World’s Most Powerful Solid Booster Set for Space Launch System Test Firing on March 11

All systems are go for the inaugural ground test firing on March 11 of the world’s most powerful solid rocket booster ever built that will one day power NASA’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket and propel astronauts to deep space destinations.

The booster known as qualification motor, QM-1, is the largest solid rocket motor ever built and will be ignited on March 11 for a full duration static fire test by prime contractor Orbital ATK at the newly merged firms test facility in Promontory, Utah.

Ignition of the horizontally mounted motor is planned for 11:30 a.m. EDT (9:30 a.m. MDT) on Wednesday, March 11 on the T-97 test stand.

The test will be broadcast live on NASA TV.

Engineers at Orbital ATK in Promontory, Utah, prepare to test the booster that will help power NASA’s Space Launch System to space to begin missions to deep space, including to an asteroid and Mars. A test on March 11 is one of two that will qualify the booster for flight.  Image Credit:  Orbital ATK
Engineers at Orbital ATK in Promontory, Utah, prepare to test the booster that will help power NASA’s Space Launch System to space to begin missions to deep space, including to an asteroid and Mars. A test on March 11 is one of two that will qualify the booster for flight. Image Credit: Orbital ATK

The two minute long, full duration static test firing of the motor marks a major milestone in the ongoing development of NASA’s SLS booster, which is the most powerful rocket ever built in human history.

The 5-segment booster produces 3.6 million lbs of maximum thrust which equates to more than 14 Boeing 747-400s at full takeoff power!

The new 5-segment booster is directly derived from the 4-segment booster used during NASA’s three decade long Space Shuttle program. One segment has been added and therefore the new, longer and more powerful booster must be requalified to launch the SLS and humans.

A second test is planned a year from now and will qualify the boosters for use with the SLS.

Teams of engineers, operators, inspectors and program managers across Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group have spent months getting ready for the QM-1 test. To prepare they started countdown tests on Feb 25.

“The crew officially starts daily countdown test runs of the systems this week, at T-15 days,” said Kevin Rees, director, Test & Research Operations at Orbital ATK.

“These checks, along with other test stand calibrations, will verify all systems are ready for the static test. Our team is prepared and we are proud to play such a significant role on this program.”

The first qualification motor for NASA's Space Launch System's booster is installed in ATK's test stand in Utah and is ready for a March 11 static-fire test.   Credit:  ATK
The first qualification motor for NASA’s Space Launch System’s booster is installed in ATK’s test stand in Utah and is ready for a March 11 static-fire test. Credit: ATK

The QM-1 booster is being conditioned to 90 degrees and the static fire test will qualify the booster design for high temperature launch conditions. It sits horizontally in the test stand and measures 154 feet in length and 12 feet in diameter and weighs 801 tons.

The static fire test will collect data on 103 design objectives as measured through more than 534 instrumentation channels on the booster it is firing.

The second booster test in March 2016 will be conducted at lower temperature to qualify the lower end of the launch conditions at 40 degrees F.

The first stage of the SLS will be powered by a pair of the five-segment boosters and four RS-25 engines that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

The SLS is designed to propel the Orion crew capsule to deep space destinations, including the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

The maiden test flight of the SLS is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds. It will boost an unmanned Orion on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.

NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.

The first SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.

Solid rocket boosters separate from SLS core stage in this artists concept. Credit: NASA
Solid rocket boosters separate from SLS core stage in this artists concept. Credit: NASA

Orion’s inaugural mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT) was successfully launched on a flawless flight on Dec. 5, 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Orion’s inaugural mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT) was successfully launched on a flawless flight on Dec. 5, 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer -
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer –

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about MMS, Mars rovers, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 9-11: “MMS, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

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 -
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 –

How Does a Rocket Work?

Rockets are the perfect way to get around in space. But how do they work?

Space travel and rockets, it’s like ice cream and apple pie, or ice cream and apple pie and my face. They just go together. They belong together.

