2005 are mounted below the tribute displays. Click to enlarge. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com.
Memorial displays to all five Space Shuttle Orbiters mounted inside the Space Shuttle Firing Room #4 – above the Shuttle countdown clock. These tribute displays highlight and honor the significant achievements from the actual space voyages of the individual Orbiters launched from the Kennedy Space Center over three decades –starting with STS-1 in 1981. Shuttle mission patches since the return to flight in 2005 are mounted below the tribute displays. Click to enlarge. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The Dignity Memorial to fallen astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Dignity Memorial to fallen astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Statement from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden
Statement from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

Moon Over Orion Heralds Start of NASA’s Human Road to Mars

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – This week’s appearance of the Moon over the Kennedy Space Center marks the perfect backdrop heralding the start of NASA’s determined push to send Humans to Mars by the 2030s via the agency’s new Orion crew capsule set to soar to space on its maiden test flight in less than two days.

Orion is the first human rated vehicle that can carry astronauts beyond low Earth orbit on voyages to deep space in more than 40 years.

Top managers from NASA, United Launch Alliance (ULA), and Lockheed Martin met on Tuesday, Dec. 2, and gave the “GO” to proceed toward launch after a thorough review of all systems related to the Orion capsule, rocket, and ground operation systems at the launch pad at the Launch Readiness Review (LRR), said Mark Geyer at a NASA media briefing on Dec. 2.

A new countdown display has been constructed in the place of the former analog countdown clock at the Press Site at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for Orion’s first launch. The display is a modern, digital LED display akin to stadium monitors. It allows television images to be shown along with numbers.  Note former shuttle launch pad 39A in the background above clock.   Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A new countdown display has been constructed in the place of the former analog countdown clock at the Press Site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for Orion’s first launch slated for Dec. 4, 2014. The display is a modern, digital LED display akin to stadium monitors. It allows television images to be shown along with numbers. Note former shuttle launch pad 39A in the background above clock. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion is slated to lift off on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket on its inaugural test flight to space on the uncrewed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission at 7:05 a.m. EST on December 4, 2014, from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

America’s astronauts flying aboard Orion will venture farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars, and other destinations in our Solar System starting around 2020 or 2021 on Orion’s first crewed flight atop NASA’s new monster rocket – the SLS – concurrently under development.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The current weather forecast states the launch is 60 percent “GO” for favorable weather condition at the scheduled liftoff time of at 7:05 a.m. on Dec. 4, 2014.

The launch window extends for 2 hours and 39 minutes.

The two-orbit, four and a half hour Orion EFT-1 flight around Earth will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

EFT-1 will test the rocket, second stage, and jettison mechanisms, as well as avionics, attitude control, computers, and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft.

Orion atop Delta 4 Heavy Booster.   Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
Orion atop Delta 4 Heavy Booster. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Then the spacecraft will carry out a high speed re-entry through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph and scorching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit to test the heat shield, before splashing down for a parachute assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA TV will provide several hours of live Orion EFT-1 launch coverage with the new countdown clock – starting at 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 4.

Orion’s move to Launch Complex-37. Credit: Mike Killian
Orion’s move to Launch Complex-37. Credit: Mike Killian

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage and he’ll be onsite at KSC in the days leading up to the historic launch on Dec. 4.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion and Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer
………….
Learn more about Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions, and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Dec 1-5: “Orion EFT-1, SpaceX CRS-5, Antares Orb-3 launch, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA Premiers New Countdown Clock for Orion’s First Launch

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – Just in the nick of time, NASA powered up its new countdown clock at the Press Site to tick down towards blastoff of the first launch of the agency’s new Orion crew capsule on Dec. 4 that will carry a new generation of explorers to exciting new destinations further into deep space than ever before.

Without any fanfare, NASA premiered the new digital clock today, Monday, Dec. 1, to replace the world famous analog clock – seen by countless billions across the globe – that was recently retired and detailed in my story – here.

Check out and compare the new and old countdown clocks in my exclusive photos herein.

“We were in a race against time to remove the old clock and replace it with the new clock over the Thanksgiving holiday period,” said NASA Kennedy Space Center spokesman George Diller in an exclusive interview with Universe Today on Monday.

“The plan was to have it ready in time for the first launch of Orion on Dec. 4,” Diller told me.

A new countdown display has been constructed in the place of the former analog countdown clock at the Press Site at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for Orion’s first launch. The display is a modern, digital LED display akin to stadium monitors. It allows television images to be shown along with numbers.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A new countdown display has been constructed in the place of the former analog countdown clock at the Press Site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for Orion’s first launch. The display is a modern, digital LED display akin to stadium monitors. It allows television images to be shown along with numbers. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

A team was working during the holiday.

Why replace the old clock?

“It was getting harder and harder to find the spare parts needed to fix the clock”.

“The original clock was designed in the 1960s”, Diller explained. It has been counting down launches, both manned and unmanned, for more than four decades.

“The clock has been in use since the Apollo 12 moon landing mission in November 1969.”

NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s 135th, and final, shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011, at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It was used continuously throughout the remaining Apollo launches and then for all 135 shuttle launches until the final shuttle mission STS-135 blastoff in July 2011. Since then it has been used exclusively on a plethora of unmanned NASA science launches and resupply missions to the International Space Station.

The old countdown clock was last used in September 2014 during the SpaceX CRS-4 launch to the ISS, which I attended along with the STS-135 launch.

