Covert NRO Satellite Fades into Capes Cloudy Night Skies Shrouded in Liftoff Secrecy: Gallery – As ULA Atlas Wins Landsat Launch

Covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office fades into cloudy nighttime skies shrouded in secrecy after liftoff on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — As one Atlas rocket carrying a covert spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to monitor Earth for national security purposes faded into cloudy nighttime skies over the Cape in the dead of night shrouded in liftoff secrecy, rocket builder United Launch Alliance (ULA) won another significant Atlas launch contract for NASA’s Landsat 9 satellite to monitor the health of Earth’s environment.

Capping two launches from two different rocket companies in four days by ULA and SpaceX followed by the arrival back in port of SpaceX’s ocean landed recovered booster, last week provided all the proof that’s needed to demonstrate that the revitalization of Florida’s Spaceport is well underway and America’s rocket makers are capturing lucrative launch contracts ensuring an upswing nationwide in rocket and spacecraft manufacturing – for critical military surveillance, government, civilian and science needs.

Check out the exciting gallery of Atlas launch imagery and videos including the thrilling droneship return of SpaceX’s 156 foot tall first stage booster back into Port Canaveral less than 4 hours after ULA delivered the classified NROL-52 surveillance satellite to a secret orbit – from this author and several space media colleagues. And check back here as the gallery grows!

A ULA Atlas V launch carrying the covert NROL-52 mission in support of U.S. national security blasted off overnight Sunday, Oct. 15 at 3:28 a.m. EDT (0728 GMT) from seaside Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“Congratulations to the team who helped make #NROL52 a success! United Launch Alliance, 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., Air Force Space Command, and the Space and Missile Systems Center,” the NRO announced post launch on social media.

It was a case of ‘Going, Going, Gone’ as seemingly endless stormy weather plagued the space coast and the Atlas soon disappeared behind clouds from many but not all vantage points, as the two stage rocket was finally cleared to launch on its fifth try. Postponed three times by poor weather and once due to a technical glitch to fix a faulty second stage transmitter.

Reflecting in a pond a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket blasts off with the covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The launches were postponed by the downstream impact of Hurricane Irma which forced the base closings of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and significantly impacted the Florida Space Coast region by causing over $100 million in damage to buildings, homes, businesses, hotels, restaurants, infrastructure and more due to flooding and hurricane force winds.

“We’ve had an incredible month,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander, 45th Space Wing.

“Not only did we restore our base to full mission capable status just a few hours after Hurricane Irma impacted our coast, but we’ve successfully launched two rockets in less than four days just weeks later.”

Covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office fades into cloudy nighttime skies shrouded in secrecy after liftoff on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“The 45th Space Wing supported ULA’s Atlas V launch of the NROL-52 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office early morning on Oct. 15!”

“The men and women of the 45th Space Wing continue to make the impossible possible.”

Reflecting in a pond a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket blasts off with the covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

More than a quarter of all the world’s rocket launches take place from Florida’s burgeoning spaceports.

Covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office fades into cloudy nighttime skies shrouded in secrecy after liftoff on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Our team’s resiliency and tireless efforts in launching over 25% of all world-wide launches this year proves why we are the ‘World’s Premier Gateway to Space,’” Montieth gushed in pride.

Meanwhile, NASA selected ULA to provide launch services for the Landsat 9 mission with another Atlas V rocket as soon as late 2020.

“The mission is currently targeted for a contract launch date of June 2021, while protecting for the ability to launch as early as December 2020, on an Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex 3E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California,” said NASA.

The Landsat 9 launch contract is worth $153.8 million.

Landsat 9 is a joint mission between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

“Landsat 9 will continue the Landsat program’s critical role in monitoring, understanding, and managing the land resources needed to sustain human life.”

“We are honored that NASA has entrusted ULA with launching this critical land imaging satellite,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and chief executive, in a statement.

“ULA’s world-leading performance and reliability, paired with the tremendous heritage of 74 consecutive successful Atlas V launches, provides the optimal value for our customer. We look forward to working together again with our mission partners at NASA’s Launch Services Program, Goddard Space Flight Center and the U.S. Geological Survey in the integration and launch of this significant mission, contributing to the international strategy for examining the health and state of the Earth.”