But what if I’m allergic to rockets, or have some kind of cylindrical intolerance, or flaming column sensitivity that makes me hive out? Why can’t I fly to space in balloons or airplanes or helicopters? Why do we need these pointy cubist eggplant flame tubes?

The space age followed the development of powerful V2 rockets in WW II. They could hit targets 320 km away and reach an altitude of 200 km. They were a new kind of war machine, a terrifying weapon that could hurl payloads of destruction from the skies. But this terrifying development is what brought us our modern rockets as their propulsion system can work up where there’s no air, in the vacuum of space.

How do they actually work? It all comes down to that “every action, equal and opposite reaction” thing that Newton was always going on about.

If you take a balloon, fill it with air, and then let it go. All that air rushing out propels the balloon around. This kind of balloon rocket would work perfectly well in space too although it might be a little too fragile and unpredictable to want to strap yourself to.

If we take that idea and scale it up, add some fuel tanks and fins, attitude control and optionally: astronauts. We’ve got ourselves a rocket. It works by pushing “stuff” out one end of a tube at the highest possible velocity. The faster you can blow stuff out the end, the faster the tube itself is going to go.

This means rocket science is really all about how to get the exhaust gases hurling out the backside of the rocket as quickly and forcefully as possible. The fuel can be solid, like the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. Or the fuel can be liquid, like the shuttle’s main fuel tank filled with liquid oxygen and hydrogen.

Liquid Fuel
Liquid-Propellant Rocket

This fuel is ignited and completely converted into exhaust gases which blast out of the rocket’s nozzles at high velocity. Really, really high velocity.

The scary part for passengers is that modern rockets are mostly made of fuel. In fact, the weight of the space shuttle’s fuel was 20 times more than the weight of the shuttle itself. Which I believe really puts a fine point on the bravery of any astronaut. Think of a rocket as a beer can, filled with explosives, that you strap yourself to the outside of. To make a rocket go faster and shorten the travel time, you want to kick material out at a higher velocity.

NASA has experimented with ion drives for some of its missions. These highly efficient engines use electric fields to accelerate particles of xenon at much higher velocities. Even though they use a fraction of the amount of fuel, ion engines can reach much higher speeds because of the high exhaust velocity.

The Vasimir experiment (Ad Astra Rocket Corporation)
The Vasimir experiment (Ad Astra Rocket Corporation)

And even higher velocity rockets have been tabled, such as the VASIMIR engine and even antimatter engines. So how do rockets work? Just like deflating balloons, only bigger. Much much bigger. And full of explosives and modeled on a horrible and terrifying weapon from the second world war. Really, not much like a balloon at all…

Have you ever made a rocket? What’s your favorite rocketry experiment. Tell us in the comments below.

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

Water Cannon Salute trumpets recovery of Last Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters – Photo Album


NASA welcomed the very last spent Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB’s) back into port with a special water cannon salute today (July 10) at Port Canaveral, Florida. The twin boosters parachuted back to Earth after powering Atlantis’ historic final ascent to orbit for the first two minutes following blastoff of the STS-135 mission from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on July 8.

After splashdown into the Atlantic Ocean, the boosters were towed back individually by two NASA naval vessels named Freedom Star and Liberty Star. See my photo album.

This beautiful photo op is free and open to the public – and has been since the beginning of the space shuttle program 30 years ago.

Freedom Star hauls in the very last spent Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster from the Atlantic Ocean to Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA Water Cannon Tribute to recovery of the Last Shuttle SRB’s
The twin SRB’s on the STS-135 mission powered the last Space Shuttle Orbiter to Space.
Credit: Ken Kremer

Atlantis’ right SRB was towed back first by Liberty Star and arrived at Port Canaveral jetty at about 12 p.m. EDT. Freedom Star came in at about 11 p.m.

Both NASA ships are typically manned by a crew numbering 24 team members. The ocean retrieval normally takes about two days.

