KSC and Visitor Complex Reopen in Aftermath of Hurricane Irma; with Launches Delayed and Viewing Spots Destroyed: Gallery

Rotary Rover Front park along the Indian River lagoon in Titusville, FL which offered a magnificent view of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building and launches from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

TITUSVILLE/CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the KSC Visitor Complex and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station have reopened as of today (Sept. 16) and yesterday, respectively, in the aftermath of Cat 1 hurricane force winds from Hurricane Irma that lashed the Florida Space Coast on Saturday, Sunday and Monday (Sept. 9/10/11) – forcing launch delays and leaving damaged and destroyed homes, buildings, infrastructure and launch viewing locations in its wake – see photos.

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station military forces partially reopened certain critical runways hours after Irma swept by the space coast to assist in emergency recovery operations.

“Kennedy Space Center will resume normal operations Saturday, Sept. 16,” NASA announced. “The “All Clear” has been given to reopen.”

NASA’s world famous Vehicle Assembly Building and the Space Coast launch pads are still standing – as seen in photos from myself and more from NASA.

Launch Complex 39 and surrounding areas are seen during an aerial survey of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 12, 2017. The survey was performed to identify structures and facilities that may have sustained damage from Hurricane Irma as the storm passed Kennedy on Sept. 10, 2017. Credit: NASA KSC

“As you’ve all seen by now, the Center will be open for normal operations at midnight tonight, and we’ll be ready to get back into the full swing of things Monday morning,” KSC Center Director Bob Cabana said in a message to employees.

Hurricane Irma knocked out water and power to KSC, the Cape, the visitor complex and the barrier islands including Merritt Island which is home to America’s premier Spaceport.

Wind speeds at KSC “varied from 67-94 mph (59-82 knots) at the 54-foot level to 90-116 mph (79-101 knots) at the 458-foot level during the storm.”

As a direct result of Irma, the next Space Coast launches of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V and SpaceX Falcon 9 has been postponed into October.

“The storm did delay the next launches,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander, 45th Space Wing, at a media briefing.

“We think the next launch will be approximately the first week of October.”

However although there was damage to a numerous buildings, both the spacecraft and rockets are safe and sound.

“The spacecraft we have on station right now are healthy and are being monitored.”

“The seven rocket boosters [Atlas, Falcon, Delta IV Heavy] we have on the Cape rode out the storm just fine,” Montieth elaborated.

The base and the visitor complex both lacked potable water service used for drinking, food preparation and cleaning.

Multiple water pipes in the nearby community of Cocoa were severed. KSC, the Cape and the Visitor Center as well as the surrounding community were under a boil water restriction for several days.

“Full water service is now available and the center has received an all clear following several days of closure related to Hurricane Irma,” noted KSC officials.

Space View park along the Indian River lagoon in Titusville, FL which offered a magnificent view of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building and launches from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center was destroyed by Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10/11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Indeed over 87% of customers lost power in Brevard County – home to the Florida Space Coast. Over 2/3 of customers lost power throughout Florida- impacting over 16 million people.

A number of popular public launch viewing locations were also severely damaged or destroyed as I witnessed personally driving in Titusville around just hours after Irma fled north.

See my photos from Rotary River Front Park, Space View Park and others along Rt. 1 in Titusville – which had offered unimpeded, spectacular and beautiful views across the Indian Rover lagoon to the KSC and Cape Canaveral launch pads.

Space View park along the Indian River lagoon in Titusville, FL offered a magnificent view of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building and launches from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center until the piers and walkways were decimated by Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10/11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Piers, docks, walkways, parking areas, piping and more were ripped up, smashed, sunken and devastated with piles of metal, bricks, wood, trees, bushes, trash and more scattered about in sad and unrecognizable heaps.

Space View park along the Indian River lagoon in Titusville, FL offered a magnificent view of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building and launches from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center until the piers and walkway were decimated by Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10/11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

From a distance of several miles, the iconic VAB and the launch pads themselves did not seem to suffer obvious destruction – see my photos herein.

As of today over 500,000 customers across Florida remain without power, including tens of thousands in central Florida.

Numerous traffic lights in Titusville, Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach and Melbourne and other Brevard County and central Florida cities and communities are still not functioning today – creating all sorts of road traffic hazards!

Rotary Rover Front park along the Indian River lagoon in Titusville, FL was devastated by Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10/11, 2017. The serene coastal park had offered magnificent views of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building and launches from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Damage assessment teams from NASA, ULA, SpaceX, the USAF and contractors are now carefully scrutinizing every aspect of the Space Coast launch pads and facilities to ensure successful liftoffs whenever they resume in a few weeks.

Virtually all traffic lights were not operating and businesses and gas stations were closed in the hours before and after Irma pummeled communities across the space coast and central Florida. There were very long lines at the first gas stations that did reopen on Monday and Tuesday.

NASA’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the Launch Control Center (left) were home to the ‘ride-out’ crew remaining on site at the Kennedy Space Center, FL during Hurricane Irma to monitor facilities as the storm passed by on Sept. 10/11. They survived intact in this post storm view taken from Playalinda Beach. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KSC was closed and evacuated of all personnel during the storm, except for only a small ‘Ride-out’ team of roughly 130 or so KSC personnel based inside the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) inside the Launch Control Center. They remained on site to monitor spaceport facilities.

“I want to take this opportunity to thank—and commend—the Ride-out and Damage Assessment and Recovery Teams for the outstanding job they did watching over the Center in our absence and getting it ready for our return in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma,” Cabana added. “I also want to thank all of you for the outstanding job that you did in getting the Center ready for the hurricane. As a result of your efforts, the Center was well prepared for the storm.”

The Damage Assessment and Recovery Teams explained that “the industrial and Launch Complex 39 areas have been inspected and are safe for personnel to return to work. This includes the KSC Child Development Center and all administrative work areas.”

Huge slabs of coastal concrete walkway buckled and collapsed on Route 1 along the Indian River lagoon in Titusville, FL that was a popular spot offering outstanding public launch viewing – decimated as Hurricane Irma passed by on Sept. 10/11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“All facility systems including communication, power, and air conditioning are functional.”

Montieth confirmed damage to many buildings.

“In an initial assessment of the Cape facilities, about 40 % of buildings we inspected so far have received some damage. So 107 of 216 buildings at the Cape inspected have already been identified with damage.

Launch Complex 39 and surrounding areas are seen during an aerial survey of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 12, 2017. The survey was performed to identify structures and facilities that may have sustained damage from Hurricane Irma as the storm passed Kennedy on Sept. 10, 2017. KSC reopens on Sept. 10, 2017. Credit: NASA KSC

“Lots of roof and siding damage, Montieth explained on Sept. 13. “We haven’t inspected the beaches yet.

