Mars Science Laboratory’s Gateway to Space – The Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center

The Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center or ASOC is where the Atlas V launch vehicle, in this case the one which will launch the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover on its mission Nov. 25 at 10:21 a.m. EDT. Photo Credit: United Launch Alliance

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – United Launch Alliance (ULA) uses a structure that incorporates several launch and support operations into one centralized facility. Known as the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) is about 9,290 square-meters (100,000 square-foot) in size. The ASOC provides all of the required elements – command, control and communication with the Atlas V. It is from the ASOC that the mission is managed as well as monitoring and evaluating launch operations.

The ASOC is actually two separate buildings that were combined into one. More accurately an existing structure had modern sections added to it. The first section was originally built back in the early 60s as part of the Titan III Program. The ASOC was built for the Titan II Chemical Systems Division Solid Rocket Motors. During this period, it was referred to as the Motor Inert Storage (MIS).

The ASOC is actually two buildings in one. The original structure was built in the 60s for the Titan Program. Later elements allowed for spacecraft processing as well as launch operations to be conducted all under one roof. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/

Later, after the awarding of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contract to Lockheed Martin in Oct. of 1998, they added three additional stories to the MIS. Part of this was the addition of the ASOC’s Launch Control Center (LCC).

The blockbuster film, Transformers 3, Dark of the Moon, had a few scenes filmed at the ASOC. Josh Duhamel, who played Lt. Colonel William Lennox, stood in the center of the LCC while battling the Decepticons. The filming took place back in October of 2010.

Key scenes of the blockbuster fiml "Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon" were shot within the ASOC. Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

The different manners in which the various rockets supported by the Denver, Colorado-based ULA are produced are in large part determined by the history of the rockets themselves.

“Launch vehicles are processed in various ways due to the design of the rocket, the backgrounds of the engineers, designing the rocket and how the rocket evolved all played their part,” said United Launch Alliance’s Mike Woolley. “The facilities available to the designers of the launch vehicle’s systems, the topography and geography of the installation as well as the rules, regulations, restrictions of the area played there part in how each of the individual launch systems are processed.”

The Atlas V launch vehicle is one of the two primary launch systems that is supported by the United Launch Alliance (the other being the Delta IV). Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

The ASOC is one part of the overall launch flow for the Atlas V launch vehicle. The other elements (excluding Space Launch Complex 41) are the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) and Vertical Integration Facility (VIF).

with a rooms looking down into it, The ASOC a Mission Directors Center, the Spacecraft Operations Center, the Engineering Support Facility, engineering support room which has been dubbed the “Gator Room” as well as an executive conference room.

Inside of the ASOC is the Atlas Launch Control Center or LCC. This allows for rockets to be prepard for flight as well as the launches themselves - to be managed from one building. Photo Credit: United Launch Alliance

The ASOC also has a hospitality room as well as a viewing room on the third floor (the roof is also made available for viewing launches). Lockheed Martin chose to cut back the number of support structures and decided to just build on to the existing MIS building. By doing this, Atlas engineers and technicians as well as the Atlas launch control center are close to the High ay where the Atlas V launch vehicle is processed for flight. This not only reduces the amount of time to process the Atlas booster, but it reduces costs as well.

The last Atlas V that was in the High Bay of the ASOC was the one that will be utilized to send the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, dubbed Curiosity. The Atlas V 541 (AV-028) recently underwent what is known as a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) where the rocket is taken all the way up to launch. This is done to test out the rocket’s key systems before the payload is attached to the launch vehicle. Currently, MSL is set to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) on Nov. 25 at 10:21 a.m. EDT.