The clock and adjacent US flag are officially called “The Press Site: Clock and Flag Pole” and were listed in the National Register of Historic Places on Jan. 21, 2000.

In the past few days workers dismantled and hauled off the old clock and installed the new one in place.

But the original base was left in place. The new clock is about the same length as the historic one, with a screen nearly 26 feet wide by 7 feet high.

While not true high-definition, the video resolution will be 1280 x 360.The new countdown clock sports a widescreen capability utilizing the latest breakthroughs in outdoor LED display technology, says NASA.

Space Shuttle Endeavour blasts off on her 25th and final mission from Pad 39 A on May 16, 2011 at 8:56 a.m. View from the world famous countdown clock at T Plus 5 Seconds. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Space Shuttle Endeavour blasts off on her 25th, and final, mission from Pad 39 A on May 16, 2011, at 8:56 a.m. View from the world famous countdown clock at T-Plus 5 Seconds. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The display can provide images from multiple sources, as well as the countdown launch time. It was cool to see the new clock in action today.

As currently envisaged, the historic Countdown Clock was moved to the nearby Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC).

It will be placed on permanent display for the public to see for the first time at the KSCVC main entrance sometime early next year, Diller explained.

The new countdown clock in contact view with the VAB, Launch Control Center (LCC), US Flag and SLS Mobile Launcher at the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida used for the first time with Orion’s first launch on Dec. 4, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
The new countdown clock in contact view with the VAB, Launch Control Center (LCC), US Flag, and SLS Mobile Launcher at the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida will be used for the first time with Orion’s first launch on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

NASA TV will provide several hours of live Orion EFT-1 launch coverage with the new countdown clock – starting at 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 4.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage and he’ll be onsite at KSC in the days leading up to the historic launch on Dec. 4.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion and Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer
………….
Learn more about Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Dec 1-5: “Orion EFT-1, SpaceX CRS-5, Antares Orb-3 launch, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Iconic Kennedy Space Center Countdown Clock Retires

Iconic Kennedy Space Center Countdown Clock seen here retires
NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story updated and more photos[/caption]

In another sign of dramatically changing times since the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, the world famous Countdown Clock that ticked down to numerous blastoffs at the Kennedy Space Center Press Site and was ever present to billions of television viewers worldwide, has been retired.

Years of poor weather and decades of unforgiving time have visibly taken their toll on the iconic Countdown Clock beloved by space enthusiasts across the globe – as I have personally witnessed over years of reporting on launches from the KSC Press Site.

It was designed in the 1960s and has been counting down launches both manned and unmanned since the Apollo 12 moon landing mission in November 1969. And it continued through the final shuttle mission liftoff in July 2011 and a variety of unmanned NASA launches since then.

The countdown clock’s last use came just two months ago in September 2014 during the SpaceX CRS-4 launch to the ISS, which I attended along with the STS-135 launch.

The clock is located just a short walk away from another iconic NASA symbol – the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) – which assembled the Apollo/Saturn and Space Shuttle stacks for which it ticked down to blastoff. See photo below.

A new clock should be in place for NASA’s momentous upcoming launch of the Orion crew capsule on its inaugural unmanned test flight on Dec. 4, 2014.

Space Shuttle Endeavour blasts off on her 25th and final mission from Pad 39 A on May 16, 2011 at 8:56 a.m. View from the world famous countdown clock at T Plus 5 Seconds. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Space Shuttle Endeavour blasts off on her 25th and final mission from Pad 39 A on May 16, 2011 at 8:56 a.m. View from the world famous countdown clock at T Plus 5 Seconds. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Because of its age, it has become harder to replace broken pieces.

“Maintaining the clock was becoming problematic,” NASA Press spokesman Allard Beutel told Universe Today.

It displays only time in big bold digits. But of course in this new modern digital era it will be replaced by one with a modern multimedia display, similar to the screens seen at sporting venues.

“The new clock will not only be a timepiece, but be more versatile with what we can show on the digital display,” Beutel told me.

The countdown clock is a must see for journalists, dignitaries and assorted visitors alike. Absolutely everyone, and I mean everyone !! – wants a selfie or group shot with it in some amusing or charming way to remember good times throughout the ages.

And of course, nothing beats including the countdown clock and the adjacent US flag in launch pictures in some dramatic way.

Indeed the clock and flag are officially called “The Press Site: Clock and Flag Pole” and are were listed in the National Register of Historic Places on Jan. 21, 2000.

The clock was officially powered down for the last time at 3:45 p.m. EDT on Nov. 19, 2014.

Famous KSC Press Site Countdown Clock and US Flag with VAB during SpaceX CRS-5 launch in September 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Famous KSC Press Site Countdown Clock and US Flag with VAB during SpaceX CRS-4 launch in September 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“The countdown clock at Kennedy’s Press Site is considered one of the most-watched timepieces in the world and may only be second in popularity to Big Ben’s Great Clock in London, England. It also has been the backdrop for a few Hollywood movies,” noted a NASA press release announcing the impending shutdown of the iconic clock.

“It is so absolutely unique — the one and only — built for the world to watch the countdown and launch,” said Timothy M. Wright, IMCS Timing, Countdown and Photo Services. “From a historical aspect, it has been very faithful to serve its mission requirements.”