“We have water issues at the Cape. We need water for the chillers to cool the operational buildings.”
Luckily the damage from Irma was less than feared.

“Under Hurricane Matthew there was about $50 million worth of damage between us and our launch partners. We think it will be less this time for Irma but we have a lot more work to do,” noted Montieth.

“The storm wasn’t as bad as expected. You hope for the best and prepare for the worst and that’s what we did. We had a ride-out team on base in a secure facility. Irma traveling over land helped us out. But we still got hit here by over 90 MPH winds gusts and over 58 mph winds – which are hurricane category 1 winds.”

“We also got hit by what we believe are 3 probable small tornadoes that hit the base. That claim is up to the NWS.”

He noted that the X-37B was launched successfully last Friday by SpaceX and that ongoing hurricane preparations and evacuations went to full swing right afterward the morning blastoff.

USAF X-37B military spaceplane blasts off with picturesque water reflections at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 UTC) Sept. 7, 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite X-37B OTV-5 and NASA 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

Derelict boat crashed up on shore along the Indian River lagoon in Titusville, FL right after Hurricane Irma pounded the Space Coast on Sept. 10/11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Thrashing waves and winds from Hurricane Irma nearly washed away the roadway past the Max Brewer Bridge, Titusville leading to Playalinda Beach on Sept. 10/11, 2017. Water levels were several feet above normal hours after the storm passed. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Rotary Rover Front park along the Indian River lagoon in Titusville, FL which offered a magnificent view of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building and launches from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center was destroyed by Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10/11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch Complex 39A and SpaceX processing hangar at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center survived intact after Hurricane Irma swept by on Sept. 10/11, 2017 in this post storm view taken from Playalinda Beach. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center survived intact after Hurricane Irma swept by on Sept. 10/11, 2017 in this post storm view taken from Playalinda Beach. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stunning SpaceX Space Station Cargo Blastoff and Cape Landing Kicks Off Sunshine State Liftoff Trio

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Todays (Aug. 14) stunning SpaceX Space Station cargo delivery blastoff to the International Space Station (ISS) and flawless first stage landing from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the Sunshine State kicked off a rapid fire sequence of liftoffs planned for mid August.

All 9 SpaceX Falcon 9 Merlin 1D first stage engines ignited precisely on time from seaside pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida today (Aug. 14) at 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT).

“It was a gorgeous day and a specular launch,” said Dan Hartman, NASA deputy manager of the International Space Station Program, at the post launch briefing at the Kennedy Space Center press site.

The 9 Merlin 1D’s of the two stage 213-foot-tall (65-meter-tall) Falcon 9 generate 1.7 million pounds of liftoff thrust fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants.

“Just greatness to report about the launch,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of Flight and Build Reliability at the post launch briefing.

“The second stage deployed Dragon to a near perfect orbit. The first stage was successful and made a perfect landing. From what I’ve heard, it’s right on the bullseye and made a very soft touchdown, so it’s a great pre-flown booster ready to go for the next time.”

So its 1 down and 2 launches to go along the Florida Space Coast over the next 11 days of manmade wonder – Plus a Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ natural wonder sandwiched in between !!

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Monday’s picture perfect lunchtime liftoff of the unmanned SpaceX CRS-12 Dragon cargo freighter bound for the ISS and loaded with over 3 tons of science, research hardware and supplies including a hefty cosmic ray detector named ISS-CREAM, medical research experiments dealing with Parkinson’s disease, lung and heart tissue, vegetable seeds, dozens of mice and much more – came off without a hitch.

“We’re excited that about three quarters of the payload aboard is science,” noted Hartman. “With the internal and external payloads that we have going up, it sets a new bar for the amount of research that we’ve been able to get on this flight.”

And all 6 astronauts and cosmonauts serving aboard the station are especially looking forward to unpacking and serving up a specially cooled and hefty stash of delicious ice cream!

The ice cream, medical experiments and mice were all part of the late load items added the evening before liftoff – work that was delayed due to thunderstorms and completed just in time to avoid a launch delay.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon on Dragon CRS-12 mission to the ISS from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

A huge crowd of delighted locals, tourists and folks flocking in from around the globe, packed local beaches, causeways and parks and the Kennedy Space Center and witnessed a space launch and landing spectacular they will long remember.

Ground landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) after SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from pad 39A at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The Dragon resupply ship dubbed Dragon CRS-12 counts as SpaceX’s twelfth contracted commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012.

The launch and landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster took place just minutes apart under near perfect weather conditions, as the Dragon capsule sped to the heavens on a mission to the High Frontier of Space.

Ground landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) after SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from pad 39A at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The 22 story Falcon 9 roared off pad 39A on a stream of flames and exhaust into blue skies decorated with artfully spaced wispy clouds that enhanced the viewing experience as the rocket accelerated to orbit and on its way to the 6 person multinational crew.

The triple headed sunshine state space spectacular marches forward in barely 4 days with liftoff of NASA’s amazingly insectoid-looking TDRS-M science relay comsat slated for Friday morning Aug. 18 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

Lastly, a week after TDRS-M and just 11 days after the SpaceX Dragon an Orbital ATK Minotaur 4 rocket is due to blastoff just before midnight Aug. 25 and carry the ORS 5 mission to orbit for the U.S. military’s Operationally Responsive Space program. The Minotaur IV utilizes three stages from decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBMs formerly aimed at the Russians and perhaps the North Koreans.

The Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ takes place on Monday, Aug. 21. It’s the first solar eclipse in 99 years that space the continent from coast to coast and will be at least partially visible in all 48 contiguous states!

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon CRS-12 vessel is carrying more than 6,400 pounds (2,900 kg) of science experiments and research instruments, crew supplies, food water, clothing, hardware, gear and spare parts to the million pound orbiting laboratory complex.

20 mice are also onboard from NASA for the Rodent Research 9 (RR-9) experiment and another dozen from Japanese researchers. This will support more than 80 of the 250 research investigations and experiments being conducted by Expedition 52 and 53 crew members.

Dragon reached its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes later and successfully deployed its life giving solar arrays.

Dragon CRS-12 now begins a 2 day orbital chase of the station via a carefully choreographed series of thruster firings that bring the commercial spacecraft to rendezvous with the space station on Aug. 16.

Dragon will be grappled with the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6 meter-long) Canadian-built robotic arm at approximately 7 a.m. EDT on Aug. 16 by astronauts Jack Fischer of NASA and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency). It then will be installed on the Harmony module.