ULA Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit in this long duration exposure carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the NRO after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert

NROL-52 is the fourth of five launches slated for the NRO in 2017 by both ULA and SpaceX.

“Never before has innovation been more important for keeping us ahead of the game. As the eagle soars, so will the advanced capabilities this payload provides to our national security,” said Colonel Matthew Skeen, USAF, Director, NRO Office of Space Launch, in a statement. “Kudos to the entire team for a job well done.”

Check out this exciting video compilation from remote cameras circling the Atlas pad 41.

Video Caption: Launch of the NROL-52 satellite on an Atlas 5 booster from Pad 41. A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 421 rocket launches the NROL-52 payload on Oct. 15, 2017 at 328 a.m. EDT on the 5th launch attempt. Previous launch attempts were halted by weather issues 3 times, and a faulty telemetry radio that needed to be replaced after the rocket was rolled back to the Pad 41 Vertical Integration Facility. Credit Jeff Seibert

The venerable two stage Atlas V stands 194 feet tall and sports a 100% success record. The first stage generates approx. 1.6 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

This Atlas Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) mission launched in the 421 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter payload fairing (PLF) encapsulating the payload and two strap on solid rocket first stage boosters.

The Atlas first stage booster for this mission was powered by the Russian-built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine, and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The dual chamber, dual-nozzle RD-180 is fueled by a mixture of RP-1 kerosene and LOX (liquid oxygen).

The ULA Atlas V first stage powers NROL-52 spy satellite to orbit for the NRO firing the dual chamber, dual-nozzle RD-180 engines after blastoff at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The next NRO launch is scheduled on a ULA Delta IV in December from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Reflecting in a pond a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket blasts off with the covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NROL-52, SpaceX SES-11 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

Liftoff of ULA Atlas V rocket carrying classified NROL-52 payload for the NRO on Oct. 15, 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit in this long duration exposure carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Reflecting in a pond a ULA Atlas V rocket stands poised for launch with the NROL-52 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office prior to blastoff on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Reflown SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster arrives at sunrise atop OCISLY droneship being towed into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL on Oct. 15, 2017 after successfully launch SES-11 UHDTV comsat to orbit on Oct. 11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V rocket blasts off carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the NRO from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Awesome Atlas Ferocious Fury Delivers Next Gen High Speed EchoStar 19 Internet Sat to Orbit for America

Fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar XIX satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar XIX satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The mighty Atlas V rocket put on an awesome display of ferocious fury Sunday afternoon delivering a rousing display of rocketeering capability that propelled a new next generation high speed internet satellite to orbit for North America to the delight of spectators gathered around the Florida Space Coast.

The 15,000 pound satellite will also delight American home and business subscribers users of HughesNet® – who should soon see dramatic improvements in speed and capability promised by satellite builder Space Systems Loral (SSL).

With the fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, EchoStar XIX – the world’s highest capacity broadband satellite – roared to space off Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016.

“EchoStar XIX will dramatically increase capacity for HughesNet® high-speed satellite Internet service to homes and businesses in North America,” according to ULA.

“EchoStar XIX will be the world’s highest capacity broadband satellite in orbit.”

Also known as Jupiter 2, it will deliver more speed, more data and more advanced features to consumers and small businesses from coast to coast, says EchoStar.

Liftoff on the sunny Florida afternoon was delayed some 45 minutes to deal with a technical anomaly that cropped up during the final moments of the countdown with launch originally slated for 1:27 p.m. EST.

Incoming bad weather threatened to delay the blastoff but held off until dark clouds and rains showers hit the Cape about half an hour after the eventual launch at 2:13 p.m.

EchoStar 19 is based on the powerful SSL 1300 platform as a multi-spot beam Ka-band satellite.

It is upgraded from the prior series version.

“Building from their experience on the highly successful EchoStar XVII broadband satellite, SSL and Hughes collaboratively engineered the specific design details of this payload for optimum performance.”

EchoStar 19 was delivered to a geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). It will be stationed at 97.1 degrees West longitude.

Fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar XIX satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar XIX satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

EchoStar 19 was ULA’s final mission of 2016, ending another year of 100% success rates stretching back to the company’s founding back in 2006, as a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

This is ULA’s 12th and last launch in 2016 and the 115th successful launch since December 2006.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket streak to orbit carrying EchoStar XIX satellite after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit carrying EchoStar XIX satellite after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“ULA is honored to have been entrusted with the launch of the EchoStar XIX satellite,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Human and Commercial Systems, in a statement.

“We truly believe that our success is only made possible by the phenomenal teamwork of our employees, customers and industry partners.”

Ignition and liftoff of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket delivering EchoStar 19 satellite to orbit from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Ignition and liftoff of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket delivering EchoStar 19 satellite to orbit from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 194-foot-tall commercial Atlas V booster launched in the 431 rocket configuration with approximately 2 million pounds of first stage thrust. This is the 3rd launch of the 431 configuration – all delivered commercial communications satellites to orbit.

Three solid rocket motors are attached to the Atlas booster to augment the first stage powered by the dual nozzle RD AMROSS RD-180 engine.

The satellite is housed inside a 4-meter diameter extra extended payload fairing (XEPF). The Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C engine.

“As we celebrate 10 years, ULA continues to be the nation’s premier launch provider because of our unmatched reliability and mission success,” Wentz elaborated.

“The Atlas V continues to provide the optimum performance to precisely deliver a range of missions. As we move into our second decade, we will maintain our ongoing focus on mission success, one launch at a time even as we transform the space industry, making space more accessible, affordable and commercialized.”

Artwork for ULA Atlas V launch of EchoStar 19 high speed Internet satellite on Dec. 18, 2016 from  Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: ULA
Artwork for ULA Atlas V launch of EchoStar 19 high speed Internet satellite on Dec. 18, 2016 from Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: ULA

December has been an extremely busy time for launches at the Cape, with three in the past week and a half supported by U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing. These include NASA’s CYGNSS hurricane mission launch by an Orbital ATK Pegasus rocket on Dec. 15; and the WGS-8 military communications satellite launch for the US Air Force by a ULA Delta 4 rocket on Dec. 7.

“Congratulations to ULA and the entire integrated team who ensured the success of our last launch capping off what has been a very busy year,” said Col. Walt Jackim, 45th Space Wing vice commander and mission Launch Decision Authority.

“This mission once again clearly demonstrates the successful collaboration we have with our mission partners as we continue to shape the future of America’s space operations and showcase why the 45th Space Wing is the ‘World’s Premiere Gateway to Space.'”

A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar 19 high speed internet satellite is poised for blastoff from  Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar 19 high speed internet satellite is poised for blastoff from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar 19 high speed internet satellite is poised for blastoff from  Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar 19 high speed internet satellite is poised for blastoff from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stairway to Heaven! – Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm’s ‘Awesome’ Launch Pad Installation

A crane lifts the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41.  Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A crane lifts the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016. Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — A new ‘Stairway to Heaven’ which American astronauts will soon stride along as “the last place on Earth” departure point aboard our next generation of human spaceships, was at long last hoisted into place at the ULA Atlas rocket launch pad on Florida’s Space Coast on Monday Aug 15, at an “awesome” media event witnessed by space journalists including Universe Today.

“This is awesome,” Chris Ferguson, a former shuttle commander who is now Boeing’s deputy program manager for the company’s Commercial Crew Program told Universe Today in an exclusive interview at the launch pad – after workers finished installing the spanking new Crew Access Arm walkway for astronauts leading to the hatch of Boeing’s Starliner ‘Space Taxi.’

Starliner will ferry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) as soon as 2018.

“It’s great to see the arm up there,” Ferguson elaborated to Universe Today. “I know it’s probably a small part of the overall access tower. But it’s the most significant part!”

“We used to joke about the 195 foot level on the shuttle pad as being ‘the last place on Earth.”

“This will now be the new ‘last place on Earth’! So we are pretty charged up about it!” Ferguson gushed.