The famous landmark stands nearly 6 feet (70 inches) high, 26 feet (315 inches) wide is 3 feet deep and sits on a triangular concrete and aluminum base.

Each numerical digit (six in all) is about 4 feet high and 2 feet wide. Each digit uses 56 40-watt light bulbs, the same ones found at the local hardware store. There are 349 total light bulbs in the clock, including the +/- sign (nine) and pair of colons (four), according to a NASA statement.

The new clock will be about the same size.

Fortunately for space fans, there is some good news!

The Countdown Clock will be moved to the nearby Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) and placed on permanent display for public viewing.

Details soon!

Space Shuttle Discovery awaits blast off on her final mission from Pad 39 A on the STS-133 mission, its 39th and final flight to space on February 24, 2011.  Prelaunch twilight view from the countdown clock at the KSC Press Site. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Space Shuttle Discovery awaits blast off on her final mission from Pad 39 A on the STS-133 mission, its 39th and final flight to space on February 24, 2011. Prelaunch twilight view from the countdown clock at the KSC Press Site. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

6-Year-Old ‘Right Stuff’ Boy Reaches for the Stars with Petition Drive and Astronauts to Save NASA Funding

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL- When 6-year-old Connor Johnson from Denver, Colo. heard that his youthful dreams of going to Mars and ‘Reaching for the Stars’ were in danger due to funding cuts to NASA’s budget, he decided to do something about it.

So, with the encouragement of his parents, Connor started an online petition drive on the White House website in December 2013 to help save NASA’s budget and fulfill his dreams.

Connor’s petition drive efforts were noticed by a Denver TV station that broadcast a report on the young lads work that spurred his efforts.

Over 22,000 folks have already signed Connor’s petition.

That’s when the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex noticed his zeal in communicating the excitement and benefits of science and space voyages.

The KSC Visitor Complex invited Connor and to visit as a guest of honor with his family and to participate in the first ever ‘Robot Rocket Rally’ held this past weekend from March 14 to 16.

At a special ‘guest of honor’ ceremony held on Saturday, NASA recognized Connor’s unique contributions to space exploration with a public meeting at the Visitor Complex with Kennedy Space Center Director and space shuttle commander Bob Cabana.

Connor Johnson, 6, talks with former space shuttle commander Bob Cabana, director of Kennedy Space Center, about spaceflight during a ceremony Saturday, March 15, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Connor holds the ISS bolt given to him by Cabana in appreciation of Connor initiating a petition to the White House to maintain NASA funding.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Connor Johnson, 6, talks with former space shuttle commander Bob Cabana, director of Kennedy Space Center, about spaceflight during a ceremony Saturday, March 15, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Connor holds the ISS bolt given to him by Cabana in appreciation of Connor initiating a petition to the White House to maintain NASA funding. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Cabana, who flew four shuttle missions, gave Connor several mementos, including a mission patch and an actual bolt from the International Space Station, as a token of appreciation from the agency.

“I think it’s great for Connor to be so interested in the future of NASA,” Kennedy Center Director Bob Cabana said.

“It shows great initiative on his part to do what he’s done.”

Connor Johnson, 6, talks with former space shuttle commander Bob Cabana, director of Kennedy Space Center, about spaceflight during a ceremony Saturday, March 15, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Connor holds the ISS bolt given to him by Cabana in appreciation of Connor initiating a petition to the White House to maintain NASA funding.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Connor Johnson, 6, talks with former space shuttle commander Bob Cabana, director of Kennedy Space Center, about spaceflight during a ceremony Saturday, March 15, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Connor holds the ISS bolt given to him by Cabana in appreciation of Connor initiating a petition to the White House to maintain NASA funding.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“Ultimately, the budget supports what we want to do with continuing International Space Station research and technology which will feed into SLS and Orion, leading to the asteroid initiative and on to Mars.”

“And it will dictate how we work with commercial partners to launch our astronauts from U.S. soil,” Cabana explained.

Millions of kids of all ages worldwide have been inspired by NASA for generations to pursue their dreams of science research and exploring space.

After the ceremony with Bob Cabana, the media including myself met with Connor.

I asked Connor when he became interested in space and where did he want to journey.

“I’ve been interested in NASA and space since I was three years old.”

“I want to be an astronaut and go to Mars!” Connor told Universe Today.

Since NASA currently plans to send the first manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, Connor is just about the right age.

Connor Johnson clearly exhibits the ‘Right Stuff.’

So much so that Apollo 17 Astronaut and Moon walker Eugene Cernan also spoke with Connor upon hearing of his work to save NASA’s funding.

What did Cernan say to Connor?

“Dream the unimaginable,” Moon walker Eugene Cernan said to 6-year old future Mars walker Connor Johnson.

During his visit to the Visitor Complex, Connor also visited with the Earth bound brother of NASA’s Robonaut 2 at the ‘Robot Rocket Rally’ and saw a demonstration of the robots new legs heading soon to the ISS on the SpaceX CRS-3 mission later this month. He and his younger brother also operated other robots at the festival.

Connor and his family spent the rest of the weekend touring the new Space Shuttle Atlantis pavillion, enjoyed Lunch With An Astronaut, featuring space shuttle astronaut Sam Durrance, and participated in the Astronaut Training Experience with space shuttle astronaut Mike McCulley.

What a thrilling way to begin a space career.

Way to go Connor!