The Dragon spacecraft will spend approximately 35 days attached to the space station, returning to Earth in mid-September with over 3000 pounds of science samples and results gathered over many months from earlier experiments by the station crews.

Dragon CRS-12 is SpaceX’s third contracted resupply mission to launch this year for NASA.

The prior SpaceX cargo ships launched on Feb 19 and June 3, 2017 on the CRS-10 and CRS-11 missions to the space station. CRS-10 is further noteworthy as being the first SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 from NASA’s historic pad 39A.

A fourth cargo Dragon is likely to launch this year in December on the CRS-13 resupply mission under NASA’s current plans.

SpaceX leased pad 39A from NASA in 2014 and after refurbishments placed the pad back in service this year for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011.

Previous launches include 11 Apollo flights, the launch of the unmanned Skylab in 1973, 82 shuttle flights and five SpaceX launches.

Cargo Manifest for CRS-12:

TOTAL CARGO: 6415.4 lbs. / 2910 kg
TOTAL PRESSURIZED CARGO WITH PACKAGING: 3642 lbs. / 1652 kg
• Science Investigations 2019.4 lbs. / 916 kg
• Crew Supplies 485 lbs. / 220 kg
• Vehicle Hardware 747.4 lbs. / 339 kg
• Spacewalk Equipment 66.1 lbs. / 30 kg
• Computer Resources 116.8 lbs. / 53 kg

UNPRESSURIZED 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg
• Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg

The CREAM instrument from the University of Maryland will be stowed for launch inside the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk. Astronauts will use the stations robotic arm to pluck it from the trunk and attach it to a US port on the exposed porch of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM).

CREAM alone comprises almost half the payload weight.

The Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass investigation (CREAM) instrument from the University of Maryland, College Park involves placing a balloon-borne instrument aboard the International Space Station to measure the charges of cosmic rays over a period of three years. CREAM will be attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility. Existing CREAM hardware used for balloon flights. Credit: NASA

Here is a NASA description of CREAM:

The Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) instrument will be attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility on the space station, and measure the charges of cosmic rays. The data collected from its three-year mission will address fundamental questions about the origins and histories of cosmic rays, building a stronger understanding of the basic structure of the universe.

The LRRK2 experiment seeks to grow larger crystals of the protein to investigate Parkinson’s disease and help develop new therapies:

Here is a NASA description of LRRK2:

The Dragon’s pressurized area includes an experiment to grow large crystals of leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2), a protein believed to be the greatest genetic contributor to Parkinson’s disease. Gravity keeps Earth-grown versions of this protein too small and too compact to study. This experiment, developed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Anatrace and Com-Pac International, will exploit the benefits of microgravity to grow larger, more perfectly-shaped LRRK2 crystals for analysis on Earth. Results from this study could help scientists better understand Parkinson’s and aid in the development of therapies.

Watch this Michael J. Fox video describing the LRRK2 crystallization experiment:

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite CRS-12, TRDS-M, and ORS 5 and NASA 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

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rests horizontally at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 13 Aug. 2017 while being processed for liftoff of the Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) slated for 14 Aug. 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Hurricane Matthew Grazes Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral

Aerial view of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Oct. 8, 2016 by damage assessment and recovery team surveying the damage at KSC the day after Hurricane Matthew passed by Cape Canaveral on Oct. 7, 2016 packing sustained winds of 90 mph with gusts to 107 mph.  Credit: NASA/Cory Huston
Aerial view of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Oct. 8, 2016 by damage assessment and recovery team surveying the damage at KSC the day after Hurricane Matthew passed by Cape Canaveral on Oct. 7, 2016 packing sustained winds of 90 mph with gusts to 107 mph. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

The Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and the major population centers along the Florida Space Coast were spared from major damage to infrastructure, homes and business after the deadly Cat 4 Hurricane Matthew grazed the region with 107 mph winds rather than making a direct impact as feared.

Although some of the base and Space Coast coastal and residential areas did suffer significant destruction most were very lucky to have escaped the hurricanes onslaught in relatively good shape, when it stayed at sea rather than making the forecast direct hit.

KSC’s iconic 525 foot tall Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the Complex 39 launch pads and the active launch pads at CCAFS are all standing and intact – as damage evaluations are currently underway by damage assessment and recovery teams from NASA and the US Air Force.

As Hurricane Matthew approached from the south Friday morning Oct. 7 along Florida’s Atlantic coastline, it wobbled east and west, until it finally veered ever so slightly some 5 miles to the East – thus saving much of the Space Coast launch facilities and hundreds of thousands of home and businesses from catastrophic damage from the expected winds and storm surges.

“Hurricane Matthew passed Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center …. with sustained winds of 90 mph with gusts to 107 mph,” on Friday, NASA officials reported.

The storm passed “the space center about 26 miles off the tip of Cape Canaveral.”

Cat 4 Hurricane Matthew track during the late evening of 6 Oct 2016.  Credit: NASA/NOAA
Cat 4 Hurricane Matthew track during the late evening of 6 Oct 2016. Credit: NASA/NOAA

KSC and CCAFS did suffer some damage to buildings, downed power lines and some flooding and remains closed.

The Damage Assessment and Recovery Teams have entered the facilities today, Oct. 8, and are surveying the areas right now to learn the extent of the damage and report on when they can reopen for normal operations.

“After the initial inspection flight Saturday morning, it was determined that the center received some isolated roof damage, damaged support buildings, a few downed power lines, and limited water intrusion,” NASA reported late today.

Hurricane force wind from Hurricane Matthew throw a concession stand up against the Spaceflight Now building at the LC 39 Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Oct. 7, 2016.  Credit: NASA/Cory Huston
Hurricane force wind from Hurricane Matthew throw a concession stand up against the Spaceflight Now building at the LC 39 Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Oct. 7, 2016. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

Inspection teams are methodically going from building to building this weekend to assess Matthew’s impact.

“Since safety is our utmost concern, teams of inspectors are going from building-to-building assessing damage.”

It will take time to determine when the center can resume operations.

“Due to the complexity of this effort, teams need time to thoroughly inspect all buildings and roads prior to opening the Kennedy Space Center for regular business operations.”

Not until after a full inspection of the center will a list of damaged buildings and equipment be available. The next update will be available no earlier than Sunday afternoon.

A “ride-out team” of 116 remained at KSC and at work inside the emergency operations center in the Launch Control Center located adjacent to the VAB during the entire Hurricane period.

