Five years ago today, at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), President Obama laid out his vision for NASA and space exploration in the 21st century. Yesterday, for a few seconds at least, time seemed to stand still as I stood with a small invited team of NASASocial members on the banks of the newly opened ITL Causeway viewing area at KSC to watch the launch of the NASA SpaceX CRS-6 mission. Standing about two miles from launch pad 40, the moment I had been waiting three days for was marked by the launch control center announcer’s voice slowly counted down “3 … 2 … 1 … liftoff”. It is a magic moment that anyone who has ever seen a space launch will never forget.
Even with all the great 4K video footage of modern launchs, there is nothing like being there live. I watched the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with its Dragon spacecraft slowly lift off the pad towards the space station. Then less than 10 seconds later the sound waves hit. Over 1 million pounds of thrust at under two miles is not subtle, nor is it something any sound system in the world can replicate. You can literally feel the sound as it rolls up the causeway.
With all the excitement of a launch, it is sometimes easy to forget the purpose. Sure, as outlined in the NASA Press Kit the Dragon capsule was carrying water, food, and spare parts up to the astronauts in the international space station. But a big reason those astronauts are up there is to help conduct science experiments that can’t be done on earth. In conjunction with NASA, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) manages the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory. CRS-6 carried a number of CASIS academic and commercial science experiments including ones to study bone growth and specialized types of proteins made by immune cells.
Presidential visions and 20 year NASA plans can be inspiring during a speech, but how is KSC doing in executing on that plan five years into it. In the three days leading up to the launch, I had a chance to find out. After stopping to receive my NASASocial credentials at the NASA badging office just outside KSC Gate 3, I drove onto the sprawling KSC facility and turned left down a long road leading to the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the launch complex 39 press site. For several minutes as you drive down the road the VAB looms ever larger in front of you and it is hard to believe you are driving right up to it.
As impressive as the VAB is from the outside, the immense size of the 37 story building is best experienced from the inside. Standing on a sixteenth floor work area one can look out and see the sign marking the height of the shuttle when it was erected vertically and attached to the shuttle solid rocket boosters and immense fuel tank. Don’t drop any wrenches, cell phones, or sunglasses from here.
Of course even more amazing is to look up and see the sign at the top of the building marking where one of its original occupants, the Apollo program’s Saturn 5 rocket once stood. Then just a bit below that is a new sign labeled SLS. More on SLS later.
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA has joined with commercial partners SpaceX and Boeing for the Commercial Crew System which in about two years will start ferrying astronauts to the space station and back. The SpaceX system builds on the current Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule used for current unmanned commercial resupply missions while Boeing is developing a new vehicle dubbed CST-100 both of which will launch out of KSC. SpaceX is also joined by Orbital Sciences Corporation in space station commercial resupply missions, although Orbital is currently undergoing changes to their design after last year’s tragic crash.
Each NASA’s commercial crew program flight will be able to carry at least four crew members to the space station. This will allow the space station to be manned by a crew of 7 instead of the current 6 and nearly double the crew-hours available each week for experiments. While that math may sound funny, it is due to the many other non-scientific tasks the crew must undertake. Today, only about 40 hours a week of crew time are available for scientific experiments.
Last year, SpaceX signed a 20 year lease for KSC’s launch pad 39A, previously home to both shuttle and earlier Apollo launches. Touring the pad this week, the shell of the new SpaceX vehicle assembly hanger is nearing completion to the left of the pad. SpaceX will use this building to assemble both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets with their payloads. A new transporter-erector vehicle will then move the assembled rocket, still horizontal, to the launch tower and then erect the rocket to its vertical launch position.
With commercial partners now primed to take over transporting crew and supplies to low earth orbit and the space station, NASA is now freed to focus on greater challenges including deep space exploration and future manned missions to Mars. For that role, NASA is building a rocket even more powerful than the Saturn 5 from the Apollo program, SLS. SLS will launch from a new mobile launch platform under construction today outside of the VAB.
Inside the VAB, one of the giant 50 year old Saturn 5 and Shuttle transporters is being retrofitted to carry the heavier SLS vehicle which when mated to the mobile launch tower will weight more than ten million pounds.
The transporter will roll under the SLS mobile launch platform, carry it into the VAB for SLS rocket assembly, then move the entire platform out to launch pad 39B.
During this week’s trip to KSC I was honored to hear four time astronaut and KSC director Bob Cabana talk about the transformation KSC has undergone in the last five years. Standing out on the press viewing area by VAB it is hard to argue with the progress Bob, KSC, NASA, and their commercial partners have made in making KSC into a multi user spaceport. SpaceX is launching from Pad 40 and rebuilding Pad 39A under a 20 year lease. United Launch Alliance, another commercial partner, is launching out of two other pads for NASA and the Air Force. Boeing is getting ready to assemble the CST-100 at KSC. And NASA itself is well underway to returning the VAB to its earlier glory with the nation’s new SLS headed to Mars and beyond. Orchestrating such complicated projects, across commercial companies and federal agencies, to build and operate a diverse set of space vehicles, is no small task. But Bob and the rest of the NASA team, along with their commercial partners, are off to a good start.