Connor Johnson (Future astronaut) and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) at the ceremony with former space shuttle commander Bob Cabana, on March 15, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Connor holds the ISS bolt given to him by Cabana. Johnson, of Denver, Colo., initiated a petition to the White House to maintain NASA funding. Credit: Jason Rhian/Spaceflight Insider
Connor Johnson (Future astronaut) and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) at the ceremony with former space shuttle commander Bob Cabana, on March 15, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Connor holds the ISS bolt given to him by Cabana. Credit: Jason Rhian/SpaceFlight Insider

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13 and at Washington Crossing State Park, NJ on April 6. Also evenings at the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center, Titusville, FL, March 24/25 and March 29/30.

And watch for Ken’s SpaceX launch coverage at Cape Canaveral & the Kennedy Space Center press site.

Ken Kremer

The new Space Shuttle Atlantis pavilion at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
The new Space Shuttle Atlantis pavilion at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Gaping Inside The Huge Vehicle Assembly Building NASA Used For Space Shuttles And Moon Missions

ORLANDO, FLORIDA – There’s something about this city that brings out the crazy travel planner in me. I visited here four times betting a shuttle would launch, luckily winning on three occasions. I also once took an epic bus trip from here as far south as Fort Lauderdale before zooming back north, looking at space exhibits up and down the coast.

This time, it was to catch the Vehicle Assembly Building tour before it was gone. Tours inside the iconic, huge structure — best known as the spot where the Apollo rockets and space shuttle went through final assembly before going to the pad — are closing down on Sunday (Feb. 23). Warned by Ken Kremer and others that soon the public couldn’t get inside, I booked a ticket late last month after the announcement was made.

I came in search of the past, but what I saw instead was the future — an agency preparing to hand over a launch pad  to SpaceX, and at least part of an Orion spacecraft on the VAB floor, ready to be shipped to Langley, Virginia.

The floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a tour in February 2014. At left is an Orion spacecraft prototype readied for shipping to Langley, Virginia. Credit: Elizabeth Howell
The floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a tour in February 2014. At left is an Orion spacecraft prototype readied for shipping to Langley, Virginia. Credit: Elizabeth Howell
Atlantis suspended in the Vehicle Assembly Building during the shuttle era. Image credit: NASA
Atlantis suspended in the Vehicle Assembly Building during the shuttle era. Image credit: NASA

It’s hard to convey the size of one of the world’s largest buildings. It’s so big that it can form its own weather inside, without proper air conditioning. It stands almost twice as high as the Statue of Liberty, at 160 meters (525 feet) tall and 158 meters (518 feet) wide.

The 3.25-hectare (8-acre) building needed to be so huge to hold the 363-foot (111-meter) Apollo/Saturn vehicles in the 1960s and 1970s, and then was modified for use of the shuttle in the 1970s until just a few years ago.

What surprised me, however, was how narrow the main floor appeared. That’s because there are all of these catwalks on either side of the space for workers to get access to different parts of the spacecraft.

A view of scaffolding inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo taken in February 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell
A view of scaffolding inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo taken in February 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

Tours of this building were off-limits between 1978 and 2011, when the shuttle program was launching its vehicles in earnest. After the program retired, however, NASA opened the VAB and nearby facilities (including the Launch Control Center and Launch Pad 39A) up to visitors. As these areas are now being used by contractors and the Orion/Space Launch System, however, the agency is closing down public access so the work of getting to space can continue.

As NASA prepares for a test of Orion later in 2014, the agency is also looking to lease out parts of the big building to commercial vendors. It appears negotiations for at least some of the high bays are ongoing.

Meanwhile, we were lucky enough to glimpse at least part of an Orion spacecraft prototype ready for shipping to Langley, Virginia, with about a dozen people busily milling around it as it lay on the back of a tractor trailer. It’s unclear to me how much of the spacecraft was inside that package, but our tour guide told us it was the whole thing. Yes, the truck looked really tiny in the big building.

An Orion prototype spacecraft in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ready to be shipped to Langley, Virginia. Credit: Elizabeth Howell
An Orion prototype spacecraft in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ready to be shipped to Langley, Virginia. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

Our group also had the chance to visit Launch Pad 39A, one of the two pads used in the Apollo program and also for shuttle. It was eerie to see the pad still in its shuttle configuration, complete with the clamshell-like structure that used to protect the vehicle from the weather until just prior to launch.

All that is going to be torn down for scrap shortly as SpaceX likely takes over the pad, our guide told us, and it’s unclear how long pad tours will continue. Likely those will be gone soon as well. Meanwhile, I took special delight standing in the “flame trench” where noxious chemicals from the launch used to flow. You certainly didn’t want to be close to this spot when a Saturn V or shuttle stack took off.

By the way, the first thing I thought of when I saw the huge pipes on the side of the picture below is the 1996 movie Apollo 13, which has a dramatic launch sequence that includes a neat pan across the coolant tubing. That’s about the time when I decided I wanted to see the VAB and launch pads, so it only took me 18 years to get out here.

Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, one of two locations where the shuttle went into space. Photo taken in February 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell
Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, one of two locations where the shuttle went into space. Photo taken in February 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

Although these tours are likely changing or closing, these steps are to get the complex ready for manned launches again, if the current plan and funding holds as NASA hopes.

In the meantime, there are other things to see at the center. The picture at the top of this article shows the Vehicle Assembly Building just before the launch of STS-129, my first experience seeing a shuttle rocket into space.