View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), Launch Control Center and Mobile Launcher from the KSC Launch Complex 39 Press Site.   NASA is upgrading the VAB with new platforms to assemble and launch  NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), Launch Control Center and Mobile Launcher from the KSC Launch Complex 39 Press Site. NASA is upgrading the VAB with new platforms to assemble and launch NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It took until Friday afternoon for winds to drop below 40 knots start preliminary damage assessments.

“KSC is now in a “Weather Safe” condition as of 2 p.m. Friday. While there is damage to numerous facilities at KSC, it consists largely roof damage, window damage, water intrusion, damage to modular buildings and to building siding.”

Teams are also assessing the CCAFS launch pads, buildings and infrastructure. Some buildings suffered severe damage.

“We have survived a catastrophic event that could have easily been cataclysmic. It is only by grace and a slight turn in Matthew’s path that our base and our barrier island homes were not destroyed or covered in seven feet of water,” wrote Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, in a Facebook update.

“There is a lot of debris throughout the base.”

“We are still experiencing deficiencies in critical infrastructure, consistent power, emergency services, communications and hazardous material inspections that make portions of our base uninhabitable or potentially dangerous.”

Severely damaged building on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: 45th Space Wing
Severely damaged building on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: 45th Space Wing

Of particular importance is Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) where the next scheduled liftoff is slated for Nov. 4.

The launch involves America’s newest and most advanced weather satellite on Nov 4. It’s named GOES-R and was slated for blastoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station pad 41 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

The launch facilities will have to be thoroughly inspected before the launch can proceed.

The satellite is in the final stages of preparation at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility in Titusville, FL as I recently observed during an up close visit in the High Bay cleanroom.

The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite - R Series) being processed at Astrotech Space Operations, in Titusville, FL, in advance of the planned launch on a ULS Atlas V on Nov 4, 2016.  GOES-R will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) being processed at Astrotech Space Operations, in Titusville, FL, in advance of the planned launch on a ULA Atlas V on Nov 4, 2016. GOES-R will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The major Space Coast cities in Brevard county suffered much less damage then feared, although some 500,000 residents lost power.

Local government officials allowed most causeway bridges to the barrier islands to be reopened by Friday evening, several local colleagues told me.

Here’s some images of damage to the coastal piers, town and a destroyed house from the Melbourne Beach and Satellite Beach areas from my space colleague Julian Leek.

Home destroyed by fire in Satellite Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Home destroyed by fire in Satellite Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Home destroyed by fire in Satellite Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Home destroyed by fire in Satellite Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Local damage in South Melbourne Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Local damage in South Melbourne Beach. Credit: Julian Leek

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

Ken Kremer

Navaho missile on display at the CCAFS south gate suffered severe damage from Hurricane Matthew and crumpled to the ground.  Credit: 45th Space Wing
Navaho missile on display at the CCAFS south gate suffered severe damage from Hurricane Matthew and crumpled to the ground. Credit: 45th Space Wing
Local damage in South Melbourne Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Local damage in South Melbourne Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Local damage in South Melbourne Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Local damage in South Melbourne Beach. Credit: Julian Leek

Major Overhaul of VAB for NASA’s SLS Mars Rocket Reaches Halfway Point With Platform Installation

Looking up to the 5 pairs of newly installed massive work platforms inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building required to assemble NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking up to the 5 pairs of newly installed massive work platforms inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on July 28, 2016 during exclusive facility visit by Universe Today. The new platforms give technicians access to assemble NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A major overhaul of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) readying it for launches of NASA’s SLS Mars rocket by 2018 has reached the halfway point with installation of massive new access platforms required to enable assembly of the mammoth booster at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) – as seen firsthand during an exclusive up close facility tour by Universe Today.

“We are in the full development stage right now and roughly 50% complete with the platforms on this job,” David Sumner, GSDO Deputy Sr. project manager for VAB development work at KSC, told Universe Today in an exclusive interview inside the VAB’s High Bay 3 on July 28, amidst workers actively turning NASA’s deep space dreams into full blown reality. See our exclusive up close photos herein – detailing the huge ongoing effort.

Upgrading and renovating the VAB is specifically the responsibility of NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program (GSDO) at Kennedy.

Inside VAB High Bay 3 – where previous generations of space workers proudly assembled NASA’s Saturn V Moon rocket and the Space Shuttle Orbiter launch stacks – today’s crews of workers were actively installing the newly manufactured work platforms needed to process and build the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that will soon propel our astronauts back to exciting deep space destinations.

“We are very excited. We are at the beginning of a new program!” Sumner told me. “We have the infrastructure and are getting into operations soon.”

A heavy-lift crane lifts the first half of the F-level work platforms, F south, for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, into position for installation July 15, in High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Bill White
A heavy-lift crane lifts the first half of the F-level work platforms, F south, for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, into position for installation July 15, in High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Bill White

It’s certainly an exciting time as NASA pushes forward on all fronts in a coordinated nationwide effort to get the SLS rocket with the Orion EM-1 crew vehicle bolted on top ready and rolled out to Kennedy’s pad 39B for their planned maiden integrated blastoff by Fall 2018.

SLS and Orion are at the heart of NASA’s agency wide strategy to send astronauts on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s.

SLS is the most powerful booster the world has even seen and is designed to boost NASA astronauts in the agency’s Orion crew capsule on exciting missions of exploration to deep space destinations including the Moon, Asteroids and Mars – venturing further out than humans ever have before!

I walked into High Bay 3, scanned all around and up to the ceiling some 525 feet away and was thrilled to see a bustling construction site – the future of human voyages in deep space unfolding before my eyes. As I looked up to see the newly installed work platforms, I was surrounded by the constant hum of plenty of hammering, cutting, welding, hoisting, fastening, banging and clanging and workers moving equipment and gear around.

Welding work in progress by workers in the VAB transfer aisle for installation of huge work platforms inside High Bay 3 at KSC on July 28, 2016.  Credit: Julian Leek
Welding work in progress by workers in the VAB transfer aisle for installation of huge work platforms inside High Bay 3 at KSC on July 28, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

Altogether a total of 10 levels of work platform levels will be installed in High Bay 3 – labeled K to A, from bottom to top. Each level consists of two platform halves, denoted as the North and South side platforms.

Looking up to the 5 pairs of newly installed massive work platforms inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on July 28, 2016.  Heavy duty cranes are used to install the new platforms which will enable access to assemble NASA’s SLS rocket at KSC in Florida.  Credit: Julian Leek
Looking up to the 5 pairs of newly installed massive work platforms inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on July 28, 2016. Heavy duty cranes are used to install the new platforms which will enable access to assemble NASA’s SLS rocket at KSC in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

What’s the status today?