Liberty Star tows last SRB’s past humongous Cruise Ships at Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer

A large crowd of onlookers – including many of us KSC press site photojournalists – were on hand to witness the water cannon blasting from the Elizabeth’s tug, owned by the Port Canaveral Port Authority, and trumpeting the procession through the port channel and eventually past several gigantic Cruise ships.

Freedom Star and last SRB pass through last drawbridge on the way to the Port Canaveral locks a few yards away. Credit: Ken Kremer
Liberty Star tows spent Solid Rocket Booster alongside throngs of spectators in pleasure boats. Credit: Ken Kremer

The boosters were temporarily moored at the North Turning Basin before being towed through the locks and then headed out to the AF refurbishment hanger at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Liberty Star enters Port Canaverl jetty with Atlantis right SRB in tow from Atlantic Ocean. Credit: Ken Kremer

The water cannon tribute was specially commissioned to honor the ocean retrieval of the last shuttle SRB’s that will ever fly.

“The future of Liberty Star and Freedom Star remains to be decided,” according to KSC spokesperson Allard Beutel in an interview. “The ships are available for use. SpaceX rented out one of the ships in an attempt to retrieve the first stage of the Falcon 9 during their two launches from Cape Canaveral.”

Atlantis right SRB towed into Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer
Rear view of last SRB towing from Jetty Park Pier. Credit: Ken Kremer
Rear view of last SRB towing from Jetty Park Pier. Credit: Ken Kremer
Hoards of spectators watch towing of Atlantis right SRB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Liberty Star tows SRB through the locks at Port Canaveral as the public freely watches this fantastic space show from a few feet away. Notice the 5000 pound frustrum on the deck which houses the parachutes at the top of the booster. Credit: Ken Kremer

Recovery team at work on spent Solid Rocket Booster at Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer

Lucky photojournalists covering the ocean retrieval of the very last Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster in history (Ken Kremer 3rd from right) as Atlantis’ left side SRB passes through the locks at Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read my features about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
Shuttle Atlantis Soars to Space One Last time: Photo Album
Atlantis Unveiled for Historic Final Flight amidst Stormy Weather
Counting down to the Last Shuttle; Stormy weather projected
Atlantis Crew Jets to Florida on Independence Day for Final Shuttle Blastoff
NASA Sets July 8 for Mandatory Space Shuttle Grand Finale
Final Shuttle Voyagers Conduct Countdown Practice at Florida Launch Pad
Final Payload for Final Shuttle Flight Delivered to the Launch Pad
Last Ever Shuttle Journeys out to the Launch Pad; Photo Gallery
Atlantis Goes Vertical for the Last Time
Atlantis Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building with Final Space Shuttle Crew for July 8 Blastoff

How to Recover a Solid Rocket Booster

NASA shot some very unique high-definition footage of teams recovering the space shuttle’s solid rocket booster segments, including under-water shots of divers working on the recovery in the Atlantic Ocean. Seeing the divers and other recovery team members around the boosters helps give a sense of scale of how big these SRBs are. This is from shuttle Discovery’s final mission, STS-133, and comes complete with underwater breathing sounds!

The video also includes HD video footage from the recovery ships, showing how the teams keep track of and locate the boosters, as well as time-lapse footage of recovery efforts on the Freedom Star ship.
Continue reading “How to Recover a Solid Rocket Booster”

Discoverys Last Launch and Landing Captured in Exquisite Amateur Videos

Watch the HD version. More photos below

Imagine ….. “You Are There ! ”

… in the middle of the whooping, cheering crowd at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for the historic final launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-133 mission to the International Space Station.

That’s the feeling you’ll get from this exquisite and exciting piece from amateur videographer Anton Janssen from the Netherlands. Anton has captured the sights and sounds of excitement of the giant crowd in the thick of the action in this amazingly sharp video of Discovery’s last blast to space.