That shuttle happened to be Atlantis, which today is handily displayed nearby in the KSC Visitor Complex. Weird, I thought, as I looked at the immense vehicle’s bulk. The last time I saw you in November 2009, you were on your way to orbit and making a lot of noise.

I wonder how much things will change at KSC in the next four years.

The Atlantis space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in February 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell
The Atlantis space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in February 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

Now is Your Last Chance to Visit Inside NASA’s Iconic Vehicle Assembly Building – and maybe see an Orion

NASA’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and Launch Control Center (LCC) at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Public access tours inside the VAB will end on Feb. 11, 2014. NASA’s Apollo Saturn V Moon rockets and Space Shuttles were assembled inside.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Story updated- Last chance to visit VAB extended to Feb. 23[/caption]

If you have ever wanted to take a personal trip inside NASA’s world famous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, now is the time.

In fact this is your last chance. Because access to the hugely popular public tours will end very soon. And perhaps you’ll see an Orion test capsule too.

Indeed you only have until Feb. 11 [Update: now extended to Feb. 23] to enjoy the KSC “Up-Close Tour” inside the 52 story tall VAB, according to an announcement by the privately run Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which organizes the VAB tours.

The VAB is an iconic world wide symbol of America’s space program.

And it’s home to many of NASA’s finest and most historic exploration achievements – including all the manned Apollo Moon landings and the three decade long Space Shuttle program that launched the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station (ISS) to orbit.

Why are the interior public tours being halted, barely 2 years after they started?

Because after a bit of a lull following the termination of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, space launch activities are ramping up once again and the agency must complete much needed building renovations to prepare for the next step in human exploration of the cosmos – SLS, Orion and commercial ‘space taxis’.

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The agency needs unfettered use of the VAB to prepare for assembly, lifting and stacking of the new Orion crew capsule and it’s new monster booster rocket – the Space Launch System (SLS) – slated for its maiden blastoff in 2017.

You can always see the 525 foot tall VAB from the outside, gleaming proudly from miles away.

And it’s a must see from up close outside glimpses aboard tour buses driving by all day long – resplendent with a mammoth red, white and blue American flag painted on its side.

But nothing compares to being an eyewitness to history and seeing it from the inside with your own eyes, especially if you are a space enthusiast!

The VAB is one of the largest and most voluminous buildings in the world.

Since 1978, the VAB interior had been off limits to public visitors for more than 30 years during the shuttle era. It was too hazardous to visit because of the presence of the giant shuttle solid rocket boosters loaded with fuel.

Orion Ground Test Article (GTA) recently displayed on the floor inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).    Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orion Ground Test Article (GTA) recently displayed on the floor inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Inside access was finally restored to guests at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in November 2011, following the retirement of the space shuttles.

Visitors could again “see firsthand where monstrous vehicles were assembled for launch, from the very first Saturn V rocket in the late 1960s to the very last space shuttle, STS-135 Atlantis, in 2011.”

Although the shuttles are now gone, there is a possibility that maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see an Orion test capsule that’s been used in real ground testing to help NASA prepare for upcoming missions.

Since the layout is constantly changing, there is no guarantee on seeing the Orion.

Possibly either an Orion boilerplate test article or the Ground Test Article (GTA) which was the first flight worthy Orion capsule to be built. The GTA is the path finding prototype for the Orion EFT-1 capsule currently in final assembly and slated to launch this Fall 2014.

Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to snap a shot like one of mine of the Orion GTA on the floor of the main working area of the VAB – known as the transfer aisle.

You will definitely get the feel for the greatest hits in space history inside the place where the moon rockets and space shuttles were lifted, stacked and assembled for flight and then rolled out to either Launch Pad 39 A or 39 B.

Atlantis approaches the VAB for the final time. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlantis approaches the VAB for the final time during preparations for the STS-135 flight in 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex has been honored to give our guests rare access to the VAB for the past two years, yet we knew that the day would come when preparations for the SLS would take precedent,” said Therrin Protze, chief operating officer for the Visitor Complex, in a statement.

“Kennedy Space Center is an operating space program facility, and preparations for the next chapter in space exploration are the utmost priority, and we are very excited about the future.”

Starting in 2017, America will again launch a mighty rocket – the SLS that will blast Americans to deep space after an unbelievable 50 year gap.

Full belly view of Space Shuttle Discovery coated with thousands of protective heat shield tiles in the transfer aisle of the VAB where it was processed for final launch on STS-133 mission.  Note two rectangular attach points holding left and right side main separation bolts. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Full belly view of Space Shuttle Discovery coated with thousands of protective heat shield tiles in the transfer aisle of the VAB where it was processed for final launch on STS-133 mission. Note two rectangular attach points holding left and right side main separation bolts. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

So for only about the next two weeks, you can see one of the greatest treasures of America’s space program and appreciate the cavernous interior from where our astronauts once set off for the Moon as part of the “Mega Tour”.

The “Mega Tour”, which also included visits to Launch Pad 39 A and the Launch Control Center (LCC) ends on Feb. 11, the visitor complex announced.

However the visitor complex is still offering a modified “Up-Close” tour to Pad 39A and the Launch Control Center (LCC) – at this time. But that’s subject to change at any moment depending on NASA’s priorities.