“We are looking up at 5 of 10 platform levels with 10 of 20 platform halves installed here. A total of ten levels are being installed,” Sumner explained.

“We are installing them from the bottom up. The bottom five levels are installed so far.”

“We are up to about the 190 foot level right now with Platform F installation. Then we are going up to about the 325 foot level with the 10th platform [Platform A].

“So there are 10 levels for EM-1.”

Up close view looking out to the edge of Platform F showing the outer mold line snaking around the SLS core stage and a solid rocket booster from the 190 foot level under construction inside the VAB High Bay 3 on July 28, 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view looking out to the edge of Platform F showing the outer mold line snaking around the SLS core stage and a solid rocket booster from the 190 foot level under construction inside the VAB High Bay 3 on July 28, 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

So much work was visible and actively in progress I definitely got the feeling from the ground up that NASA is now rapidly moving into the new post shuttle Era – dominated by the mammoth new SLS making its assembly debut inside these hallowed walls some 18 months or so from today.

“The work today is some outfitting on the platforms overhead here, as well as more work on the platform halves sitting in the transfer aisle and High Bay 4 to get them ready to lift and install into High Bay 3.”

“Overhead steel work is also ongoing here in High Bay 3 with additional steel work going vertical for reinforcement and mounting brackets for all the platforms going vertically.”

“So quite a few work locations are active with different crews and different groups.”

Two additional new platform halves are sitting in the VAB transfer aisle and are next in line for installation. With two more awaiting in VAB High Bay 4. Fabrication of additional platform halves is ongoing at KSC’s nearby Oak Hill facility.

“The rest are being fabricated in our Oak Hill facility. So we have almost everything on site so far.”

Two halves of Platform D sit in the VAB transfer aisle on July 28, 2016 awaiting installation into High Bay 3.   The new platforms give technicians access to assemble NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Two halves of Platform D sit in the VAB transfer aisle on July 28, 2016 awaiting installation into High Bay 3. The new platforms give technicians access to assemble NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Hensel Phelps is the general contractor for the VAB transformation. Subcontractors include S&R, Steel LLC, Sauer Inc., Jacobs and Beyel Bros Crane and Rigging.

The work platforms enable access to the SLS rocket at different levels up and down the over 300 foot tall rocket topped by the Orion crew capsule. They will fit around the outer mold line of SLS – including the twin solid rocket boosters, the core stage, and upper stage – and Orion.

The SLS core stage is being manufactured at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where I recently inspected the first completed liquid hydrogen tank test article – as reported here. Orion EM-1 is being manufactured here at Kennedy – as I reported here.

The first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine on July 22, 2016 after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine on July 22, 2016 after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The platforms will provide access for workers to assemble, process and test all the SLS and Orion components before rolling out to Launch Complex 39B atop the 380 foot tall Mobile Launcher – which is also undergoing a concurrent major renovation and overhaul.

As of today, five of the ten levels of platforms are in place.

Each of the giant platforms made of steel measures about 38 feet long and close to 62 feet wide. They weigh between 300,000 and 325,000 pounds.

The most recently installed F North and South platforms were put in place on the north and south walls of the high bay on July 15 and 19, respectively.

Here’s the view looking out to Platform F:

View looking out to both halves of Platform F and down to Platform G showing the outer mold line snaking around the SLS core stage and a solid rocket booster from the 190 foot level under construction inside the VAB High Bay 3 on July 28, 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View looking out to both halves of Platform F and down to Platform G showing the outer mold line snaking around the SLS core stage and a solid rocket booster from the 190 foot level under construction inside the VAB High Bay 3 on July 28, 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

How are the platforms installed ?

The platforms are carefully lifted into place by workers during a process that lasts about four hours.

“The 325 and 250 ton overhead facility cranes are used to [slowly] lift and move the platform halves back and forth between the VAB transfer aisle and High Bay 4 and into the SLS High Bay 3.”

Then they are attached to rail beams on the north and south walls of the high bay.

Construction workers from Beyel Bros Crane and Rigging also use a Grove 40 ton all terrain crane. It is also outfitted with man baskets to get to the places that cannot be reached by scaffolding in High Bay 3.

Installation of the remaining five levels of platforms should be completed by mid-2017.

“The job will be done by the middle of 2017. All the construction work will be done,” Sumner explained.

“Then we will get into our verification and validations with the Mobile Launcher (ML). Then the ML will roll in here around middle to late 2017 [for checkouts and testing] and then roll out to the pad [for more testing]. After that it will roll back in here. Then we will be ready to stack the SLS starting after that!”

Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.   The ML will support NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The platforms will be tested beginning later this year, starting with the lowest platforms at the K-level, and working all the way up to the top, the A-level.

The platforms are attached to a system of rail beams that “provide structural support and contain the drive mechanisms to retract and extend the platforms,” according to a NASA fact sheet.

“Each platform will reside on four Hillman roller systems on each side – much like a kitchen drawer slides in and out. A mechanical articulated tray also moves in and out with each platform.”

The F-level platforms are located about 192 feet above the VAB floor.

“They will provide access to the SLS core stage (CS) intertank for umbilical mate operations. The “F-1” multi-level ground support equipment access platform will be used to access the booster forward assemblies and the CS to booster forward attach points. The upper level of F-1 will be used to remove the lifting sling used to support forward assembly mate for booster stacking operations.”

“Using the five platforms that are now installed, workers will have access to all of the Space Launch System rocket’s booster field joints and forward skirts, the core stage intertank umbilical and interface plates,” says Mike Bolger, GSDO program manager at Kennedy.

Looking190 feet down from Platform F to the VAB floor along all five newly installed access platforms in High Bay 3. Construction worker on Platform G below is working near the outer mold line for the SLS rocket that will fill this space by early 2018 at KSC in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking 190 feet down from Platform F to the VAB floor along all five newly installed access platforms in High Bay 3. Construction worker on Platform G below is working near the outer mold line for the SLS rocket that will fill this space by early 2018 at KSC in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

‘NASA is transforming KSC into a launch complex for the 21st Century,’ as KSC Center Director and former shuttle commander Bob Cabana often explains.

So it was out with the old and in with the new to carry out that daunting task.

“We took the old shuttle platforms out, went down to the [building] structure over the past few years and are now putting up the new SLS platforms,” Sumner elaborated.

“All the demolition work was done a few years ago. So we are in the full development stage right now and roughly 50% complete with the platforms on this job.”

