The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is responsible for a number of structures on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. One of the more fascinating – is the Vertical Integration Facility or VIF. It is here that the Atlas V expendable launch vehicle 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 scheduled to launch the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover ‘Curiosity.’
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.
“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).
“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.
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.
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).
While the Horizontal Integration Facility or HIF might sound similar to the Vertical Integration Facility or VIF – the buildings requirements and lay out could not be more different. Unlike the VIF, where the Atlas launch vehicle is lifted into the vertical position for launch, the launch vehicles remain on their sides in this structure.
Upon first entering the HIF, one sees what appears, upon first glance, to be a mundane warehouse type of structure. Those similarities cease when one enters the bays that contain the Delta IV rocket. The one resting within the facility now is destined to launch the Wideband Global SATCOM or WGS satellite, currently on track to lift off from Launch Complex-37 early next year.
In preparation for launch a rocket’s first and second stages are brought into the HIF along with any solid rocket boosters that will be needed for that mission. These components are then assembled and the fully-assembled launch vehicle is then ready for the move out to the launch pad.
“The HIF can actually hold three Delta IV’s at any one given time,” said Mike Woolley of United Launch Alliance. “Once the Delta IV leaves the HIF, it takes us about a half-hour to get it to Launch Complex 37. Once we get there we then lift the Delta IV from the horizontal in to the vertical position.”
Whereas the VIF’s many decks, shrouds and layers obstruct one’s view of the rocket – nothing is left to the imagination at the HIF. The Delta IV sits out in the open. Visitors are able to walk completely around the massive rocket.
The HIF is seven-stories tall, white and is comprised of two bays that measure about 250 square feet by 100 feet each. To ensure that the launch vehicles that are brought into the building are kept level – the floors of the HIF, at most, differentiate only about 3/8 inch. This makes the HIF’s floors the most-level in the U.S.
In both the VIF and the HIF, the one thing that was apparent was that these are places where work is occurring. At both sites, United Launch Alliance workers were actively working to ensure that the Atlas V at the Vertical Integration Facility and the Delta IV at the Horizontal Integration Facility were ready to lift their individual payloads to orbit.
The WGS is tentatively scheduled to launch early next year (no firm launch date has been announced). WGS 4, 5 and 6 are under construction by the Boeing Company, they will be deployed over the course of the coming years. Like WGS 3 was also launched atop a Delta IV. These satellites are the Block II version of the WGS.
What some people might not be aware of is that Kennedy Space Center is located on the Merritt Island Wildlife Preserve – and run-ins with local residents are not only possible – they are the norm.