The next mission that will be launched on the Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle is JPL's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/

Crewed Variant of X-37 Space Plane Proposed

The X-37, versions of which have flown twice into space already, is now being proposed as a potential means of transportation for crews to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: Boeing

As reported online at, the Boeing Company is already working on the CST-100 space taxi as a means of transportation to and from the International Space Station (ISS). But the aerospace firm is not content with just this simple space capsule and is looking into whether-or-not another of Boeing’s current offerings – the X-37B space plane could be modified to one day ferry crew to and from the orbiting laboratory as well.

proposed variant of the spacecraft, dubbed the X-37C, is being considered for a role that has some similarities to the cancelled X-38 Crew Return Vehicle (CRV). The announcement was made at a conference hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and reported on

The USAF has already launched two of the X-37B Orbital Text Vehicles (OTV) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Photo Credit: ULA/Pat Corkery

The X-37B or Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) has so far been launched twice by the U.S. Air Force from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. One of the military space planes completed the craft’s inaugural mission, USA-212, on Apr. 22, 2010. The mini space plane reentered Earth’s atmosphere and conducted an autonomous landing at Vandenberg Air Force on Dec. 3, 2010.

The U.S. Air Force then went on to launch the second of the space planes on mission USA-226 on Mar. 5, 2011. With these two successful launches, the longest-duration stay on orbit by a reusable vehicle and a landing under its belt, some of the vehicle’s primary systems (guidance, navigation, thermal protection and aerodynamics among others) are now viewed as having been validated. The vehicle has performed better than expected with the turnaround time being less than predicted.

If the X-37C is produced, it will be roughly twice the size of its predecessor. The X-37B is about 29 feet long; this new version of the mini shuttle would be approximately 48 feet in length. The X-37C is estimated at being approximately 165-180 percent larger than the X-37B. This increase in the size requires a larger launch vehicle.

This larger size also highlights plans to have the spacecraft carry 5 or 6 astronauts – with room for an additional crew member that is immobilized on a stretcher. The X-38, manufactured by Scaled Composites, was designed, built and tested to serve as a lifeboat for the ISS. In case of an emergency, crew members on the ISS would have entered the CRV and returned to Earth – a role that now could possibly be filled by the X-37C. The key difference being that the CRV only reached the point of atmospheric drop tests – the X-37B has flown into space twice.

Certain elements of the X-37C proposal highlight mission aspects of the cancelled X-38 Crew Return Vehicle. Photo Credit:

The crewed variant of the X-37 space plane would contain a pressurized compartment where the payload is normally stored, it would have a hatch that would allow for astronauts to enter and depart the spacecraft. Another hatch would be located on the main body of the mini shuttle so as to allow access to the vehicle on the ground. The X-37C, like its smaller cousin, would be able to rendezvous, dock, reenter the atmosphere and land remotely, without the need of a pilot. Acknowledging the need for pilots to control their own craft however, the X-37C would be capable of accomplishing these space flight requirements under manual control as well.

As mentioned in the article, one of the other selling points for the X-37C is its modular nature. Different variants could be used for crewed flights or unmanned missions that could return delicate cargo from the ISS. Neither the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, nor commercially-developed capsules are considered as appropriate means of returning biological or crystal experiments to Earth due to the high rate of acceleration that these vehicles incur upon atmospheric reentry. By comparison the X-37B experiences just 1.5 “g” upon reentry.

The launch vehicle that would send the proposed X-37C to orbit would be the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. In provided images the X-37C is shown utilizing a larger version of the Atlas booster and without the protective fairing that covered the two X-37B space planes that were launched.

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser to Conduct Drop Test Next Summer

Sierra Nevada Corporation is set to conduct a high-altitude free-flight test of the company's dream Chaser space plane as early as this summer. Image Credit: SNC


It looks as though the efforts to get commercial space taxis off the ground – is succeeding. Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) “Dream Chaser” space plane is slated to conduct its first test flight as early as next summer. SNC is one of four companies that have had proposals selected by NASA under the Commercial Crew Development Program – 02 (CCDev2).

The test flight, what is known as a high-altitude free-flight test or “drop-test” will see Dream Chaser lifted high into the air, where the craft will then be released from its carrier aircraft and attempt an unmanned landing. During the course of this flight test program SNC will test out the space plane’s autoland and other capabilities.