Up close view of Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room craned into place at Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016.   Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor
Up close view of Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room craned into place at Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

Under hot sunny skies portending the upcoming restoration of America’s ability to once again launch American astronauts from American soil when American rockets ignite, the newly constructed 50-foot-long, 90,000-pound ‘Crew Access Arm and White Room’ was lifted and mated to the newly built ‘Crew Access Tower’ at Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) on Monday morning, Aug. 15.

“We talked about how the skyline is changing here and this is one of the more visible changes.”

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew capsule stacked atop the venerable United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida will launch crews to the massive orbiting science outpost continuously soaring some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

Space workers, enthusiasts and dreamers alike have been waiting years for this momentous day to happen. And I was thrilled to observe all the action firsthand along with the people who made it happen from NASA, United Launch Alliance, Boeing, the contractors – as well as to experience it with my space media colleagues.

“All the elements that we talked about the last few years are now reality,” Ferguson told me.

The Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft approaches the notch for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 at level 13 on Aug. 15, 2016, as workers observe from upper tower level.  Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft approaches the notch for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 at level 13 on Aug. 15, 2016, as workers observe from upper tower level. Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Attaching the access arm is vital and visual proof that at long last America means business and that a renaissance in human spaceflight will commence in some 18 months or less when commercially built American crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX take flight to the heavens above – and a new space era of regular, robust and lower cost space flights begins.

It took about an hour for workers to delicately hoist the gleaming grey steel and aluminum white ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by crane into place at the top of the tower – at one of the busiest launch pads in the world!

It’s about 130 feet above the pad surface since it’s located at the 13th level of the tower.

The install work began at about 7:30 a.m. EDT as we watched a work crew lower a giant grappling hook and attach cables. Then they carefully raised the arm off the launch pad surface by crane. The arm had been trucked to the launch pad on Aug. 11.

The tower itself is comprised of segmented tiers that were built in segments just south of the pad. They were stacked on the pad over the past few months – in between launches. Altogether they form a nearly 200-foot-tall steel structure.

Another crew stationed in the tower about 160 feet above ground waited as the arm was delicately craned into the designated notch. The workers then spent several more hours methodically bolting and welding the arm to the tower to finish the assembly process.

Indeed Monday’s installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room at pad 41 basically completes the construction of the first new Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the Apollo moon landing era of the 1960s.

“It is the first new crew access structure at the Florida spaceport since the space shuttle’s Fixed Service Structures were put in place before Columbia’s first flight in 1981,” say NASA officials.

Overall the steel frame of the massive tower weighs over a million pounds. For perspective, destination ISS now weighs in at about a million pounds in low Earth orbit.

Construction of the tower began about 18 months ago.

“You think about when we started building this 18 months ago and now it’s one of the most visible changes to the Cape’s horizon since the 1960s,” said Ferguson at Monday’s momentous media event. “It’s a fantastic day.”

The White Room is an enclosed area at the end of the Crew Access Arm. It big enough for astronauts to make final adjustments to their suits and is spacious enough for technicians to assist the astronauts climbing aboard the spacecraft and get tucked into their seats in the final hours before liftoff.

“You have to stop and celebrate these moments in the craziness of all the things we do,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, at the event. “It’s going to be so cool when our astronauts are walking out across this access arm to get on the spacecraft and go to the space station.”

The Crew Access Arm was built by Saur at NASA’s nearby off site facility at Oak Hill.

And when Starliner takes flight it will hearken back to the dawn of the Space Age.

“John Glenn was the first to fly on an Atlas, now our next leap into the future will be to have astronauts launch from here on Atlas V,” said Barb Egan, program manager for Commercial Crew for ULA.

Boeing is manufacturing Starliner in what is officially known as Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida under contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Boeing CST 100 Starliner is one of two private astronaut capsules – along with the SpaceX Crew Dragon – being developed under a CCP commercial partnership contract with NASA to end our sole reliance on Russia for crew launches back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program since its inception in 2010 is to restore America’s capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the ISS, as soon as possible.

Furthermore when the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon become operational the permanent resident ISS crew will grow to 7 – enabling a doubling of science output aboard the science laboratory.

