AmericaSpace Exclusive: Space Launch System Could Benefit From Shuttle Assets

NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida has numerous technical and logistical assets in place that NASA is planning on using for the upcoming Space Launch System. Image Credit: (Left) ATK (Right) NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – For thirty years the space shuttle program benefitted from the facilities, personnel and capabilities located in and around NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Now, NASA is looking to utilize many of these elements in its new Space Launch System or SLS. 

A review of these assets and their current status show that many of them are being re-tasked for a wide variety of purposes including the new SLS program. SLS is still in the early stages of development. To make sure personnel and equipment are kept in place until the program can start – they are being tasked out to support NASA’s commercial efforts, aid in the retirement of the remaining shuttles and missions that have little to do with space flight. 

Just behind Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s (CCAFS) Hangar AF is where the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) recovery vessels Freedom and Liberty Star are berthed. These ships collected the SRBs out in the Atlantic Ocean after they were jettisoned from the sides of the space shuttle’s external tank.


Both of these ships are involved in support roles assisting the U.S. Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA’s NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) project. Liberty Star assisted the crew of NEEMO 15 in deploying the DeepWorker submarines.

“Besides projects like NEEMO and bringing the Pegasus barge, the barge that contained the shuttle’s External Tank (ET) back and forth, we’re also supporting NASA’s COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program,” said United Space Alliance’s Marine Operations Manager Joseph Chaput. “We have phased-array, flat-panel radars on each vessel that will be used during the development phase of each of these launches.” 

These radars are stored within Hangar AF alongside numerous SRB components leftover from the shuttle era. Inside the expansive structure the massive radar towers stand out against the backdrop of the huge white tubes and cones that once powered shuttle crews to orbit. 


“There is a large amount of data that can be gleaned from these radars so we’re positioned down range at various distances to provide support under, or almost under, the rocket when key events happen during separation of segments, the capsule when fairings come off – anywhere data needs to be collected to validate these rockets for eventual space station support.” Chaput said looking up at the twin radar towers. 

If an SRB-based system similar to the one employed on the shuttle program is selected these ships could also serve in the same capacity that they did during the shuttle era – SRB retrieval. The final determination as to what components will be utilized in the SLS heavy-lift rocket – has yet to be made.

 Freedom and Liberty Star are also assisting NASA in testing the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV). Given the wide range of roles that these vessels are engaged in, they will likely contribute to NASA’s human space flight program well into the foreseeable future.


With NASA’s announcement concerning the design of the Space Launch System (SLS) another of KSC’s assets went from an uncertain fate – to a potentially bright future. The Mobile Launcher or ML was to be used to launch rockets that were a part of the Constellation Program. With the cancellation of most of Constellation’s elements what would happen to the ML – was left up in the air. 

The final design of SLS is still undecided and the contractors that will construct those components are, as yet, unnamed. However, while the ML might require modifications – it will more than likely become a component of NASA’s future human space flight endeavors.

On Nov. 30 the massive tower and the crawler-transporter that carried it out to Launch Complex 39B – rolled back to the ML’s parking spot, located near the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Engineers at KSC have been moving the 355-foot-tall structure to conduct tests on its structural stability. 


The Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility is a non-descript structure located next to Orbiter Processing Facility 3 (OPF-3). Inside the building numerous engines that powered NASA’s fleet of orbiters into space sit either on their sides or with their nozzles pointing toward the ground. 

Many of these engines are destined for NASA’s Stennis Space Center located in Mississippi. Once there they will be stored for potential use as part of SLS. 

“There are fourteen post-shuttle engines in this facility,” said Rocketdyne’s Technician Lead Bob Petrie. “Right now all of these engines are being processed for storage to support the SLS program, where they will be used in the lower stage of the new heavy-lift vehicle.” 

NASA is planning on utilizing many of the resources that were used to launch the space shuttles. These are planned for use in future space exploration efforts as well as to aid the emerging commercial space sector. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/

Also within this building SSMEs are being modified and will eventually be refitted into the orbiters for when they go on display. These engines have been dubbed Replica Shuttle Main Engines or RSMEs. These engines have been painted black and will be reinstalled in the orbiters before they are shipped to their new homes in Washington D.C. (Discovery), Los Angeles (Endeavour) and at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (Atlantis). 

Given the economic status within the United States and abroad, NASA is looking at various ways to trim costs and utilize existing resources. The agency therefore is looking for ways to best utilize the resources that it has available to it. NASA has been tasked with not only bolstering the emerging commercial space sector – but to restart human deep space exploration efforts.

Many of the engines that are currently in the Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility are being prepared for shipping to NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/
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