And after NASA launches EM-1, significantly more VAB work lies ahead to prepare for the first manned Orion launch on the EM-2 mission set for as soon as 2021 – because it will feature an upgraded and taller version of the SLS rocket – including a new upper stage.

“For EM-2, the plan right now is we will add two more levels and relocate three more. So we will do some adjustments and new installations in the upper levels for EM-2.”

“It’s been an honor to be here and work here in the VAB every day – and prepare for the next 50 years of its life.”

“We are at the beginning of a new program. We have the infrastructure and are getting into operations soon,” Sumner said. “We have hopefully got a long way to go on the future of space exploration, with many decades of exploration ahead.”

“We are on a ‘Journey to Mars’ and elsewhere. So this is the beginning of all that. It’s very exciting!”

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

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

Ken Kremer

Looking down from newly installed VAB High Bay 3 Platform F to Platform G on July 28, 2016.  New platforms enable access to assemble NASA’s SLS rocket at KSC in Florida.  Credit: Julian Leek
Looking down from newly installed VAB High Bay 3 Platform F to Platform G on July 28, 2016. New platforms enable access to assemble NASA’s SLS rocket at KSC in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek
Two halves of Platform D sit in the VAB transfer aisle on July 28, 2016 awaiting installation into High Bay 3.   The new platforms give technicians access to assemble NASA’s SLS rocket at KSC in Florida.  Credit: Julian Leek
Two halves of Platform D sit in the VAB transfer aisle on July 28, 2016 awaiting installation into High Bay 3. The new platforms give technicians access to assemble NASA’s SLS rocket at KSC in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek
Looking up to the 5 pairs of newly installed massive work platforms inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on July 28, 2016 during exclusive facility visit by Universe Today.  The new platforms are required to give technicians access to assemble NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking up to the 5 pairs of newly installed massive work platforms inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on July 28, 2016 during exclusive facility visit by Universe Today. The new platforms are required to give technicians access to assemble NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
US Flag hangs proudly inside the VAB - America’s Premier Spaceport to Deep Space.  Credit: Lane Hermann
US Flag hangs proudly inside the VAB – America’s Premier Spaceport to Deep Space. Credit: Lane Hermann
View of the VAB and Mobile Launcher from the KSC Launch Complex 39 Press Site.   NASA is upgrading the VAB with new platforms to assemble and launch  NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of the VAB and Mobile Launcher from the KSC Launch Complex 39 Press Site. NASA is upgrading the VAB with new platforms to assemble and launch NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Floor level view of the Mobile Launcher and enlarged exhaust hole with 380 foot-tall launch tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.   The ML will support NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft  for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Floor level view of the Mobile Launcher and enlarged exhaust hole with 380 foot-tall launch tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Gaping Inside The Huge Vehicle Assembly Building NASA Used For Space Shuttles And Moon Missions

ORLANDO, FLORIDA – There’s something about this city that brings out the crazy travel planner in me. I visited here four times betting a shuttle would launch, luckily winning on three occasions. I also once took an epic bus trip from here as far south as Fort Lauderdale before zooming back north, looking at space exhibits up and down the coast.

This time, it was to catch the Vehicle Assembly Building tour before it was gone. Tours inside the iconic, huge structure — best known as the spot where the Apollo rockets and space shuttle went through final assembly before going to the pad — are closing down on Sunday (Feb. 23). Warned by Ken Kremer and others that soon the public couldn’t get inside, I booked a ticket late last month after the announcement was made.

I came in search of the past, but what I saw instead was the future — an agency preparing to hand over a launch pad  to SpaceX, and at least part of an Orion spacecraft on the VAB floor, ready to be shipped to Langley, Virginia.

The floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a tour in February 2014. At left is an Orion spacecraft prototype readied for shipping to Langley, Virginia. Credit: Elizabeth Howell
The floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a tour in February 2014. At left is an Orion spacecraft prototype readied for shipping to Langley, Virginia. Credit: Elizabeth Howell
Atlantis suspended in the Vehicle Assembly Building during the shuttle era. Image credit: NASA
Atlantis suspended in the Vehicle Assembly Building during the shuttle era. Image credit: NASA

It’s hard to convey the size of one of the world’s largest buildings. It’s so big that it can form its own weather inside, without proper air conditioning. It stands almost twice as high as the Statue of Liberty, at 160 meters (525 feet) tall and 158 meters (518 feet) wide.

The 3.25-hectare (8-acre) building needed to be so huge to hold the 363-foot (111-meter) Apollo/Saturn vehicles in the 1960s and 1970s, and then was modified for use of the shuttle in the 1970s until just a few years ago.

What surprised me, however, was how narrow the main floor appeared. That’s because there are all of these catwalks on either side of the space for workers to get access to different parts of the spacecraft.

A view of scaffolding inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo taken in February 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell
A view of scaffolding inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo taken in February 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

Tours of this building were off-limits between 1978 and 2011, when the shuttle program was launching its vehicles in earnest. After the program retired, however, NASA opened the VAB and nearby facilities (including the Launch Control Center and Launch Pad 39A) up to visitors. As these areas are now being used by contractors and the Orion/Space Launch System, however, the agency is closing down public access so the work of getting to space can continue.

As NASA prepares for a test of Orion later in 2014, the agency is also looking to lease out parts of the big building to commercial vendors. It appears negotiations for at least some of the high bays are ongoing.

Meanwhile, we were lucky enough to glimpse at least part of an Orion spacecraft prototype ready for shipping to Langley, Virginia, with about a dozen people busily milling around it as it lay on the back of a tractor trailer. It’s unclear to me how much of the spacecraft was inside that package, but our tour guide told us it was the whole thing. Yes, the truck looked really tiny in the big building.

An Orion prototype spacecraft in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ready to be shipped to Langley, Virginia. Credit: Elizabeth Howell
An Orion prototype spacecraft in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ready to be shipped to Langley, Virginia. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

Our group also had the chance to visit Launch Pad 39A, one of the two pads used in the Apollo program and also for shuttle. It was eerie to see the pad still in its shuttle configuration, complete with the clamshell-like structure that used to protect the vehicle from the weather until just prior to launch.

All that is going to be torn down for scrap shortly as SpaceX likely takes over the pad, our guide told us, and it’s unclear how long pad tours will continue. Likely those will be gone soon as well. Meanwhile, I took special delight standing in the “flame trench” where noxious chemicals from the launch used to flow. You certainly didn’t want to be close to this spot when a Saturn V or shuttle stack took off.

