CAPE CANAVERAL, FL — United Launch Alliance (ULA) is nearly set to upgrade their Atlas V pad to support human launches from the Florida Space Coast “starting in September” as part of an exhaustive integrated effort with Boeing to launch the firm’s CST-100 “space taxi“ and thereby restore U.S. ability to transport our astronauts to the space station under the auspices of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), according to exclusive new AmericaSpace interviews with top ULA and Boeing space managers at the pad.
ULA is literally gearing up to break ground on the modifications required to the existing pad at Space Launch Complex 41 needed to initiate launches of the human-rated version of their extremely reliable 20-story-tall Atlas V rocket, including construction of a huge new crew access tower.
“We [ULA] start work in September  with about a 30 day mobilization plan with the contractors office,” Howard Biegler, ULA’s Human Launch Services Lead, told AmericaSpace during an onsite interview atop the pad of their Atlas V Launch Complex 41 facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
“The foundation work is about a three month process for all the excavating and getting the foundation established.”
Of course, ULA has already expended an extensive effort in designing the required Atlas V pad and rocket modifications so they can hit the ground running when given the go-ahead. There is just no time to waste if we seriously want to get our astronauts back to space from U.S. soil as soon as possible.
“From start to finish its roughly about 18 months of work,” Biegler told me.
The CST-100 is Boeing’s entry into NASA’s high priority Commercial Crew effort aimed at fostering the development of a safe and reliable, next-generation crewed vehicle to replace the space shuttle after its forced retirement following the final mission in July 2011.
Since that day, American astronauts have been totally dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for rides to the International Space Station (ISS) and back, at a cost now exceeding $70 million per seat.
Three American aerospace firms—Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada—are all vying for NASA contracts to fly astronauts to the space station by late 2017, using seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) in a public/private partnership.
Sierra Nevada also plans to use the venerable Atlas V to launch their Dream Chaser mini-shuttle. Both Boeing and Sierra Nevada selected the two stage Atlas V as their crew launcher back in 2011. The SpaceX Dragon crew vehicle will fly atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from adjacent Pad 40 at the Cape.
NASA expects to announce the crew vehicle contract winners for the next round of funding known as Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) around the August/September timeframe.
I asked Biegler to describe the pad work and tower construction in detail and how long it will take to complete.
“It’s about a three month process for all the excavating. Then we have about twelve months of actual heavy construction,” Biegler told me.
“Our plan is we will have to excavate about 30 feet of concrete away from the area here [on top on the pad and beside the auto coupler bolt].”
“It’s very fortunate that we are repurposing the old Titan-Centaur pad. Because as a result of all their hard work we are able to take advantage of all their foundation work. So we will excavate a hole about 30 feet deep from where we are standing [atop the pad]. Then drive some pillars down into the bedrock. They are about 30 inches in diameter and will be driven about 105 feet down. Then we fill the area up with concrete. That will be the foundation that we will build on top of.”
Survey marks were painted on the pad about three months ago at the four corners where the tower will be structured.
“The crew tower has roughly a 20’ x 20’ footprint. We have great access [for the crew access arm] that will reach around to the East.”
Next comes the crew access tower construction and installation.
“The center part of the tower, which is comprised of seven major segments, will be constructed off site. We are working with the US Air Force to obtain a good construction location by the old ITL area where the Titans used to stand by the old vertical integration building and use its slab to build up these major segments. It’s about 3.5 miles down the road,” Biegler explained.
“Then they will come in here in between launches. So we will have a crane out here. If things go remarkably well we believe we can get the tower constructed in between two mission launches. Otherwise, schedule wise we plan for three.”
“Then we have all the external steel. What we call ‘loose steel’ work. There are another 300 pieces of steel after the super structure that then have to make up the outer part of the top of the tower.”
“So all of our major steel work is probably going to be in the 12 month period of time.”
Concurrently, ULA starts assembly of the crew access arm which the astronauts will walk down to enter the capsule on launch day, serving the same function as the arm and White Room for the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs at Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39.
“While the tower is being built we will also build the crew access arm. It’s being built completely off site,” Biegler explained.
“Once its fabricated, we have about three or four months of functional testing. We have partnered with Boeing to bring in a mockup of the CST-100. Then we’ll spend several weeks going through all the timing sequences and making sure it supports our needs from an operability perspective.”
“The access arm will be the last major component to come out here. Once that’s installed here we basically have about another four months work out here of running all the cables, getting the hydraulic drive system wired up and all the instrumentation wired up into the tower.”
The access road platform around the pad and new tower will also be widened to accommodate the additional traffic.
“We will also extend the driveway [immediately adjoining next to the pad] so that we will still be able to get vehicle traffic around the crew access tower curb. That’s for in the event we need emergency access as well as for transporting [normal] personnel [and equipment] all around the tower.”
Will the presence of the new crew access tower have any effect on the unmanned Atlas launches?