View of NASA’s 52 story tall Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) as seen from the top of Launch Pad 39 A.    Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
View of NASA’s 52 story tall Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) as seen from the very top of Launch Pad 39 A gantry. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

And don’t forget that you can also see NASA’s genuine Space Shuttle Atlantis in its new permanent exhibition hall at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Please check the visitor center website for complete details and admission pricing on “Up-Close” tours and everything else – www.kennedyspacecenter.com

There is one thing I can guarantee – if you don’t go you will see nothing!

Catch it if you can. It’s NOT coming back any time soon!

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Chang’e-3, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

Space Shuttle Atlantis permanent display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Space Shuttle Atlantis permanent display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the Turn Basin adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center Press Center and the countdown clock. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the Turn Basin adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center Press Center and the countdown clock. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Shuttle Atlantis Soars In New Exhibit, Two Years After Last Space Launch

Two years after space shuttle Atlantis launched into space, it’s still looking like it returned from a long journey. It “bears the scars, scorch marks and space dust of its last mission,” writes the Kennedy Space Center Visitors’ Center.

That’s deliberate, though. In late June, visitors to the Orlando-area attraction got the chance to get nose-to-nose with this orbiter in a new exhibit. Atlantis, unlike similar exhibits of other shuttles so far, is perched on a precise 43.21-degree angle to give a view previously afforded only to astronauts.

The $100 million, 90,000-square-foot exhibit also has an International Space Station gallery, a simulated shuttle launch ride, and training simulators for landing, space station docking and moving the robotic Canadarm.

Today (July 8) marked the two-year launch anniversary of STS-135, the last journey of both Atlantis and the shuttle program. Its main goal was to haul a huge load of supplies and spare parts to the space station. The event also generated a NASA Social, which many of the participants (including Universe Today‘s Jason Major) recalled today:

bittersweet_sts135

For those of us who couldn’t make the launch in person, luckily there’s plenty of multimedia material out there to experience it virtually. Universe Today‘s Ken Kremer was also at the final launch, and posted some photos on our website . NASA has a hub commemorating the last shuttle launch. NASA Kennedy published a mission tribute video, including some rarer footage.

And of course, you can watch the launch itself in many videos, including this official one from NASA below.

What are your favorite memories of Atlantis activities, either from attending launches or doing other things? Feel free to share in the comments.

U.S. To Restart Plutonium Production for Deep Space Exploration

The end of NASA’s plutonium shortage may be in sight. On Monday March 18th,  NASA’s planetary science division head Jim Green announced that production of Plutonium-238 (Pu-238) by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) is currently in the test phases leading up to a restart of full scale production.

“By the end of the calendar year, we’ll have a complete plan from the Department of Energy on how they’ll be able to satisfy our requirement of 1.5 to 2 kilograms a year.” Green said at the 44th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference being held in Woodlands, Texas this past Monday.

This news comes none too soon. We’ve written previously on the impending Plutonium shortage and the consequences it has for future deep space exploration. Solar power is adequate in most cases when you explore the inner solar system, but when you venture out beyond the asteroid belt, you need nuclear power to do it.

Production of the isotope Pu-238 was a fortunate consequence of the Cold War.  First produced by Glen Seaborg in 1940, the weapons grade isotope of plutonium (-239) is produced via bombarding neptunium (which itself is a decay product of uranium-238) with neutrons. Use the same target isotope of Neptunium-237 in a fast reactor, and Pu-238 is the result. Pu-238 produces 280x times the decay heat at 560 watts per kilogram versus weapons grade Pu-239  and is ideal as a compact source of energy for deep space exploration.

Since 1961, over 26 U.S. spacecraft have been launched carrying Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (MMRTG, or formerly simply RTGs) as power sources and have explored every planet except Mercury. RTGs were used by the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) science payloads left on by the astronauts on the Moon, and Cassini, Mars Curiosity and New Horizons enroute to explore Pluto in July 2015 are all nuclear powered.

Plutonium powered RTGs are the only technology that we have currently in use that can carry out deep space exploration. NASA’s Juno spacecraft will be the first to reach Jupiter in 2016 without the use of a nuclear-powered RTG, but it will need to employ 3 enormous 2.7 x 8.9 metre solar panels to do it.

The plutonium power source inside the Mars Science Laboratory's MMRTG during assembly at the Idaho National Laboratory. (Credit: Department of Energy?National Laboratory image under a Creative Commons Generic Attribution 2.0 License).
The plutonium power source inside the Mars Science Laboratory’s MMRTG during assembly at the Idaho National Laboratory. (Credit: Department of Energy/Idaho National Laboratory image under a Creative Commons Generic Attribution 2.0 License).

The problem is, plutonium production in the U.S. ceased in 1988 with the end of the Cold War. How much Plutonium-238 NASA and the DOE has stockpiled is classified, but it has been speculated that it has at most enough for one more large Flag Ship class mission and perhaps a small Scout class mission. Plus, once weapons grade plutonium-239 is manufactured, there’s no re-processing it the desired Pu-238 isotope. The plutonium that currently powers Curiosity across the surface of Mars was bought from the Russians, and that source ended in 2010. New Horizons is equipped with a spare MMRTG that was built for Cassini, which was launched in 1999.

Technicians handle an RTG at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center for the Cassini spacecraft. (Credit: NASA).
Technicians handle an RTG at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center for the Cassini spacecraft. (Credit: NASA).

