Thursday, June 18, 2009

KSC Tour

It’s hard to get a sense of scale for the Vehicle Assembly Building because it’s this 500-foot-tall structure in the middle of the Florida swamp land. It’s imposing, though. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center bus tours like to tell tourists that you could play football on the American flag painted on the side…it’s 209 X 110 feet. 6,000 gallons of paint. No foolin’.

This was my first view inside the VAB. There’s no other way to say it: this building is BIG! Nearly fifty floors, enclosed by tons of open-air steel. The entry I came through opened into the open-air passageway between the four “high bays,” where the Space Shuttle and Ares I-X hardware is stacked.

The Ares I-X “super segments” are in High Bay 4. Ground-floor access is restricted because the team is hard at work assembling the hardware and doesn’t have a lot of time for tours.
From five floors up, you can get a better feel for things, though it becomes a challenge taking decent photographs when you're unsteady with open-air heights (lesson learned, and not a pleasant one). Once the first stage motor is stacked, the next section of the rocket to be stacked is “super stack 1.” The segment all the way in the back with the upside-down cone on top will be placed atop the segment at center, behind the catwalk, which is the fifth segment simulator. After that, the segment closest to the camera—the interstage, which houses the Roll Control System—will be placed atop the frustum and carried over into High Bay 3, which is across the airway between the high bays.

The stacks will be lifted up to a “window” in the bay over 200 feet in the air, translated horizontally through this window for High Bay 3, and then lowered onto the first stage motor. The aft skirt and aft motor segment have been stacked and need to be placed upon the mobile launch platform, which is already in the bay, awaiting Ares I-X.

This segment will go atop “super segment one.” It has a plastic cover on top of it to provide climate control for the avionics hardware inside of it. The segment is lifted by itself because it also contains massive steel plates for ballast.

Steve Davis, Deputy Mission Manager, is the one pointing to the frustum.

After the ballast segment is moved over to High Bay 3, the next segment to be carried over will be the upper stage simulator, the stack of four “tuna cans” at center.

Two more segments complete the upper stage simulator (the two segments in back, with the American flag decal on the lower segment).

The last piece of the rocket to be stacked will be the crew module/service module/launch abort system simulator.

Although Ares I-X is only a test vehicle, the exterior includes simulated exterior hardware, like thrusters, which will be included in the final, operational Ares I. The more realistic the exterior, the more closely the rocket will fly like Ares I. Even something as small as a thruster can affect the air flow around the rocket and affect its flight through the atmosphere.

The segment parts are marked to make certain that the right parts are in the right place.

“Clocking” marks are also included to ensure that the segments are aligned at the correct position relative to one another. The curvatures of these 18-foot-diameter cylinders is correct within .05 inches.

This is the “birdcage” fixture used to lift the crew module/launch abort system simulator.

I just thought this was a helpful sign. Note the fine job of focusing at this point.

Space Shuttle hardware is being stacked in one of the other high bays. The Mobile Launch Platforms stand about five stories (~50 feet) tall. The Ares I-X first stage is about 174 feet tall, and the rest of the vehicle will stretch another 153 feet above that. The Ares I-X rocket is a big thing.

This is the view of the new platforms KSC has built to accommodate Ares I-X in High Bay 3.

This is one of the fire holes in the mobile launch platform. Normally, this would be the hole through which the Space Shuttle main engines would fire. It will not be used for Ares I-X.
So just imagine what a treat it is to have one of your least-favorite anxieties come into direct conflict with the job you love. That's what makes for a bad day, as well as for bit of a conflict in my work, which is a whole 'nother issue, but that's my problem, not yours.

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