The Dream Chaser space plane is derived from the HL-20 lifting body developed by NASA. Photo Credit: SNC

“Sierra Nevada Space Systems is honored to be awarded an additional $25.6 million by NASA as part of the second round of the Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev2), bringing the total award to $105.6 million for this round of the competition,” said Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems. “As part of CCDev2, the Program has already completed four of the planned milestones, on time and on budget. The now thirteen CCDev2 milestones will culminate in a high-altitude free-flight test of our vehicle in the summer of 2012. ”

With NASA’s fleet of orbiters retired and being prepared to go on display in museums, NASA is dependent on the Russian Soyuz for access to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA currently pays Russia $63 million per seat for trips to the orbiting laboratory.

If all goes according to plan, the Dream Chaser could be one of many 'space-taxis' that would supply transportation services to the International Space Station. Image Credit: SNC

Many within both NewSpace and established space companies have stated their intent on reducing the amount of time that the U.S. is in such a position. NASA also has worked to assist companies that are working on CCDev2 to either meet or exceed their deadlines.
NASA is hopeful that these developments will allow the space agency to turn over transportation to the ISS to commercial firms by 2016.

In the case of SNC, NASA increased what the company was paid by an added $25.6 million. SNC had already been awarded $80 million as their part of the CCDev2 contract. After this boost in funding, SNC announced that the drop test would be held next summer.
The Dream Chaser design is based primarily off of the HL-20 lifting body design and is capable of carrying seven astronauts to orbit. Dream Chaser is designed to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station located in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 402.

Sierra Nevada Corporation is working steadily to test out and prove the Dream Chaser's various systems. Photo Credit: SNC

If everything goes according to how it is currently planned, the test flight will take place at either Edwards Air Force Base, located in California or White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo will carry the Dream Chaser space plane aloft for the test. Virgin Galactic, another NewSpace firm, is based in the U.S. and owned by Sir Richard Branson.

The ISS is viewed by the U.S, and the 15 other nations involved with the project as a crucial investment and having only one way to send crew to and from the ISS as being unacceptable. Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is joined by Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft, Boeing’s CST-100 and Blue Origin’s as-yet unnamed spacecraft in the CCDev2 contract.

The Dream Chaser space plane atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Image Credit: SNC

Behind the Scenes: Curiosity’s Rocket Prepared at Vertical Integration Facility

One of the most incredible things to see at United Launch Alliance's Vertical Integration Facility - is the surrounding area and the adjacent Space Launch Complex-41. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — One of the more dramatic buildings operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida is the Vertical Integration Facility or VIF as it is more commonly known. It is in this facility that expendable launch vehicles are brought, lying on their sides – and then hoisted into the vertical position for launch. The current resident in the VIF is the Atlas V 541 (AV-028) that is slated to launch the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

At the top of the 292 –foot-tall structure is a 60 ton crane that initially is used to lift the Atlas’ first stage into the vertical position. The payload, ensconced in the protective fairing, is assembled elsewhere. Once it arrives at the VIF, it is hoisted high into the air using the same crane and then mated with the top of the launch vehicle. Given the delicate nature of this operation technicians take their time in lifting the precious cargo and maneuvering it over the rocket.

The U.S. flag and the interstage adapter are seen in the image to the left. The photo to the right helps to illustrate the scale needed to assemble the Atlas V. Photo Credits: Jason Rhian

“You get the most amazing view from the top of the VIF,” said Mike Woolley of United Launch Alliance. “From this level you can clearly see not just Launch Complex 41, but a great deal of Florida’s Space Coast.”

Once the fairing and its payload have been safely affixed to the top of the rocket, the doors are opened up and the Atlas V is then rolled out to the adjacent Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41).

At the Vertical Integration Facility's fifh level, the segment of the rocket where the payload (in this case the MSL rover) is attached is the only element of the rocket that is visible. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/

“Once the Atlas V is fully assembled, the completed vehicle is rolled, in the vertical, out to the launch pad.” Woolley said.