As an added bonus, plutonium powered missions often exceed expectations as well. For example, the Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft had an original mission duration of five years and are now expected to continue well into their fifth decade of operation. Mars Curiosity doesn’t suffer from the issues of “dusty solar panels” that plagued Spirit and Opportunity and can operate through the long Martian winter. Incidentally, while the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were not nuclear powered, they did employ tiny pellets of plutonium oxide in their joints to stay warm, as well as radioactive curium to provide neutron sources in their spectrometers. It’s even quite possible that any alien intelligence stumbles upon the five spacecraft escaping our solar system (Pioneer 10 & 11, Voyagers 1 & 2, and New Horizons) could conceivably date their departure from Earth by measuring the decay of their plutonium power source. (Pu-238 has a half life of 87.7 years and eventually decays after transitioning through a long series of daughter isotopes into lead-206).

New Horizons in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center. Note the RTG (black) protruding from the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/Uwe W.)
New Horizons in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center. Note the RTG (black) protruding from the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/Uwe W.)

The current production run of Pu-238 will be carried out at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) using its High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR). “Old” Pu-238 can also be revived by adding newly manufactured Pu-238 to it.

“For every 1 kilogram, we really revive two kilograms of the older plutonium by mixing it… it’s a critical part of our process to be able to utilize our existing supply at the energy density we want it,” Green told a recent Mars exploration planning committee.

Still, full target production of 1.5 kilograms per year may be some time off. For context, the Mars rover Curiosity utilizes 4.8 kilograms of Pu-238, and New Horizons contains 11 kilograms. No missions to the outer planets have left Earth since the launch of Curiosity in November 2011, and the next mission likely to sport an RTG is the proposed Mars 2020 rover. Ideas on the drawing board such as a Titan lake lander and a Jupiter Icy Moons mission would all be nuclear powered.

Engineers perform a fit check of the MMRTG on Curiousity at the Kennedy Space Center. The final installation of the MMRTG occured the evening prior to launch. (Credit: NASA/Cory Huston).
Engineers perform a fit check of the MMRTG on Curiosity at the Kennedy Space Center. The final installation of the MMRTG occurred the evening prior to launch. (Credit: NASA/Cory Huston).

Along with new plutonium production, NASA plans to have two new RTGs dubbed Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generators (ASRGs) available by 2016. While more efficient, the ASRG may not always be the device of choice. For example, Curiosity uses its MMRTG waste heat to keep instruments warm via Freon circulation.  Curiosity also had to vent waste heat produced by the 110-watt generator while cooped up in its aero shell enroute to Mars.

Cutaway diagram of the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator. (Credit: DOE/NASA).
Cutaway diagram of the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator. (Credit: DOE/NASA).

And of course, there are the added precautions that come with launching a nuclear payload. The President of the United States had to sign off on the launch of Curiosity from the Florida Space Coast. The launch of Cassini, New Horizons, and Curiosity all drew a scattering of protesters, as does anything nuclear related. Never mind that coal fired power plants produce radioactive polonium, radon and thorium as an undesired by-product daily.

An RTG (in the foreground on the pallet) left on the Moon by astronauts during Apollo 14.  (Credit: NASA/Alan Shepard).
An RTG (in the foreground on the pallet) left on the Moon by astronauts during Apollo 14. (Credit: NASA/Alan Shepard).

Said launches aren’t without hazards, albeit with risks that can be mitigated and managed. One of the most notorious space-related nuclear accidents occurred early in the U.S. space program with the loss of an RTG-equipped Transit-5BN-3 satellite off of the coast of Madagascar shortly after launch in 1964. And when Apollo 13 had to abort and return to Earth, the astronauts were directed to ditch the Aquarius Landing Module along with its nuclear-powered science experiments meant for the surface of the Moon in the Pacific Ocean near the island of Fiji. (They don’t tell you that in the movie) One wonders if it would be cost effective to “resurrect” this RTG from the ocean floor for a future space mission. On previous nuclear-equipped launches such as New Horizons, NASA placed the chance of a “launch accident that could release plutonium” at 350-to-1 against  Even then, the shielded RTG is “over-engineered” to survive an explosion and impact with the water.

But the risks are worth the gain in terms of new solar system discoveries. In a brave new future of space exploration, the restart of plutonium production for peaceful purposes gives us hope. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, space travel is one of the best uses of nuclear fission that we can think of!

Plastic Wrapped Shuttle Atlantis Slated for Grand Public Unveiling in June

Imagine visiting Star Fleet headquarters in the 23nd Century and being engulfed by a holodeck journey to a 21st century NASA Space Shuttle; complete with a full sized Hubble Space Telescope – perhaps the important science instrument ever constructed and an outstanding legacy of the Space Shuttle Program.

Well that’s the thrilling new experience awaiting the visiting public and space enthusiasts alike starting this summer at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) in Florida – after the ghostlike Space Shuttle Atlantis (see photo album above & below) is unveiled from a thick coating of shrink wrapped plastic.

But – there is one important caveat regarding the holodeck dream sequence.

Starting on June 29 you will be seeing the ‘real deal’, an actual space flown NASA Space Shuttle Orbiter – not a high tech imaginary glimpse, engineering reproduction or holodeck recreation.

During the recent SpaceX CRS-2 launch events, I was very fortunate to take a behind the scenes inspection tour all around of the new ‘Space Shuttle Atlantis’ pavilion that’s been under construction at the Kennedy Visitor Complex for a year and is now racing towards completion.

