Mobile Launcher Upgraded to Launch NASA’s Mammoth ‘Journey to Mars’ Rocket

Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s Mobile Launcher (ML) is undergoing major upgrades and modifications at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida enabling the massive structure to launch the agency’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew capsule on a grand ‘Journey to Mars.’

“We just finished up major structural steel modifications to the ML, including work to increase the size of the rocket exhaust hole,” Eric Ernst, NASA Mobile Launch project manager, told Universe Today during an exclusive interview and inspection tour up and down the Mobile Launcher.

Indeed the Mobile Launcher is the astronauts gateway to deep space expeditions and missions to Mars.

Construction workers are hard at work upgrading and transforming the 380-foot-tall, 10.5-million-pound steel structure into the launcher for SLS and Orion – currently slated for a maiden blastoff no later than November 2018 on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).

“And now we have just started the next big effort to get ready for SLS.”

SLS and Orion are NASA’s next generation human spaceflight vehicles currently under development and aimed at propelling astronauts to deep space destinations, including the Moon and an asteroid in the 2020s and eventually a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

Floor level view of the Mobile Launcher and enlarged exhaust hole with 380 foot-tall launch tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.   The ML will support NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft  for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Floor level view of the Mobile Launcher and enlarged exhaust hole with 380 foot-tall launch tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The mobile launcher was originally built several years ago to accommodate NASA’s less powerful, lighter and now cancelled Ares-1 rocket. It therefore requires extensive alterations to accommodate the vastly more powerful and heavier SLS rocket.

“The ML was initially developed for Ares 1, a much smaller rocket,” Ernst explained to Universe Today.

“So the exhaust hole was much smaller.”

Whereas the Ares-1 first stage booster was based on using a single, more powerful version of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters, the SLS first stage is gargantuan and will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen.

The SLS first stage comprises two shuttle derived solid rocket boosters and four RS-25 power plants recycled from their earlier life as space shuttle main engines (SSMEs). They generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of thrust – exceeding that of NASA’s Apollo Saturn V moon landing rocket.

Therefore the original ML exhaust hole had to be gutted and nearly tripled in width.

“The exhaust hole used to be about 22 x 22 feet,” Ernst stated.

“Since the exhaust hole was much smaller, we had to deconstruct part of the tower at the base, in place. The exhaust hole had to be made much bigger to accommodate the SLS.”

Construction crews extensively reworked the exhaust hole and made it far wider to accommodate SLS compared to the smaller one engineered and already built for the much narrower Ares-1, which was planned to generate some 3.6 million pounds of thrust.

“So we had to rip out a lot of steel,” Mike Canicatti, ML Construction Manager told Universe Today.

“For the exhaust hole [at the base of the tower], lots of pieces of [existing] steel were taken out and other new pieces were added, using entirely new steel.”

“The compartment for the exhaust hole used to be about 22 x 22 feet, now it’s about 34 x 64 feet.”

Looking down to the enlarged 64 foot wide exhaust hole from the top of NASA’s 380 foot-tall Mobile Launch tower.  Astronauts will board the Orion capsule atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking down to the enlarged 64 foot wide exhaust hole from the top of NASA’s 380 foot-tall Mobile Launch tower. Astronauts will board the Orion capsule atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In fact this involved the demolition of over 750 tons of old steel following by fabrication and installation of more than 1,000 tons of new steel. It was also reinforced due to the much heavier weight of SLS.

“It was a huge effort and structural engineers did their job. The base was disassembled and reassembled in place” – to enlarge the exhaust hole.

“So basically we gutted major portions of the base out, put in new walls and big structural girders,” Ernst elaborated.

“And we just finished up that major structural steel modification on the exhaust hole.”

Top view across the massive 34 foot-wide, 64 foot-long exhaust hole excavated out of NASA’s Mobile Launcher that will support launches of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from Space Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Top view across the massive 34 foot-wide, 64 foot-long exhaust hole excavated out of NASA’s Mobile Launcher that will support launches of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from Space Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Meanwhile the 380 foot-tall tower that future Orion astronauts will ascend was left in place.

