The final of 10 giant steel work platforms to support launch preparations of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew capsule is now installed in Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) iconic 525-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), marking a significant milestone in the ongoing evolution of NASA’s spaceport and the historic facility previously used to process all 135 space shuttle launches and the Saturn-V rockets which sent men to the Moon during the Apollo program.
All space shuttle work platforms in High Bay 3 were removed to make way for a new SLS platform system in 2013, and work in High Bay 3 has been underway ever since to receive the 20 platform halves which make up all 10 SLS platforms. The platforms are critical in giving engineers access to the 322-foot-tall rocket and spacecraft prior to being rolled out to Launch Complex 39B a few miles away, where crews will launch on missions to the Moon and beyond over the coming years.
The giant steel platforms each measure 38 feet long and 62 feet wide, and are attached to rail beams that provide structural support and contain the drive mechanisms to move them in and out or up and down as needed. With an overhead crane capable of lifting up to 325 tons, the platforms were lifted and inserted through an opening in the divider between the bays approximately 19 stories up, moved across the transfer aisle, and then installed into High Bay 3.
The same crane will be used to lift and precisely stack the heavy segments of the SLS rocket and Orion into place atop the mobile launch platform (MLP), which is currently parked outside of the VAB undergoing modifications to support the giant vehicle.
The first work platform, the K-level work platform, was received in the VAB on Dec. 23, 2015, and is approximately 86 feet (nine stories) above the VAB floor. It will allow access to the SLS core stage and segmented solid rocket boosters during processing and stacking operations on the MLP.
The final work platform, A north, was lifted, installed, and secured on its rail beam on the north wall of High Bay 3 on Jan. 12, at 346 feet (approximately 35 stories) above the VAB floor. The A platforms will provide access to the Orion spacecraft’s Launch Abort System for Orion lifting sling removal and installation of the closeout panels.
Once stacked for flight the SLS and Orion will stand taller than the Statue of Liberty, and along with the MLP will weigh in at 14 million pounds.
NASA’s Crawler Transporter 2 (CT-2) will take over once the SLS and Orion are ready in the VAB, handling transport of the skyscraper-size rocket from the VAB to its beachside launch pad; same as it did with space shuttle stacks & Saturn V moon rockets over the course of 50 years.
CT-2 required major modifications after the space shuttle was retired to meet SLS demands, which require it haul an unprecedented 18 million pounds and last for at least another 20 years.
KSC’s Engineering Directorate coordinated a “platform beam signing event” to celebrate the culmination of the NASA and contractor team’s last several years of study, design, construction, and finally installation of the SLS platforms.
“This is a very exciting time for NASA and Kennedy Space Center as we prepare the VAB for the SLS rocket,” said Edsel Sanchez, PE, the Ground Systems Development and Operations Program VAB Site Project manager. “It’s an honor to make history and be part of the team that is working hard to bring NASA’s vision to fruition.”
Meanwhile, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., major construction was recently completed on a 221-foot-tall SLS test stand which will simulate the powerful dynamics of launch and flight by pushing, pulling, and bending a 149-foot-long SLS liquid hydrogen qualification test article, same as an actual flight article will experience on launch day.
A smaller test stand is being prepared nearby as well, to test the SLS’s 70-foot-tall (21.3-meter) liquid oxygen tank test article.
A full duration test fire is eventually planned for the SLS core stage at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where the stage and all four of its powerful RS-25 engines will be held down and test fired just like at launch, before being shipped to KSC for stacking and processing in the VAB for the first real flight in late 2018 (at the earliest).
No crew will fly that first mission, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1). Instead it will serve as a shakedown flight to the Moon and back to prove it all works as designed, before NASA will put crews of up to four onboard starting in 2021 (at the earliest).
When launched, the SLS (in its initial “block 1” configuration) will produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, equivalent to more than 160,000 Corvette engines; 15 percent more thrust at launch than the Saturn V rockets that sent men to the Moon.
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