By the way, the first thing I thought of when I saw the huge pipes on the side of the picture below is the 1996 movie Apollo 13, which has a dramatic launch sequence that includes a neat pan across the coolant tubing. That’s about the time when I decided I wanted to see the VAB and launch pads, so it only took me 18 years to get out here.

Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, one of two locations where the shuttle went into space. Photo taken in February 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell
Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, one of two locations where the shuttle went into space. Photo taken in February 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

Although these tours are likely changing or closing, these steps are to get the complex ready for manned launches again, if the current plan and funding holds as NASA hopes.

In the meantime, there are other things to see at the center. The picture at the top of this article shows the Vehicle Assembly Building just before the launch of STS-129, my first experience seeing a shuttle rocket into space.

That shuttle happened to be Atlantis, which today is handily displayed nearby in the KSC Visitor Complex. Weird, I thought, as I looked at the immense vehicle’s bulk. The last time I saw you in November 2009, you were on your way to orbit and making a lot of noise.

I wonder how much things will change at KSC in the next four years.

The Atlantis space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in February 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell
The Atlantis space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in February 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

Orion takes shape for 2014 Test Flight

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA is picking up the pace of assembly operations for the Orion capsule, America’s next crew vehicle destined to carry US astronauts to Asteroids, the Moon, Mars and Beyond.

Just over a year from now in September 2014, NASA will launch Orion on its first test flight, an unpiloted mission dubbed EFT-1.

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, expert work crews are already hard at work building a myriad of Orion’s key components, insuring the spacecraft takes shape for an on time liftoff.

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.  Powerful quartet of LAS abort motors will fire in case of launch emergency to save astronauts lives.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Powerful quartet of LAS abort motors will fire in case of launch emergency to save astronauts lives. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Universe Today is reporting on NASA’s progress and I took an exclusive behind the scenes tour inside KSC facilities to check on Orion’s progress.

In 2014 Orion will blast off to Earth orbit atop a mammoth Delta IV Heavy booster, the most powerful booster in America’s rocket fleet following the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters in 2011.

On later flights Orion will blast off on the gargantuan Space Launch System (SLS), the world’s most powerful rocket which is simultaneously under development by NASA.

At the very top of the Orion launch stack sits the Launch Abort System (LAS) – a critically important component to ensure crew safety, bolted above the crew module.

In case of an emergency situation, the LAS is designed to ignite within milliseconds to rapidly propel the astronauts inside the crew module away from the rocket and save the astronauts lives.

The LAS is one of the five primary components of the flight test vehicle for the EFT-1 mission.

Astronaut hatch swung open on Orion capsule mock up joined to base of Launch Abort System (LAS) emergency escape tower.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Astronaut hatch swung open on Orion capsule mock up joined to base of Launch Abort System (LAS) emergency escape tower. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Prior to any launch from the Kennedy Space Center, all the rocket components are painstakingly attached piece by piece.

Final assembly for EFT-1 takes place inside the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

To get a head start on assembly with the launch date relentlessly approaching, technicians have been practicing lifting and stacking techniques for several months inside the VAB transfer aisle using the 6 ton LAS pathfinder replica and mock ups of the Orion crew and service modules.

This 175 ton hook and crane system used to maneuver the Orion crew capsule, Service Module and Launch Abort System (LAS) components inside the Vehicle Assembly Building the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This 175 ton hook and crane system used to maneuver the Orion crew capsule, Service Module and Launch Abort System (LAS) components inside the Vehicle Assembly Building the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Conducting the practice sessions now with high fidelity replicas serves multiple purposes, including anticipating and solving problems now before the real equipment arrives, as well as to keep the teams proficient between the years long launch gap between the finale of the Space Shuttle program and the start up of the Orion/SLS deep space exploration program.

Delicate maneuvers like lifting, rolling, rotating, stacking, gimballing and more of heavy components requiring precision placements is very demanding and takes extensive practice to master.

There is no margin for error. Human lives hang in the balance.

Technicians at work practicing de-stacking operations with full size mockups of the Orion capsule and Launch Abort System components inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: /Jim Grossmann
Technicians at work practicing de-stacking operations with full size mockups of the Orion capsule and Launch Abort System components inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

The same dedicated crews that assembled NASA’s Space Shuttles inside the VAB for 3 decades are assembling Orion. And they are using the same equipment.

“The breakover, taking the LAS from horizontal to vertical, is not as easy as it sometimes seems, but the VAB guys are exceptional, they are really good at what they do so they really didn’t have a problem,” says Douglas Lenhardt, who is overseeing the Orion mock-up and operations planning for the Ground Systems Development and Operations program, or GSDO.

Simulations with computer models are extremely helpful, but real life situations can be another matter.

“Real-life, things don’t always work perfectly and that’s why it really does help having a physical model,” says Lenhardt.

One day our astronauts will climb through an Orion hatch like this for America’s ‘Return to the Moon’ - following in the eternal footsteps of Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
One day our astronauts will climb through an Orion hatch like this for America’s ‘Return to the Moon’ – following in the eternal footsteps of Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

During the unmanned Orion EFT-1 mission, the capsule will fly on a two orbit test flight to an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface, farther than any human spacecraft has gone in 40 years.

Ken Kremer

Orion soars skyward in 2014 for the first time. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion soars skyward in 2014 for the first time.
Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA Terminates Power, Locks Cargo Doors on Retiring Shuttle Discovery

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Space Shuttle Discovery was powered down forever and the payload bay doors were locked tight for the final time on Friday, Dec. 16, by technicians at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

Take a good last glimpse inside the retiring Discovery’s payload bay as the clamshell like doors seal off all indigenous US human spaceflight capability for several years at a minimum.

The historic “Power Down” came after both of the 60 foot long cargo bay doors were swung shut this morning for the last time inside the shuttle hanger known as Orbiter Processing Facility-1 (OPF-1) – in the shadow of the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

Workers at KSC are in the final stages of the transition and retirement activities that will soon lead to Discovery departing her Florida launch pad forever on her final voyage. They are converting the orbiter from active duty flight status to display as a nonfunctional and stationary museum piece.

Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana, a former space shuttle commander, formally marked the final power down and sealing of Discovery’s payload bay doors at a ceremony in OPF-1 with the skeleton force of remaining shuttle personnel engaged in the decommissioning efforts.

Discovery’s payload bay is glimpsed for the final time as its doors swing shut with the aid of yellow-painted strongbacks, hardware used to support and operate the doors when the shuttle is not in space. Discovery's doors were closed and the vehicle was powered down for the final time. Discovery is being prepared for public display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., in 2012. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Discovery was the Fleet leader and NASA’s oldest orbiter having flown the most missions. All told Discovery soared 39 times to space from her maiden flight in 1984 to her last touchdown on the STS-133 mission in March 2011.