“The tower portion itself did not need to be disassembled.”

IMG_8393_1a_KSC ML_Ken Kremer

The Ares rockets originally belonged to NASA’s Constellation program, whose intended goal was returning American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2020.

Ares-1 was slated as the booster for the Orion crew capsule. However, President Obama cancelled Constellation and NASA’s Return to the Moon soon after entering office.

Since then the Obama Administration and Congress worked together in a bipartisan manner together to fashion a new space hardware architecture and granted approval for development of the SLS heavy lift rocket to replace the Ares-1 and heavy lift Ares-5.

Sending astronauts on a ‘Journey to Mars’ is now NASA’s agency wide and overarching goal for the next few decades of human spaceflight.

But before SLS can be transported to its launch pad at Kennedy’s Space Launch Complex 39-B for the EM-1 test flight the next big construction step has to begin.

“So now we have just started the next big effort to get ready for SLS.”

This involves installation of Ground Support Equipment (GSE) and a wide range of launch support services and systems to the ML.

“The next big effort is the GSE installation contract,” Ernst told me.

“We have about 40+ ground support and facility systems to be installed on the ML. There are about 800 items to be installed, including about 300,000-plus feet of cable and several miles of piping and tubing.”

“So that’s the next big effort to get ready for SLS. It’s about a 1.5 year contract and it was just awarded to J.P. Donovan Construction Inc. of Rockledge, Florida.”

“The work just started at the end of August.”

NASA currently plans to roll the ML into the Vehicle Assembly Building in early 2017 for stacking of SLS and Orion for the EM-1 test flight.

View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop  Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SLS/Orion mounted stack atop the ML will then roll out to Space Launch Complex 39B for the 2018 launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

Pad 39B is also undergoing radical renovations and upgrades, transforming it from its use for NASA’s now retired Space Shuttle program into a modernized 21st century launch pad. Watch for my upcoming story.

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration.  Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration mounted on the Mobile Launcher. Credit: NASA

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

Ken Kremer

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite poised at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, set for launch on Sept. 2, 2015. EDT. View from atop NASA’s SLS mobile launcher at the Kenned Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View from atop NASA’s SLS mobile launcher at the Kennedy Space Center, looking out to United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite poised at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, ‘prior to launch on Sept. 2, 2015. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

US Heavy Lift Mars Rocket Passes Key Review and NASA Sets 2018 Maiden Launch Date

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Credit: NASA/MSFC
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After a thorough review of cost and engineering issues, NASA managers formally approved the development of the agency’s mammoth heavy lift rocket – the Space Launch System or SLS – which will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built and is intended to take astronauts farther beyond Earth into deep space than ever before possible – to Asteroids and Mars.

The maiden test launch of the SLS is targeted for November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version, top NASA officials announced at a briefing for reporters on Aug. 27.

On its first flight known as EM-1, the SLS will also loft an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on an approximately three week long test flight taking it beyond the Moon to a distant retrograde orbit, said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, at the briefing.

Previously NASA had been targeting Dec. 2017 for the inaugural launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – a slip of nearly one year.

But the new Nov. 2018 target date is what resulted from the rigorous assessment of the technical, cost and scheduling issues.

This artist concept shows NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, rolling to a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center at night. SLS will be the most powerful rocket in history, and the flexible, evolvable design of this advanced, heavy-lift launch vehicle will meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs.   Credit:  NASA/MSFC
This artist concept shows NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, rolling to a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center at night. SLS will be the most powerful rocket in history, and the flexible, evolvable design of this advanced, heavy-lift launch vehicle will meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs. Credit: NASA/MSFC

The decision to move forward with the SLS comes after a wide ranging review of the technical risks, costs, schedules and timing known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, at the briefing. Lightfoot oversaw the review process.

“After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment,” said Lightfoot. “Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program.”

“We are making excellent progress on SLS designed for missions beyond low Earth orbit,” Lightfoot said. “We owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right.”

He said that the development cost baseline for the 70-metric ton version of the SLS was $7.021 billion starting from February 2014 and continuing through the first launch set for no later than November 2018.

Lightfoot emphasized that NASA is also building an evolvable family of vehicles that will increase the lift to an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), which will eventually enable the deep space human missions farther out than ever before into our solar system, leading one day to Mars.

“It’s also important to remember that we’re building a series of launch vehicles here, not just one,” Lightfoot said.

Blastoff of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew vehicle from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
Blastoff of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew vehicle from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Lightfoot and Gerstenmaier both indicated that NASA hopes to launch sooner, perhaps by early 2018.

“We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date, but will be ready no later than November 2018,” said Lightfoot.

The next step is conduct the same type of formal KDP-C reviews for the Orion crew vehicle and Ground Systems Development and Operations programs.

The first piece of SLS flight hardware already built and to be tested in flight is the stage adapter that will fly on the maiden launch of Orion this December atop a ULA Delta IV Heavy booster during the EFT-1 mission.

The initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version of the SLS stands 322 feet tall and provides 8.4 million pounds of thrust. That’s already 10 percent more thrust at launch than the Saturn V rocket that launched NASA’s Apollo moon landing missions, including Apollo 11, and it can carry more than three times the payload of the now retired space shuttle orbiters.

The core stage towers over 212 feet (64.6 meters) tall with a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 m) and stores cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage.

The first stage propulsion is powered by four RS-25 space shuttle main engines and a pair of enhanced five segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) also derived from the shuttles four segment boosters.

The pressure vessels for the Orion crew capsule, including EM-1 and EFT-1, are also being manufactured at MAF. And all of the External Tanks for the space shuttles were also fabricated at MAF.

The airframe structure for the first Dream Chaser astronaut taxi to low Earth orbit is likewise under construction at MAF as part of NASA’s commercial crew program.

The first crewed flight of the SLS is set for the second launch on the EM-2 mission around the 2020/2021 time frame, which may visit a captured near Earth asteroid.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Leases Historic Launch Complex 39A from NASA for new Era of Commercial Space Launches

The keys to NASA’s historic launch Pad 39A that propelled humanity’s first man to walk on the Moon – Neil Armstrong – during the history making flight of Apollo 11, have been handed over to new owners, namely the private aerospace firm SpaceX for a new purpose – serving as a commercial launch facility.

NASA and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., have just signed an agreement giving SpaceX rights to occupy and operate seaside Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

SpaceX was founded by billionaire, entrepreneur and space visionary Elon Musk.

SpaceX aims to give the now dormant pad a new lease on life in the emerging New Space era by revitalizing it as a commercial launch site for the company’s mammoth new Falcon Heavy rocket, currently under development, as well as for manned launches of the firm’s human rated Dragon spacecraft atop the Falcon 9 according to Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

“We’ll make great use of this pad, I promise,” Shotwell told reporters at a briefing at the pad.

The liquid fueled Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in the world according to SpaceX, generating generating nearly four million pounds of liftoff thrust from 27 engines and thus significantly exceeding the power of the Delta IV Heavy manufactured by competitor United Launch Alliance.

Shotwell said renovations to pad 39A would start later this year. The maiden SpaceX launch from the complex is expected next year.

“We will launch the Falcon Heavy from here from this pad early next year,” Shotwell stated.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, left, Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana announce that NASA just signed a lease agreement with SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., for use and operation of Launch Complex 39A. Credit: Nicole Solomon
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, left, Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana announce that NASA just signed a lease agreement with SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., for use and operation of Launch Complex 39A. Credit: Nicole Solomon

The SpaceX Dragon is one of three commercial crew vehicles being developed under a public-private partnership with NASA to ferry US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and restore America’s human spaceflight capability lost since the shuttle’s retirement.

The Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser are also vying for the next round of private ‘space taxi’ funding from NASA.

Pad 39A has been inactive and mothballed since the last shuttle mission, STS-135, thundered to space in July 2011.

Not a single rocket has rolled up the ramp at KSC in nearly 3 years.

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. 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.
Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The new lease agreement was signed by NASA and SpaceX officials and announced onsite at Pad 39 at the briefing.

“Today this historic site from which numerous Apollo and space shuttle missions began and from which I first flew and left the planet on STS-61C on Columbia, is beginning a new mission as a commercial launch site,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“While SpaceX will use pad 39A at Kennedy, about a mile away on pad 39B, we’re preparing for our deep space missions to an asteroid and eventually Mars. The parallel pads at Kennedy perfectly exemplify NASA’s parallel path for human spaceflight exploration — U.S. commercial companies providing access to low-Earth orbit and NASA deep space exploration missions at the same time.”

Under terms of the new agreement with NASA, the lease with SpaceX spans 20 years.

“It’s exciting that this storied NASA launch pad is opening a new chapter for space exploration and the commercial aerospace industry,” said Bolden.

SpaceX will also maintain and operate Pad 39A at its own expense, with no US federal funding from NASA.

Pad 39A will be SpaceX’s third launch site. The company also launches its Falcon 9 rockets from nearby Pad 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and a west coast pad on Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Launch Pad 39A has lain dormant save dismantling since the final shuttle launch on the STS-135 mission in July 2011.  Not a single rocket has rolled up this ramp in nearly 3 years. SpaceX has now leased Pad 39A from NASA and American rockets will thunder aloft again with Falcon rocket boosters starting in 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch Pad 39A has lain dormant save dismantling since the final shuttle launch on the STS-135 mission in July 2011. Not a single rocket has rolled up this ramp at the Kennedy Space Center in nearly 3 years. SpaceX has now leased Pad 39A from NASA and American rockets will thunder aloft again with Falcon rocket boosters starting in 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The next Falcon 9 liftoff with an unmanned Dragon cargo freighter is currently slated from Friday, April 18 following Monday’s scrub.

NASA determined that the agency no longer has a use for pad 39A since the end of the shuttle era and has been looking for a new tenant to take over responsibility and pay for maintenance of the launch complex. The agency awarded the lease to SpaceX in December 2013.

Instead, NASA decided to completely upgrade, renovate and modernize Pad 39As twin, namely Launch Pad 39B, and invested in converting it into a 21st Century launch complex.

NASA will use Pad 39B to launch the state of the art Orion crew vehicle atop the new Space Launch System (SLS) booster for voyages beyond Earth and taking humans back to the vicinity of the Moon and further out on deep space missions to Asteroids, Mars and beyond.

The first unmanned SLS test flight from Pad 39B is slated for late 2017.

Pad 39A was an active NASA launch pad for nearly 35 years starting back near the dawn of the Space Age in the 1960s.

Apollo 4, the first flight of a Saturn V launch vehicle, rises from Launch Pad 39A. Credit: NASA
Apollo 4, the first flight of a Saturn V launch vehicle, rises from Launch Pad 39A. Credit: NASA

Apollo 4 was the first NASA booster to blast off from Pad 39A on Nov. 9, 1967 during the historic inaugural test flight of the Saturn V moon rocket that eventually served to dispatch all six US manned lunar landing missions.

The closing NASA use of Pad 39A took place on July 8, 2011 with the launch of STS-135 and orbiter Atlantis on the final flight of the space shuttle era.

The four person STS-135 crew delivered the last US pressurized module to the massive low-Earth orbiting ISS.

No Americans have launched to space from American soil since STS-135.

Launch Complex 39 was originally constructed to launch the Apollo moon landing missions atop NASA’s Saturn V booster in the 1960s and 1970s. Both pads were later modified to support the Space Shuttle program whose first launch took place in 1981 from pad 39A.

“Kennedy Space Center is excited to welcome SpaceX to our growing list of partners,” Center Director Bob Cabana said. “As we continue to reconfigure and repurpose these tremendous facilities, it is gratifying to see our plan for a multi-user spaceport shared by government and commercial partners coming to fruition.”

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.

Ken Kremer

Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, celebrates lease agreement for use and operation of NASA’s KSC Launch Complex 39A in Florida. Credit: Nicole Solomon
Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, celebrates lease agreement for use and operation of NASA’s KSC Launch Complex 39A in Florida. Credit: Nicole Solomon