And Atlantis is still supremely impressive beneath that white plastic wrap – unlike any shuttle view I’ve see over the years.

Scan through my photo album walking around Atlantis – covered in 16,000 square feet of shrink wrap plastic – and the Star Fleet like pavilion that truly reminded me of an exciting Star Trek adventure ; to see what’s in store soon. The orange exterior pavilion facade is meant to evoke the scorching heat of reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Shrink-wrapped Space Shuttle Atlantis inside museum home under construction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor complex in Florida - mounted on pedestals.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Shrink-wrapped Space Shuttle Atlantis inside museum home under construction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor complex in Florida – mounted on steel pedestals. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The plastic wrap is protecting the orbiter from construction debris and will be unfurled in May. Then the payload bay doors will be carefully opened and the Canadian built remote manipulator system (RMS) — or robotic arm — will be installed and extended.

Inside her new 90,000-square-foot home, everyone will be treated to breathtaking, up close views of the real ‘Space Shuttle Atlantis’ mounted high on steel pedestals – tilted at exactly 43.21 degrees – simulating the outlook as though she was ‘in flight’ orbiting Earth and approaching the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS and Hubble are the primary legacies of the Space Shuttle program. Atlantis flew 33 total space missions, spent 307 days in orbit and conducted the final flight of the shuttle era.

Rear-side view of plastic wrapped Space Shuttle Atlantis inside museum home under construction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor complex in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Rear-side view of plastic wrapped Space Shuttle Atlantis inside museum home under construction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor complex in Florida. Walkways will provide exquisite up close viewing access. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

You’ll gaze from stem to stern and from above and below – and all while peering down into the humongous open cargo bay, up to the heat shield tiles, or across to the engines, wings, tail and crew flight deck. Walkways will provide exquisite up close viewing access.

Atlantis rises some 30 feet off the ground. Although her nose soars 26.5 feet above ground the portside wingtip sits only 7.5 feet from the floor. The wing tip top soars 87 feet from the ground.

And sitting right beside Atlantis will be a co-orbiting, high fidelity full scale replica of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope which was deployed and upgraded by the astronaut crews of six space shuttle missions.

ISS module mockups, simulators and displays will tell the story of the massive stations intricate assembly by several dozen shuttle crews.

Star Fleet like headquarters- still under construction -  is the permanent new home for Space Shuttle Atlantis due to open in June 2013 the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Star Fleet like headquarters- still under construction – is the permanent new home for Space Shuttle Atlantis due to open in June 2013 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

More than 60 exhibits, hands- on activities and artifacts surrounding Atlantis will tell the complete story of the three-decade long Space Shuttle program and the thousands of shuttle workers who prepared all five orbiters for a total of 135 space missions spanning from 1981 to 2011.

Atlantis has been lovingly preserved exactly as she returned upon touchdown at the shuttle landing strip at the conclusion of her last space mission, STS-135, in July 2011 – dings, dents, scorch marks, you name it. And that is exactly as it should be in my opinion too.

Rear view of plastic wrapped Space Shuttle Atlantis with soaring tail at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor complex in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Rear view of plastic wrapped Space Shuttle Atlantis with soaring tail at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Shuttle Atlantis was towed to the Visitor Complex in November. The orbiter is housed inside a spanking new six- story museum facility constructed at a cost of $100 million that dominates the skyline at the largely revamped Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Rear view of plastic wrapped Space Shuttle Atlantis and 3 main engines at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Rear view of plastic wrapped Space Shuttle Atlantis and 3 main engines at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Standing tall right outside the entry to the museum pavilion, visitors will see full scale replicas of the twin solid rocket boosters mated to the orange external fuel tank, suspended 24 feet above ground – and reaching to a top height of 185 feet. They will be erected vertically, precisely as they were at the Shuttle Launch Pads 39 A and 39 B. It will give a realistic sense of what it looked like atop the actual shuttle launch complex.

The mighty steel framework for holding the boosters in place (in case of hurricane force winds up to 140 MPH) was coming together piece by piece as workers maneuvered heavy duty cranes before my eyes during my pavilion museum tour just days ago.

Well, get set to zoom to space as never before beginning on June 29 with the last shuttle orbiter that ever flew in space.

Ken Kremer

Plastic wrapped Space Shuttle Atlantis tilted at 43.21 degrees and mounted on pedestals at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Plastic wrapped Space Shuttle Atlantis tilted at 43.21 degrees and mounted on pedestals at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Workers install steel braces for outside display of twin shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters at new Space Shuttle Atlantis pavilions due to open in June 2013 the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Workers install steel braces for outside display of twin shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters at new Space Shuttle Atlantis pavilions due to open in June 2013 the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
A full-scale space shuttle external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters will serve as a gateway at the entry to Space Shuttle Atlantis. The metallic “swish” on the outside of the new exhibit building is representative of the shuttle’s re-entry to Earth. Image credit: PGAV Destinations
A full-scale space shuttle external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters will serve as a gateway at the entry to Space Shuttle Atlantis. The metallic “swish” on the outside of the new exhibit building is representative of the shuttle’s re-entry to Earth. Image credit: PGAV Destinations
Steel trusses being installed as braces for outside vertical display of full size twin, full size shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Steel trusses being installed as braces for outside vertical display of twin, full size shuttle Solid Rocket Booster replicas at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)