“We have done all the analysis and looked at launch availability and it doesn’t diminish any of that so we’re satisfied.”
Any reverberations or acoustics issues from the tower?
“We have also looked at another big task related to any effects of tower wash down, especially considering the solids [solid rocket motors]. That’s when we spray down the structure [post launch] to remove any contaminants off the metal. So we are designing in a wash down system on the tower to accommodate that in because there will be multiple launches in between the manned launches.”
“The tower needs to be kept corrosion free,” Biegler stated.
How far along is ULA in the actual design work on the crew access tower? I asked.
“We are about 96% done on the crew access tower,” Beigler responded.
“We will have the tower drawings 100% completed before the time of the award. So that gives us a significant advantage in being successful during the construction and keeping our costs down.”
So the tower design completion is really imminent?
“Yes its imminent and it will be done. In fact I’m meeting shortly with the designers in Seattle on the last component – the torque tube.”
But I presume you will not start any of this work until either Boeing and/or Sierra Nevada is actually awarded the NASA CCtCAP contract, is that right?
“Yes that’s absolutely right.”
Nevertheless some pad related procurements are already in progress.
“ULA is however procuring some steel from the steel mill,” John Mulholland, Boeing Vice President for Commercial Space Exploration, responded to my query.
“Yes we just did a procurement and are ordering some long lead time items,” Beiglar quickly added. “For example some of the steel that is long lead. We just went on contract and bought some steel.”
“But the actual construction we will not start until the CCtCAP award. That was not part of NASA’s current CCiCAP phase of the commercial crew effort.”
What is the funding source for all of ULA’s Atlas work?
“It will all be funded out of the CCtCAP award,” Beigler stated.
Can you discuss how Sierra Nevada fits into this pad modification plan since they have also selected ULA’s Atlas as the launcher for their Dream Chaser? I asked.
“All of our design effort has been focused on Boeing’s CST-100. You can see that in the models [and artwork] we have on display to show the work and also in the Boeing partnership here today. To date we haven’t really done a lot of design effort to support them,” replied Biegler.
“Boeing is the customer that has moved forward with us and that’s why the design is focused on the CST-100,” added Dan Collins, ULA’s Chief Operating Officer.
The Atlas V rocket will be assembled some 1800 feet to the south of the planned tower at the same place as for current launches—namely at the VIF, or Vertical Integration Facility.
Any changes needed to the VIF to accommodate the CST-100 bolted atop the Atlas vs. all the unmanned NASA, DOD and commercial payloads launched to date?
“We will be making some small changes. A lot of that is just the [access] decks themselves. The good thing is we don’t have to cut a lot of steel. Basically we just have to provide some inserts to get a little bit better access for the CST-100. The VIF mods are really very benign. Mostly at the top [for the capsule].”
“Just very minor mods to the VIF.”
“Right now the anticipated start date is about September 1, 2014. That’s when Boeing believes they will get an award on the contract.”
“So from start to finish its roughly about 18 months of work and a little over 20 months on our calendar.”
“We are looking at about an 18 month process from the point that we mobilize our construction team until we have this task completely finished.”
“So by September 2016 is when I will have everything built and ready to support commercial crew,” Biegler stated.
Between now and the completion of all Pad 41 construction activities ULA has an extremely busy launch manifest.
“We will launch 14 times from here between now and then,” stated Dan Collins, ULA’s Chief Operating Officer.
“From the ULA point of view, one of the real distinguishing factors in our business is that we launch when our customers are ready to launch. We have a very well integrated plan to build the tower while we are continuing Atlas operations at the current pace – which is 14 launches in 18 months.”
“That’s what we do and it’s what our customers count on us to do,” Collins emphasized in a seeming reference to the numerous delays encountered by competitor SpaceX.
And ULA must meet its construction timeline in order to support the planned early 2017 inaugural blastoff of the CST-100.
“The first unmanned orbital test flight is planned in January 2017,” Chris Ferguson, NASA’s last shuttle commander, told me. Ferguson now leads Boeing’s human spaceflight capsule project as Director of Crew and Mission Operations.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has openly said that the Atlas V rocket should be terminated because of its dependence on the Russian-built RD-180 first stage engines and the entire controversy swirling over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
ULA remains in regular contact with Boeing throughout the pad design and implementation process.
“The teams [ULA and Boeing] are working incredible well together. We tag up with ULA once a week by phone to make sure things are moving along. It’s been a great partnership,” said John Elbon, Boeing Vice President for Space Exploration.
Watch for the next chapter in my ULA/Boeing discussions dealing with the Atlas V rocket.
For further details, be sure to read my prior articles outlining the CST-100 initiative in my exclusive interview with Chris Ferguson, commander of NASA’s final shuttle flight and now director of Boeing’s Crew and Mission Operations, here and here.
Stay tuned here for continuing developments.
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