Historic Structures at Kennedy Space Center Face Uncertain Future

AmericaSpace image of space shuttle at LC 39A with Mobile Launcher Transporter photo credit Jason Rhian.JPG

The Mobile Launcher Platforms, one of which supports the space shuttle in this image, have had a Request for Information opened on them. NASA is attempting to gauge interest in these three historic structures. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — Three historic pieces of space flight hardware are being opened for possible commercial uses. The Mobile Launcher Platforms, which were used during both the Apollo and Space Shuttle eras, also might be destroyed.

NASA has issued a Request for Information (RFI) to see if private entities have interest in the three massive structures. Although space-related groups would be preferred, the agency has stated that ideas from organizations with no ties to space will also be considered.

AmericaSpace reached out to NASA’s George Diller to find out more about what NASA was trying to achieve in terms of the platforms, and, according to Diller, at present, the space agency is working to gauge the interest level in these historic structures.

“At present we’re trying to see what expressions of interest we get. NASA currently has no need for these vehicles in its current efforts. We’d prefer that a commercial provider would acquire them and continue to put them to good use.”

When the historic implications of these items were raised, he was asked whether or not museums or other related organizations would be allowed to gain the platforms and, if so, how that would work.

“If that were to happen, the organization would have to pay for it and transport it.”

Each platform is about 25 feet high and weighs in at a hefty eight million pounds. This makes their transportation potentially problematic. Besides their sheer size, these structures are also complex, containing corridors, compartments, wiring, and plumbing.

AmericaSpace image launch STS 135 space shuttle Atlantis Kennedy Space Center photo credit Jason Rhian AmericaSpace.jpg

Both the massive Saturn V and NASA’s fleet of shuttle orbiters relied on the MLPs to be transported to LC-39A – where they would conduct the launches that propelled the vehicles and crew into history. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

Since the end of the shuttle era, NASA has tried to partner with private firms to cede control of a variety of facilities at Kennedy Space Center, with mixed results. The agency’s efforts to lease the shuttle’s Orbiter Processing Facility 3, initially announced under much fanfare, has stalled. Boeing has yet to finalize the deal, and Space Florida has restructured the facility to support a variety of possible commercial providers. Over at the Shuttle Landing Facility, another arrangement through Space Florida has seen the shuttle’s runway used for intermittent private aviation efforts, and even NASCAR teams have used it. NASA has also been working to lease Launch Complex 39A, where men first set forth to the Moon, to commercial users as well.

It is possible that, if no firm steps up or their proposal is approved, that these structures could meet the fate of so many historic elements of the shuttle era: they will be demolished and sold for scrap. For its part, NASA has stressed that the move to relinquish control of the Mobile Launcher Platforms is in its infancy.

“That is all part of the concepts of operation in the RFI, the responders will need to provide details as a part of their plans. Nothing has been determined at this point, this is to gauge interest from the public at large,” said Tracy Young with NASA public affairs.

The history of these structures – simply cannot be understated.

The MLPs have long held fascination among space enthusiasts and non-space enthusiasts alike, carrying as they do the central tenets of vast size and enormous weight which attract awe. Since the Apollo era in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when they supported Saturn rockets, to the 30-year career of the shuttle fleet, the MLPs have provided a base for crewed space vehicles to travel the three miles from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to either Pad 39A or 39B.

The numbers involved are stunning in their scale and scope. As mentioned above, each MLP stands about two stories tall and weighs an estimated 8.2 million pounds unloaded (11 million pounds with a shuttle stack). Within the body of this enormous,  metallic hulk, a trio of openings provided for the exhaust of the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) and the orbiter’s cluster of three main engines.

Apollo11 Reunion Satrun IB Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex Apollo Alan Walters AmericaSpace

Without the MLPs, not only would the shuttles have not been able to enter orbit for 30 years, but the Saturn family of rockets would similarly have been unable to start their historic missions. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

Mounted to either side of the main engine exhaust hole are 31-foot-tall Tail Service Masts, which during the shuttle era provided cryogenic oxygen and hydrogen umbilical connections – as well as electrical power, helium and nitrogen pressurization and communications – to the vehicle’s aft compartment. At launch, these umbilicals pulled away from the orbiter and retracted back inside the Masts, where protective hoods rotated closed to shield them from the inferno of liftoff. Eight massive attachment posts, four on each SRB aft “skirt”, supported the Shuttle atop the MLP. Critically, at liftoff explosive nuts were fired to release giant studs and separate the 4.5 million pounds of orbiter, External Tank, SRBs and around half a dozen humans from the shackles of Earth and set them on the road to low-Earth-orbit.

The MLPs were transferred to the launch pad by means of the diesel-powered “crawler”, whose own dimensions are no less mind-boggling: 131 feet long, 114 feet wide, 20 feet high and weighing in excess of six million pounds. Originally, of course, the MLPs were destined for the Saturn V – the largest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status – which successfully delivered 24 men to the Moon, and a dozen to its surface, between December 1968 and December 1972. In its earliest incarnation, the MLP had just a single exhaust vent, together with a 400-foot-tall Launch Umbilical Tower (LUT) for pre-flight servicing of the mighty Saturn.

In the aftermath of the lunar landing program, one MLP was modified to allow the smaller Saturn IB booster to utilize Pad 39B in support of Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The Saturn IB stood 141 feet shorter than its big brother and thus needed a pedestal – dubbed the “milkstool” – to elevate it to match the levels of crew, equipment and propellant servicing arms of the LUT.

 

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