In between, Discovery deployed the iconic Hubble Space Telescope, launched the Ulysses solar probe and numerous other science satellites and Department of Defense surveillance platforms, conducted the first shuttle rendezvous with Russia’s Mir Space Station and delivered key components to the International Space Station including the last habitable module.

Discovery payload bay and doors sealed for History inside Orbiter Processing Facility-1 at KSC. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Discovery flew both ‘return to flight’ missions following the Challenger and Columbia tragedies as well as the second flight of Astronaut and Senator John Glenn, first American to orbit the Earth.

Discovery has been thoroughly cleansed and cleared of all hazardous materials in preparation for making the vehicle safe for public display at her new and final resting place, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va..

Technicians re-installed the three power generating fuel cells after draining and purging all the toxic materials and fuels from the fuel lines and assemblies. Three replica space shuttle main engines were also installed last week.

The "vehicle powered" sign is momentarily lit as KSC technicians prepare to power down space shuttle Discovery for the last time. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
The "vehicle powered" sign is turned off following the final power down of space shuttle Discovery. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

In 2012, the 100 ton orbiter will be hoisted piggyback atop NASA’s specially modified 747 carrier aircraft. Discovery will take flight for the last time in April and become the center piece at her new home inside the Smithsonian’s spaceflight exhibition in Virginia.

To make way for Discovery, the prototype shuttle Enterprise currently housed at the Smithsonian will be hauled out and flown to New York City for display at the Intrepid, Sea, Air and Space Museum.

Altogether, Discovery spent 365 days in space during the 39 missions, orbited Earth 5,830 times and traveled 148,221,675 miles during a career spanning 27 years.

There is nothing on the horizon comparable to NASA’s Space Shuttles. Their capabilities will be unmatched for several decades to come.

America is now totally dependent on the Russians for launching US astronauts to space until privately built ‘space taxis’ from firms like SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada are ready in perhaps 4 to 6 years.

Liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-133 mission from the Kennedy Space Center on 39th and historic final flight to space. Credit: Ken Kremer
Space Shuttle Discovery rolling to the Vehicle Assembly Building during summer 2011 as it's being processed for retirement before transport to permanent home at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Virginia. Thrusters, OMS pods and main engines were removed for cleaning of toxic components and fuels. Credit: Ken Kremer

Shuttle Duo Nose-to-Nose Rendezvous highlights Retirement Duty

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To see one shorn shuttle is bad enough. Seeing two NASA space shuttles edged together and voluntarily gutted of their spaceflight capability for lack of Federal Government funding in the prime of their lives is beyond sad.

Two of NASA’s trio of space shuttle orbiters – Discovery & Endeavour – switched locations at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on August 11, moving them further down the path to eternal retirement and public exhibit at their future homes in museums. That’s far afield from their intended purpose to soar as spaceships of exploration to the High Frontier.

Space Shuttles Discovery and Endeavour swap locations ahead of nose-to nose rendezvous at KSC on Aug. 11. Discovery is pulled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, left) as Endeavour is towed out of Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1, right). The two NASA shuttles switched places to continue the transition to retirement. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Discovery and Endeavour briefly met in a matchless nose-to-nose configuration for a roadside photo opportunity between the humongous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the processing hanger – dubbed the Orbiter Processing Facility – where the orbiters are prepared for flight.

Space Shuttle’s Discovery and Endeavour swapped places at KSC so that technicians could resume preparations towards the transition and retirement of shuttle Discovery – the first of NASA’s orbiters to be officially withdrawn from active duty spaceflight service.

First, Discovery was backed out of temporary storage from a high bay inside the VAB. Then Endeavour was towed out of Orbiter Processing Facility-1. Technicians then maneuvered the orbiters to a rendezvous point in between on the ground. Just imagine how grand this vista would have appeared in space.

Discovery and Endeavour approach roadside rendezvous point at KSC on Aug. 11. Discovery departs the VAB (left) as Endeavour departs OPF-1 (right) on the road to permanent retirement. Credit: Ken Kremer

At last Discovery and Endeavour met for the truly sad nosy encounter of gaping holes where the forward reaction control thrusters once fired to meticulously maneuver the shuttles in orbit. Protective plastic sheeting meant to shield the empty thruster bay from FOD – or Foreign Object Debris – was in tatters and whipping wildly in the wind almost from the moment Discovery emerged from the VAB.

The rear ends of both orbiters looked like the main engines had been sawed off. Both orbiters have been stripped of their trio of mighty space shuttle main engines (SSME’s) and duo of bulbous Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS’s) pods for months of decommissioning work.

Discovery was then pulled into the Orbiter Processing Facility-1 (OPF-1) where the next step is to extract even more of her guts, namely the Auxiliary Power Units (APU’s) and associated systems for “safing” over the coming months. In April 2012, Discovery is scheduled to depart KSC forever and be flown off for permanent public display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

Discovery and Endeavour at roadside rendezvous at KSC. Credit: Mike Deep

Endeavour was towed into the VAB for storage until October, when she will be moved into OPF-2 for further work to ready her for public display at the California Science Center in Los Angles sometime next summer.

Atlantis is next on the chopping block. And America retains zero indigenous capability for human spaceflight.

The situation likely won’t change for at least several years until one of the commercial providers launches a human rated “space taxi” to low earth orbit.

Read my continuing features here about Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis

Shuttle workers with shuttle tribute banners. Credit: Mike Deep
Perpendicular shorn shuttles at KSC. Credit: Mike Deep

How Does the Shuttle Orbiter Get Attached to the External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters?

Ever wondered how the space shuttle orbiter gets attached to the big external tank and the solid rocket boosters? This video shows the process — called “Lift and Mate” — where the shuttle Endeavour was put into a special harness, lifted high above the stacked ET and SRBs inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, and lowered into place. The orbiter is then bolted to the ET and SRBs. Endeavour’s Lift and Mate for its final flight took place on March 1, 2011. You can also see extremely high resolution, pan and zoom images of Endeavour lifted high in the VAB at the NASATech website. (High bandwidth warning! — but definitely worth it.) See the NASATech main page for the full variety of images.

Endeavour is scheduled to rollout to Launch Pad 39A next week for STS-134, with launch set for April 19. Even though this could be the final flight of the shuttle program (STS-135 is still not a certainty) many people are looking forward to this flight, as it will bring the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the ISS. AMS is a particle physics detector designed to search for various types of unusual matter by measuring cosmic rays.