Currently on the fifth level the upper part of the Centaur, the all-important rocket that will send the rover on its way to Mars, covered in a protective layer of white plastic, is visible.

One of the easiest ways to display the size of the Atlas - is to actually break up the images. To the left is the top portion, to the right the middle (note the Aerojet Solid Rocket Motors the the right). Photo Credit: Alan Walters/

Descending down the length of the Atlas V, level by level one gains an appreciation for the sheer scale of the Atlas rocket, its solid rocket motors and the attention to detail needed to launch payloads out of Earth’s gravity well.

On Level One the top of the Atlas’ Solid Rocket Motors (SRMs) produced by Aerojet are visible. At the ground floor, one has the ability to look up (somewhat, platforms and rigging block your view) the length of the rocket. On the ground level, one can plainly see that the twin RD-180 engines are Russian-made – the Cyrillic lettering still grace the engines’ nozzles.

Just inside the VIF one can look up the side of the Atlas V, even though elements of the launch vehicle are obstructed - the sight is still impressive. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

MSL is the next planetary mission on NASA’s docket, more commonly known as “Curiosity” is a nuclear-powered rover about the size of a compact automobile.

Curiosity is currently slated for a Nov. 25 launch date at 10:21 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41). Members of the media (myself included) got to see the Atlas for this launch being lifted into the air in preparation for the November launch when we were being escorted back to the NASA/LSC press site after the GRAIL launch was scrubbed (GRAIL would go on to be launched two days later).

Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars

The first stage of the Atlas V rocket for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission is lifted into an upright position for placement inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V-541 configuration will be used to loft MSL into space. NASA/Jim Grossmann


Assembly of the powerful Atlas V booster that will rocket NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover to Mars is nearly complete. The Atlas V is taking shape inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The rocket is built by United Launch Alliance under contract to NASA as part of NASA’s Launch Services Program to loft science satellites on expendable rockets.

At Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, workers guide an overhead crane as it lifts the Centaur upper stage for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V in the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF). Once in position, it will be attached to the Atlas V booster stage, already at the pad. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

The Atlas V configuration for Curiosity is similar to the one used for Juno except that it employs one less solid rocket motor in a designation known as Atlas 541.

4 indicates a total of four solid rocket motors are attached to the base of the first stage vs. five solids for Juno. 5 indicates a five meter diameter payload fairing. 1 indicates use of a single engine Centaur upper stage.

Blastoff of Curiosity remains on schedule for Nov. 25, 2011, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. The launch window for a favorable orbital alignment to Mars remains open until Dec. 18 after which the mission would face a 26 month delay at a cost likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Curiosity is set to touchdown on Mars at Gale Crater between August 6 & August 20, 2012. The compact car sized rover is equipped with 10 science instruments that will search for signs of habitats that could potentially support martian microbial life, past or present if it ever existed.

At the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the Centaur upper stage for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V is in position in the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF). It then will be attached to the Atlas V booster stage, already at the pad. The Atlas V is slated to launch NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission - the compact car-sized Curiosity Mars rover. Credit: NASA
With a unique view taken from inside Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, an overhead crane lifts the Centaur upper stage for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V. Once in position in the VIF it will be attached to the Atlas V booster stage, already at the pad. NASA/Jim Grossmann
Workers guide an overhead crane as it lifts the Centaur upper stage for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V into the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF). NASA/Jim Grossmann
An overhead crane lifts the Centaur upper stage for the Atlas V. NASA/Jim Grossmann
The final solid rocket motor (SRM) hangs in an upright position for mating to a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. NASA/Jim Grossmann
A crane lifts the 106.5-foot-long first stage of the Atlas V rocket for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission through the open door of the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston
Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

Meanwhile NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover is nearing 8 continuous years of Exploration and Discovery around the Meridiani Planum region of the Red Planet.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars RoverNASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater
Opportunity Rover Heads for Spirit Point to Honor Dead Martian Sister; Science Team Tributes