This significant growth in research capabilities will invaluably assist NASA in testing technologies and human endurance in its agency wide goal of sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s with the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion deep space capsule concurrently under full scale development by the agency.

The next key SLS milestone is a trest firing of the RS-25 main engines at NASA Stennis this Thursday, Aug. 18 – watch for my onsite reports!

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 Starliner space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, the US was been 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronauts rides to the ISS at a cost exceeding $70 million per seat.

When will Ferguson actually set foot inside the walkway?

“I am hoping to get up there and walk through there in a couple of weeks or so when it’s all strapped in and done. I want to see how they are doing and walk around.”

How does the White Room fit around Starliner and keep it climate controlled?

“The end of the white room has a part that slides up and down and moves over and slides on top of the spacecraft when it’s in place.”

“There is an inflatable seal that forms the final seal to the spacecraft so that you have all the appropriate humidity control and the purge without the Florida atmosphere inside the crew module,” Ferguson replied.

Up close, mid-air view of Crew Access Tower and front of White Room during installation.  The White Room will fit snugly against Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft with inflatable seal to maintain climate control and clean conditions as astronauts board capsule atop Atlas rocket hours before launch on  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close, mid-air view of Crew Access Arm and front of White Room during installation. The White Room will fit snugly against Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft with inflatable seal to maintain climate control and clean conditions as astronauts board capsule atop Atlas rocket hours before launch on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Boeing and NASA are targeting Feb. 2018 for launch of the first crewed orbital test flight on the Atlas V rocket. The Atlas will be augmented with two solid rocket motors on the first stage and a dual engine Centaur upper stage.

How confident is Ferguson about meeting the 2018 launch target?

“The first crew flight is scheduled for February 2018. I am confident.” Ferguson responded.

“And we have a lot of qualification to get through between now and then. But barring any large unforeseen issues we can make it.”

The Crew Access Tower after installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Aug. 15, 2016 at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Crew Access Tower after installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Aug. 15, 2016 at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

As the Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room are bolted into place behind us at Space Launch Complex 41, Chris Ferguson, former shuttle commander and current Boeing deputy program manager for Commercial Crew, and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss the details and future of human spaceflight on Aug. 15, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: Jeff Seibert
As the Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room are bolted into place behind us at Space Launch Complex 41, Chris Ferguson, former shuttle commander and current Boeing deputy program manager for Commercial Crew, and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss the future of human spaceflight on Aug. 15, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Construction of Crew Access Tower Starts at Atlas V Pad for Boeing ‘Starliner’ Taxi to ISS

The first tier of seven tiers for Crew Access Tower is moved from its construction yard to Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept 9, 2015. The tower will provide access at the pad for astronauts and ground support teams to the Boeing CST-100 Starliner launching atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Photo credit: NASA/Dmitrios Gerondidakis
Story/photos updated[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Restoring America’s human path back to space from US soil kicks into high gear at last as construction starts on erecting the new crew access tower on the Atlas V launch pad that will soon propel Americans astronauts riding aboard the commercially developed Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ taxi to the Earth-orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

The last hurdle to begin stacking the crew access tower at the United Launch Alliance Atlas V complex-41 launch pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida was cleared with the magnificent predawn blastoff of the U.S. Navy’s MUOS-4 communications satellite on Sept. 2 – following a two day weather delay due to Tropical Storm Erika.

“Everything is on schedule,” Howard Biegler, ULA’s Human Launch Services Lead, told Universe Today during an exclusive interview. “The new 200-foot-tall tower structure goes up rather quickly at launch pad 41.”

The access tower essentially functions as the astronauts walkway to the stars.

“We start stacking the crew access tower [CAT] after the MUOS-4 launch and prior to the next launch after that of Morelos-3,” Beigler said in a wide ranging interview describing the intricately planned pad modifications and tower construction at the Atlas V Space Launch Complex 41 facility at Cape Canaveral.

Depending on the always tricky weather at the Cape, more than half the tower should be “installed prior to MORELOS-3’s launch on Oct. 2. The balance of the CAT will take form after the launch.”

