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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atlas V Roars to Space with Sophisticated New Missile Warning Surveillance Satellite

[/caption]CAPE CANAVERAL – An Atlas V rocket carrying a highly sophisticated Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO-1 satellite for the United States Air Force lifted off from the seaside Space Launch Complex-41 at 2:10 p.m. EDT on Saturday (May 7) into a gorgeous clear blue sky following a one day delay due to cloudy weather conditions surrounding the Florida space coast on Friday.

SBIRS GEO-1 is the maiden satellite in a new constellation of next generation military space probes that will provide US military forces with an early warning of missile launches that could pose a threat to US national security.

Atlas V rocket roars to space with SBIRS GEO-1 satellite Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 7, 2011.
Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com
“Today, we launched the next generation missile warning capability. It’s taken a lot of hard work by the government-industry team and we couldn’t be more proud. We look forward to this satellite providing superb capabilities for many years to come,” said General Gen. William Shelton, Air Force Space Command commander in a statement.

The planned quartet of SBIRS satellites will deliver a quantum leap in infrared event detection and reporting compared to the current generation of orbiting Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, according to Michael Friedman of Lockheed Martin in an interview with Universe Today at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

“The SBIRS GEO satellites will have both a scanning and starring sensor with faster revisit rates. They will be able to detect missile launches from the earliest stages of the boost phase and track the missiles to determine their trajectory and potential impact points,” said Friedman.

“SBIRS can see targets quicker and characterize the actual missile,’” explained Steve Tatum of Lockheed Martin at KSC.

In addition to providing improved and persistent missile warning capabilities in a global arena, SBIRS will simultaneously support missile defense, technical intelligence, battlespace awareness and defense of the US homeland.

“The 10,000 pound SBIRS GEO-1 satellite is the size of two Hummers. About 9000 people in 23 states were involved in constructing the satellite.”

“SBIRS GEO-2 will launch in the next year or two,” Friedman told me.

“GEO-2 is built and undergoing testing now,” added Tatum.

The $1.2 Billion SBIRS satellite was launched into a 22,000 mile high Geosynchronous orbit by the 189 foot tall Atlas V rocket. The Atlas rocket was in the 401 vehicle configuration with no solid rocket motors and includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing.

The first stage was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL-10A engine.

SBIRS GEO-1 satellite bolted atop Atlas V Centaur rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 prior to launch. SBIRS is housed inside a 4 meter diameter Payload Fairing. Credit: Ken Kremer

The Atlas V rocket was built and launched by United Launch Alliance (ULA). This marks the 50th successful launch for ULA since the company was formed in December 2006.

“With this launch, ULA continues to demonstrate its commitment to 100 percent mission success,” said Michael Gass, ULA President and CEO. “This milestone is a testament to the dedicated employees that for every mission deliver excellence, best value and continuous improvement to our customers.”

Read my Atlas V SBIRS preview story here:
Atlas Rocket Poised for Blast Off with Advanced Missile Early Warning Spy Satellite

SBIRS GEO-1 Launch Photo Album by the Universe Today team of Ken Kremer and Alan Walters:

Atlas V rocket and bird soar skywards at Florida Space Coast
Liftoff of Atlas V rocket with SBIRS GEO-1 satellite as an Egret flies into camera field of view on May 7, 2011 at 2:10 p.m. EDT. View from the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center:
Credit: Ken Kremer -- kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket soars off pad 41 with SBIRS GEO-1 satellite for the US Air Force as another bird flies into camera field of view on May 7, 2011 at 2:10 p.m. EDT. View from the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center: Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas V SBIRS GEO-1 launch from Cape Canaveral on May 7, 2011. Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com
Atlas V SBIRS GEO-1 launch from Cape Canaveral on May 7, 2011. Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com
Exhaust trail from Atlas V SBIRS GEO-1 launch on May 7, 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer
Ken Kremer with Atlas V rocket and SBIRS GEO-1 satellite at Launch Pad 41, prior to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Ken Kremer

KSC Launch Pad Worker Falls, Dies

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A worker at the space shuttle launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, pad 39A, fell to his death early Monday morning, according to reports. An employee of United Launch Alliance fell from the launch pad tower near space shuttle Endeavour. NASA released the following statement:

“At about 7:40 a.m. EDT this morning, a United Space Alliance worker fell at NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A. NASA emergency medical personnel responded, but they were unable to revive the man. Because of medical privacy, currently we’re not able to release any additional details about this fatality. Family members are being notified. All work at Launch Pad 39A has been suspended for the rest of the day, and counseling and other employee assistance are being provided to workers. Right now our focus is on our workers and for the family of the USA employee. The incident is under investigation.”

Our condolences to the man’s family and his United Launch Alliance co-workers.

UPDATE:

USA has now released the name of the person involved in the accident at the launch pad as engineer James D. Vanover.

“Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the family of Mr. Vanover,” United Space Alliance Chief Executive Officer Virginia Barnes said in a statement. “Our focus right now is on providing support for the family, and for his coworkers. We are also providing our full support to investigating officials in order to determine the cause of the incident as quickly as possible. Until that investigation is complete, it would be inappropriate to provide further comment on the details.”

AEHF-1 Rides Atlas V To Orbit

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The U.S. Air Force successfully launched the first Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite (AEHF-1) on top of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket Saturday, Aug. 14 at 7:07 a.m. EDT. The Atlas V lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC 41) riding a pillar of flame across the morning sky. The window for the launch was two hours long, however it wasn’t needed, the launch occurred on the first attempt. 

“As we expected it was a totally successful launch.” said U.S. Air Force Captain Glorimar Rodriguez.

The AEHF constellation of satellites will replace the aging Milstar satellites. The more-modern AEHF is designed to ensure rapid communications for military leaders. This new, jam-proof system will be the link between the president and the armed forces in the event of a nuclear attack. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor to construct both the AEHF fleet of satellites as well as the mission control center where the satellites will be operated.

AEHF launch. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today

There are a number of U.S. allies that are involved with the AEHF program and can use these satellites once the system is activated. Some of these allies include the Netherlands, Canada and the United Kingdom.

When the system is complete it will be comprised of three functioning satellites and a spare satellite. These satellites will be inter-connected and are capable of communicating with one another. They will provide the military with vital communications-related data including, but not limited to, maps, video and targeting data. When operational, the AEHF constellation will be operated by the 4th Space Operations Squadron, who are stationed at Schriever Air Force Base, CO.

Pre-launch. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today