Anton’s vantage point from the NASA Causeway enabled him to film the liftoff with a birds eye view of the entire orbiter to the base of the launch pad – not blocked by the launch gantry at all. And to top that off, the video shows panoramic reaction shots of the large and exuberant crowd. What’s more is you can hear the cheering multitudes at multiple milestones as Discovery ascends with a deafening roar and spewing intense scorching flames out her rear like a gigantic blowtorch burning an indelible hole in the sky.

I happened to meet Anton at Port Canaveral a few days after the launch as Discovery’s powerful Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB’s) were being towed along the canal following their retrieval from the Atlantic Ocean.


Anton told me he bought the camera new and especially for the STS-133 launch after he purchased one of the very hard to get VIP Tickets from the KSC Visitor Complex. He arrived at the viewing site several hours early, along with tens of thousands of other onlookers along the Florida Space Coast beaches and roadways.

“The NASA Causeway was a great viewing site because you could see the shuttle right from the start,” Anton explained.

Check out this amazing close up video view of the final moments of Discovery’s final landing and the finale of her space career as record by Matt Travis, of Spacearium, taken at the Shuttle Landing Facility where I was also stationed.

This timelapse of Discovery’s launch was shot from the Kennedy Space Center Causeway Viewing Site, by David Gonzales of Project Soar. (See our previous article about them.) Here, approximately 12 minutes is condensed into 27 seconds, so about 27 times as fast. Replayed at 15 fps. See the launch and smokey plume change over time as it is tugged on by wind.

Only 1 or 2 flight remain for the Space Shuttle Program until they are forcibly retired for lack of money.

Next up is the launch of Endeavour on April 19 at dusk. Should make for some extremely cool videos and snapshots! Get your gear ready!

Space Shuttle Discovery concluded her magnificent final journey with a safe landing on March 9, 2011 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 11:57 a.m. EST. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASAs Navy tows Discoverys Last Rocket Boosters into Port Canaveral – Photo Album


As the Space Shuttle program quickly winds down, one of the lesser known facts is that the public can get a free bird’s eye view of the ocean retrieval of the mighty Solid Rocket Boosters which power the orbiters majestic climb to space. All you have to do is stand along the canal of Port Canaveral, Florida as the rockets float by on their journey to a processing hanger at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

And if you own a boat you can sail right along side for the thrilling ride as the boosters are towed by ship from the Atlantic Ocean into the entrance of Port Canaveral. It’s the same route traveled by the humongous cruise ships setting sail for distant ports on Earth.

NASA’s Navy has recovered the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB’s) used during space shuttle Discovery’s final flight. See my photo album above and below.

The two SRB’s and associated flight hardware are retrieved after they splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean following every shuttle launch by the NASA owed ships named Freedom Star and Liberty Star.

Discovery SRB in tow in the Atlantic Ocean by Freedom Star Retrieval Ship. Credit: Ken Kremer

Freedom Star and Liberty Star are stationed about 10 miles from the impact area at the time of splashdown. The ships then sail to the SRB splashdown point and divers are deployed to attach tow lines, haul in the parachutes used to slow the descent and install dewatering equipment.

Each vessel tows one SRB all the way from the Atlantic Ocean into Port Canaveral and then through the locks to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. After the spent segments are decontaminated and cleaned, they will be transported to Utah, where they will be refurbished and stored, if needed.

Discovery SRB in tow past a flock of birds at Atlantic Ocean entrance to Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer

The unique ships were specifically designed and constructed to recover the SRB’s. The SRB’s separate from the orbiter about two minutes after liftoff. They impact in the Atlantic about seven minutes after liftoff and some 100 nautical miles downrange from the launch pad off the Florida coastline.

The STS-133 mission was launched from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 24 on Discovery’s 39th and last space flight. Landing is slated for March 8 at 11:36 a.m. at KSC.

The all veteran six person crew has successfully attached the Leonardo storage module and completed two space walks. Leonardo is packed with the R2 humanoid robot and tons of science gear, spare parts, food and water.

Photo album: Recovery and Retrieval of Solid Rocket Boosters from Space Shuttle Discovery’s final flight to space on STS-133 mission.

Close up of forward segments of SRB in tow minus the nose cap which separates at 2.5 nautical miles altitude and releases a parachute. Lighthouse in the background. Credit: Ken Kremer
Freedom Star - NASA’s Solid Rocket Booster Retrieval Ship. Credit: Ken Kremer
Pleasure boats navigate for birds eye view alongside water retrieval of the shuttles Solid Rocket Boosters in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer
Rear view to SRB Aft Skirt from the Jetty Park Pier at Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer
Onlookers fish from rocky outcrops as SRB’s - which generate 3 million pounds of liftoff thrust - float by on a gorgeous afternoon in sunny Florida. What an incredible sight ! Credit: Ken Kremer
Liberty Star with SRB alongside in hip tow position in Port Canaveral. Frustrum of a forward aft skirt assembly is visible on deck of Liberty Star at left. Credit: Ken Kremer
Close up of Frustrum of a forward aft skirt SRB assembly on deck of Liberty Star in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA’s Freedom Star and Liberty Star Solid Rocket Booster Retrieval Ships
docked in Port Canaveral. Both of NASA’s SRB retrieval ships are pictured here with boosters alongside. Credit: Ken Kremer
Ken Kremer at tow back of Discovery’s SRB’s by NASA’s Retrieval Ship Freedom Star. Credit: Urijan Poerink

The Last Train to KSC: Final Set of Solid Rocket Boosters Arrive


Another end-of-an-era event heralding the conclusion of the space shuttle program: the final set of space shuttle solid rocket booster segments arrived at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, May 27, 2010. The segments were carried on railway cars from the ATK factory in Utah where the boosters are built. The last part of the trip from Jacksonville, Florida included passenger cars carrying NASA personnel and ATK officials, including astronaut Mike Massimino, shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, and the “voice” of NASA TV, George Diller. The train stopped across the Indian River from KSC where the tracks lead to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

The boosters will be stacked in the VAB for a possible rescue mission, or perhaps, even one last add-on flight for space shuttle Atlantis.

The SRB segments are designated for STS-335, the Launch-On-Need mission that would be flown if the last scheduled shuttle flight — STS-134, now scheduled for launch in late November — would encounter a problem. Or, if Congress allows, another shuttle mission using the ready-to-go shuttle could be added. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson told President Obama in a letter this week that he intended to request funding for the extra mission. NASA hopes to get a go-ahead for the flight, which would become the STS-135 mission, by late June. If approved, the likely launch date would be sometime in the summer of 2011.

NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said at a news conference this week that if the additional flight were approved, a Soyuz would be readied as a rescue vehicle, and the shuttle crew would be smaller, probably 4 crew members. The crew could take safe harbor at the International Space Station, if needed, until the rescue Soyuz arrived. The shuttle could bring extra supplies and hardware to the ISS.

Astronaut Mike Massimino disembarks from the train carrying the SRB segments. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today.

Veteran astronaut Mike Massimino told a Florida television station crew that he hopes for an additional shuttle mission. “I think we have to be optimistic,” Massimino said. “There are just too many people around the country and the world who are so supportive of our program.”

ATK laid off 1,300 of their 5,000 person workforce because of shutting down production of the boosters, but the company is hoping to be part of NASA’s future spaceflight plans.

“There’s quite a bit of uncertainty,” said ATK KSC Deputy Director Ted Shaffner. “The direction is very cloudy from our politicians and NASA is struggling with what direction we do take.”

More images from the event:

Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach talks with reporters about the final SRB segments. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today.
George Diller, the 'voice' of NASA TV, disembarks from the train carrying the SRB segments. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today.
A Florida East Coast engine brought the SRB railcars to KSC. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today.
NASA has their own locomotive to bring the railcars to the VAB. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today.

And I know someone is going to comment on the “Do Not Hump” sign on the railcar. What it means is that the contents of the railcar are delicate enough that the car should not be ‘humped,’ which is a method to sort freight cars by rolling them down a hill instead of using a locomotive engine to move the cars. Obviously, NASA and ATK don’t want the SRB segments to go rolling down a hill. Find out more about humping here.

Sources: Florida Today, CFNews 13

Rare Images of Shuttle Booster Return


Here’s an event we don’t get to see very often. It is a post-launch activity that is not well publicized and of course, with the retirement of the space shuttles fast approaching, we have just a few opportunities to see it again. Early Monday morning, the solid rocket boosters used for space shuttle Atlantis’ launch last week were towed back to Port Canaveral after their recovery from the Atlantic Ocean. Universe Today photographer Alan Walters captured some images of the return, and in the image above, the Liberty Star — one of two unique ships specifically designed and constructed for this task — returns one booster through the locks at the Port. Visible is the “business end” of the booster. A spokesperson at Kennedy Space Center said these two boosters will be refurbished, just in case they are needed in the future.

See more images below.

Nozzle end of the SRB. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today.

Here’s a close-up of the nozzle end of the SRB, a little worse for wear after the launch. After the boosters do their job and are jettisoned from the shuttle, they fall back to the ocean. The parachutes provide for a nozzle-first impact, so air is trapped in the empty motor casing, causing the booster to float with the forward end approximately 30 feet (9.1 m) out of the water. Once the boosters are located, divers insert a plug in the nozzle (the metal object in the middle of the nozzle) called the Diver Operated Plug. The divers “dewater” the SRBs by pumping air into and water out of the SRB. This causes the SRB to change from a nose-up floating position to a horizontal attitude more suitable for towing.

Top end of SRB visible alongside the Liberty Star. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today

The top end of the SRB is visible in this image. The nose cap is jettisoned at an altitude of 2.9 statute miles (2.5 nautical miles/4.6 kilometers) and deploys the pilot parachute.

An SRB fully loaded with propellant weighs about 1.4 million pounds (635,040 kilograms). They stand 149.2 feet (45.5 meters) tall, and have a diameter of 12 feet (3.6 meters). The boosters in use today are the largest solid propellant motors ever developed for space flight and the first to be used on a manned space vehicle. These boosters will propel the orbiter to a speed of 3,512 miles per hour (5,652 kilometers per hour).

Approximately two minutes after the Space Shuttle lifts off from the launch pad, the twin SRBs have expended their fuel, and the boosters separate from the orbiter and its external tank at an altitude of approximately 30.3 statute miles (26.3 nautical miles/48.7 kilometers) above the Earth. After separation, momentum will propel the SRBs for another 70 seconds to an altitude of 44.5 statute miles (38.6 nautical miles/71.6 kilometers) before they begin their long tumble back to Earth.

The frustum for the SRB. Image credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today.

This is the frustum, which holds the drogue shoot. It is jettisoned from the booster after the drogue shoot stabilizes the SRB in a tail-first attitude, and is separated by a pyrotechnic charge about 243 seconds after SRB separation.

The main parachutes are the first items to be brought on board the recovery ships. Their shroud lines are wound onto each of three of the four reels on the ship’s deck. The drogue parachute, attached to the frustum, is reeled onto the fourth reel until the frustum is approximately 50 feet astern of the ship. The 5,000-pound (2,268-kilogram) frustum is then lifted from the water using the ship’s power block and deck crane.

Liberty Star with an SRB in tow. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today.

The ships enter Port Canaveral, where the booster is changed from the stern tow position to a position alongside the ship to allow greater control. The ships then pass through a drawbridge, Canaveral Locks, and transit the Banana River to a hanger. They are lifted from the water with specially made Straddle-Lift cranes and placed on rail cars to begin the disassembly and refurbishment process.

Liberty Star returns an SRB on May 17, 2010. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today.

The Liberty Star and the Freedom star each have a crew of ten; a nine-person SRB retrieval team, a retrieval supervisor, a NASA representative, and some observers, with the maximum complement at 24 persons.

While the ships were built especially for NASA for retrieving the SRBs, they’ve also been used for other purposes, including side-scan sonar operations, cable-laying, underwater search and salvage, drone aircraft recovery, platforms for robotic submarine operations and numerous support roles for other government agencies.

The ships have a special water jet system in the stern thruster which allows the ship to move in any direction without the use of propellers. This system was installed to protect the endangered manatee population that inhabits regions of the Banana River where the ships are based. The system also allows divers to work near the ship during operations at a greatly reduced risk.

Thanks to Alan Walters for getting up early this morning to capture these great, unique images.

More info on SRB retrieval from KSC.

End of an Era: “Lasts” for Shuttle Program

Yesterday, NASA’s Space Shuttle Program conducted the final test firing of a reusable solid rocket motor, in Utah. Look to see the words “final” and “last” frequently over the next few months in regards to the space shuttle. “There is a whole series of lasts coming up,” said space shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach at Endeavour’s landing earlier this week, who talked about the “majesty of this ship” and “people who have fallen in love with this machine.” It’s going to be hard to let them go,” he said, “but we’ve been given a new direction and we’ll process that last shuttle and fly that last mission and move on.”

Here’s a few notes and recent news items on the end of the shuttle program:

Smoke curls into the Utah skies as FSM-17 completes its successful test firing. Image Credit: NASA

Some spectacular pictures from the final SRB test. FSM-17, (that’s flight support motor, not Flying Spaghetti Monster) burned for approximately 123 seconds — the same time each reusable solid rocket motor burns during an actual space shuttle launch.

The final test was conducted to ensure the safe flight of the four remaining space shuttle missions. A total of 43 design objectives were measured through 258 instrument channels during the two-minute static firing.
The first test was in July 1977. The motors, built by ATK motors have successfully launched the space shuttle into orbit 129 times – out of 130 attempts.

You can watch the entire test firing video below.

And speaking of the end of the shuttle program, NASA held an in-house competition to design a shuttle commemorative patch, and last week, the winners were announced. They are beautiful designs, so I’ll post the 3 winners.

Blake Dumesnil's winning design will become NASA's official space shuttle commemorative emblem. (NASA)

Blake Dumesnil, a Hamilton Sundstrand camera engineer from Johnson Space Center, designed the patch, above, which was chosen by judges out of the 85 designs submitted by the agency’s past and present workforce.

It shows a launching space shuttle bordered by a US flag and stars to commemorate both NASA’s orbiter fleet and the astronauts whose lives were lost while flying aboard them.

Second place went to Jennifer Franzo from the Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans. Her “Mission Complete” logo shows a shuttle in orbit “tipping its wing to the world, as a way to say ‘thank you’ and ‘farewell’ just as a cowboy would wave goodbye into the sunset.”

Tim Gagnon's third place design will fly with the other 84 contest entries on a CD aboard shuttle Atlantis. (NASA)

Third place went to Tim Gagnon, a former subcontractor employee at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, whose patch designs have been worn by the astronaut crews on shuttle and International Space Station flights. His contest entry focused on the “orbiter coming home for a safe landing at the conclusion of its final mission.”

Leonardo in the SSPF. Image: Nancy Atkinson

One other news item for one of the final shuttle flights. On STS-133, the second-to-last scheduled shuttle flight, the Leonardo Multi Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) will be brought up to the ISS to become a Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM).

Leonardo is currently undergoing processing to bring supplies to the ISS on the STS-131 mission, and I visited the Space Station Processing Facility last week to view the module up close. After returning home from this mission, Leoardo will undergo modifications to ensure safe, long-term operation as the PMM, and to increase the amount of mass it can carry to orbit.

Inside the PMM, experiments in fluid physics, materials science, biology, biotechnology and other microgravity experiments may be conducted.

MPLM’s have been flown inside the payload bays of the shuttles, successfully delivering vital hardware and supplies to the station. The new use for this proven carrier will provide more room and enhance the use of the station.

As promised, here’s the video of the SRB test:

Sources: NASA, collectSPACE, NASA