The first tier of the new Crew Access Tower for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner arrives at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.   The tower will provide access at the pad for astronauts and ground support teams  to the Boeing CST-100 Starliner launching atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.   Photo credit: NASA/Dmitrios Gerondidakis
The first tier of the new Crew Access Tower for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner arrives at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept 9, 2015. The tower will provide access at the pad for astronauts and ground support teams to the Boeing CST-100 Starliner launching atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Photo credit: NASA/Dmitrios Gerondidakis

The crew access tower is a critical space infrastructure element and absolutely essential for getting Americans back to space on American rockets for the first time since NASA’s shuttles were retired in 2011. That action forced our total dependence on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronaut rides to the space station.

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative. SpaceX also received a NASA award worth $2.6 Billion to build the Crew Dragon spacecraft for launch atop the firms man-rated Falcon 9 rocket.

Starliner is a key part of NASA’s overarching strategy to send Humans on a “Journey to Mars” in the 2030s.

The tower is of modular design for ease of assembly at the always busy Atlas launch pad.

“The crew tower is comprised of seven major tiers, or segments,” Beigler explained. “The building of the tiers went right on schedule. Each tier is about 20 feet square and 28 feet tall.”

Five of the seven tiers will be installed ahead of the next Atlas launch in early October, depending on the weather which has been difficult at the Cape.

“Our plan is to get 5 tiers and a temporary roof installed prior to MORELOS-3’s launch on October 2.”

“We have been hit hard with weather and are hopeful we can gain some schedule through the weekend. The balance of the CAT will take form after the 10/2 launch with the 7th tier planned to go up on 10/13 and roof on 10/15,” Biegler explained.

The first tier of the new Crew Access Tower for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner is installed at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept 9, 2015 where United Launch Alliance  Atlas V rockets will lift Boeing Starliners into orbit.  Photo credit: NASA/Dmitrios Gerondidakis
The first tier of the new Crew Access Tower for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner is installed at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida where United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets will lift Boeing Starliners into orbit. Photo credit: NASA/Dmitrios Gerondidakis

The newly named ‘Starliner’ space taxi will launch atop a newly human-rated Atlas V booster as soon as mid-2017, say NASA, ULA and Boeing officials.

But before astronauts can even climb aboard Starliner atop the Atlas rocket, ULA and Boeing first had to design, build and install a brand new tower providing access to the capsule for the crews and technicians.

Pad 41 is currently a “clean pad” with no gantry and no walkway to ‘Starliner’ because the Atlas V has only been used for unmanned missions to date.

The CST-100 ‘Starliner’ is at the forefront of ushering in the new commercial era of space flight and will completely revolutionize how we access, explore and exploit space for the benefit of all mankind.

This is the first new Crew Access Tower to be built at the Cape in decades, going back to NASA’s heyday and the Apollo moon landing era.

The tier segments were assembled about four miles down the road at the Atlas Space Operations Center on Cape Canaveral – so as not to disrupt the chock full manifest of Atlas rockets launching on a breakneck schedule for the NASA, military and commercial customers who ultimately pay the bills to keep ULA afloat and launch groundbreaking science probes and the most critical national security payloads vital to national defense.

“Each segment was outfitted with additional steel work, as well as electrical, plumbing and the staircase. Then they will be transported 3.9 miles out to the pad, one at a time on a gold hoffer and then we start erecting.”

The first two tiers were just transported out to pad 41. Installation and stacking of one tier on top of another starts in a few days.

Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 space taxi atop a human rated ULA Atlas-V rocket showing new crew access tower and arm at Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: ULA/Boeing
Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 space taxi atop a human rated ULA Atlas-V rocket showing new crew access tower and arm at Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: ULA/Boeing

“We are very pleased with the progress so far,” Biegler told me. “Everything is on schedule and has gone remarkably well so far. No safety or workmanship issues. It’s all gone very well.”

“The first tier is obviously the most critical [and will take a bit longer than the others to insure that everything is being done correctly]. It has to be aligned precisely over the anchor bolts on the foundation at the pad. Then it gets bolted in place.”

“After that they can be installed every couple of days, maybe every three days or so. The pieces of the tower will go up quickly.”

Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 space taxi atop a human rated ULA Atlas-V rocket showing new crew access tower and arm. Credit: ULA/Boeing
Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 space taxi atop a human rated ULA Atlas-V rocket showing new crew access tower and arm. Credit: ULA/Boeing
The steel tiers and tower are being built by Hensel Phelps under contract to ULA.

“Construction by the Hensel Phelps team started in January 2015,” Biegler said.

Erecting the entire tower is the next step. After stacking the tiers is fully completed later this year then comes structure, testing and calibration work over the next year.

“After tower buildup comes extensive work to outfit the tower with over 400 pieces of outboard steel that have to be installed. That takes much longer,” Biegler said.

“Designed with modern data systems, communications and power networks integrated and protected from blast and vibration, plus an elevator, the Crew Access Tower has been built with several features only a fully suited astronaut could appreciate, such as wider walkways, snag-free railings and corners that are easy to navigate without running into someone,” according to NASA officials.

Just like the shuttle, “the tower will also be equipped with slide wire baskets for emergency evacuation to a staged blast-resistant vehicle.”

“At the very top is the area that protects the access arm and provides the exit location for the emergency egress system. It will all be stick built from steel out at the pad,” Biegler elaborated.

The access arm with the walkway that astronauts will traverse to the Starliner capsule is also under construction. It is about 180 feet above ground.

Astronauts will ride an elevator up the tower to the access arm, and walk through it to the white room at the end to board the Starliner capsule.

“The arm along with the white room and torque tube are being fabricated in Florida. It will all be delivered to the pad sometime around next June [2016],” Biegler stated.

“We built a test stand tower for the access arm at our Oak Hill facility to facilitate the installation process. We mount the arm and the hydraulic drive system and then run it through its paces prior to its delivery to the pad.”

“The access arm – including the torque tube out to the end – is just over 40 feet in length.”

“We will integrate it off line because we don’t have a lot of time to troubleshoot out at the pad. So we will hook up all its drive systems and electronics on the test structure stand.”

“Then we will spend about 3 months testing it and verifying that everything is right. We’ll use laser lining to know it all precisely where the arm is. So that when we bring it out to the pad we will know where it is to within fractions of an inch. Obviously there will be some minor adjustments up and down.”

“That way in the end we will know that everything in the arm and the hydraulic drive system are working within our design specs.”

When the arm is finally installed on the crew access tower it will be complete, with the white room and environmental seal already attached.

“It will stow under the crew access tower, which is located west and north of the launch vehicle. The arm will swing out about 120 degrees to the crew module to gain access and was strategically picked to best fit the features and foundation at the existing pad structure.”

Tower construction takes place in between Atlas launches and pauses in the days prior to launches. For example the construction team will stand down briefly just ahead of the next Atlas V launch currently slated for Oct. 2 with the Mexican governments Morelos-3 communications satellite.

MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Sept. 2, 2015 at 5:59 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Crew Access Tower is now being erected at Pad 41 following MUOS-4 blastoff here. MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Sept. 2, 2015 at 5:59 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Starliners’ actual launch date totally depends on whether the US Congress provides full funding for NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP).

Thus far the Congress has totally failed at providing the requested CCP budget to adequately fund the program – already causing a 2 year delay of the first flight from 2015 to 2017.

Boeing is making great progress on manufacturing the first CST-100 Starliner.

Barely a week ago, Boeing staged the official ‘Grand Opening’ ceremony for the craft’s manufacturing facility held at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday, Sept 4. 2015 – attended by Universe Today as I reported here.

ULA has also already started assembly of the first two Atlas V rockets designated for Starliner at their rocket factory in Decatur, Alabama.

Read my earlier exclusive, in depth one-on-one interviews with Chris Ferguson – America’s last shuttle commander, who now leads Boeings’ CST-100 program; here and here.

First view of the Boeing CST-100 'Starliner' crewed space taxi at the Sept. 4, 2015 Grand Opening ceremony held in the totally refurbished C3PF manufacturing facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. These are the upper and lower segments of the first Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
First view of the Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crewed space taxi at the Sept. 4, 2015 Grand Opening ceremony held in the totally refurbished C3PF manufacturing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. These are the upper and lower segments of the first Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer