In 2017 the United States will once again see the return of American human spaceflight to our own shores, courtesy of SpaceX and Boeing and their Dragon and CST-100 crew capsules. Boeing, however, is NASA’s primary crew contract winner, receiving a much larger piece of the multi-billion-dollar pie to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) aboard their CST-100 capsule ($4.2 billion for Boeing and $2.6 billion for SpaceX).
With two years left before an expected inaugural launch there is still a lot of work to be done, but one visible sign of progress at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is the new Boeing/ULA (United Launch Alliance) crew access tower now being built just down the road from ULA’s Atlas Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41), which is where Boeing’s flights will take place from atop the proven ULA Atlas-V rocket.
The entire tower will be erected over six to seven weeks this summer, rising like an erector set, and it’s the first of its kind intended for a vehicle that will carry humans into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the one built at Launch Complex 34 for the Apollo missions in the 1960s. The fixed service structures used for crew access for NASA’s 30 years of space shuttle launches from Launch Complex 39A and 39B were built in the late-1970s at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), which neighbors the Cape at the north side of Merritt Island.
The first segments of the new SLC-41 Atlas-V commercial crew tower are already rising above the Cape’s flat landscape, and, when finished, the tower will stand over 200 feet tall.
“Safety of our NASA astronauts and ground crews is at the forefront as we construct the crew access tower,” said Mike Burghardt, the launch segment director for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. “This is an exciting time in space. The crew tower embodies the fact that very soon we’ll be launching crew missions again from the Space Coast.”
The tower will be comprised of seven major tier segments, or levels, and each will measure about 20 foot square and 28 feet tall. Building them away from the pad allows ULA to maintain their busy Atlas launch manifest, which will launch again as soon as July 15, and also allows for foundation work for the tower at SLC-41 to move forward at the same time the tower itself is being built. Cranes move the largest pieces into place, while welders and riveters connect the thick steel beams together to form the central spars of the tower.
“The first truss segment will be transported out to the pad and installed in the July time frame,” said Howard Biegler, ULA’s man in charge of the company’s Human Launch Services division, in comments to AmericaSpace several months ago. “That will be an above ground segment. The rest happens quick over the course of a six or seven week period. So the remaining pieces of the tower goes up rather quickly.”
Each tier segment will be moved to the launch complex one by one, then will be stacked, and Biegler expects the major bulk of that work to be complete by the end of summer.
Foundation work at the pad to support the tower began last January. The site has already been excavated, and 10 42-inch-diameter piers have already been drilled and poured. The old Mobile Service Tower (MST) railroad tracks from the Titan Centaur days are being removed as well, then the dowels will be installed to secure the crew access tower.
Once the seven tiers are built and outfitted with everything (except wire harnesses and elevator rails), they will be trucked over to SLC-41 and stacked between launches. The tower will then be outfitted with all the wiring, lines, support facilities, stairs, and elevators the astronaut crew and ground support staff will require. A set of slidewire baskets will be ready to help anyone on the tower to evacuate in a hurry in the unlikely event of an emergency as well.
“After the tower buildup comes the extensive work to outfit the tower with over 400 pieces of outboard steel that have to be installed,” added Biegler. “That takes much longer, and will be done in parallel with the arm buildup. The completely integrated and tested crew access arm and walkway should be brought out to the launch site around May 2016, with all the site construction, testing and certifications done by September 2016.”
VIDEO: Boeing/ULA Crew Access Tower Takes Shape
It should be noted that, although there won’t be any crewed flights in 2016 anymore, ULA designed their game plan from day one to support a December 2016 launch (as was NASA’s intention a couple years ago). They have never slipped off of their September 2016 completion date.
“This is an extremely exciting time,” said Rick Marlette, deputy project manager for ULA’s launch pad construction. “It’s great to be doing the construction after so many years and we’re bringing Atlas back to its heritage from the Mercury Program of flying astronauts into space.”
In the meantime, at ULA’s 1.6-million-square-foot Decatur, Ala., facility, the company has already started work building the two Atlas-V rockets that will launch Boeing’s CST-100 space capsule on its first uncrewed and crewed test flight, both scheduled for 2017. Both rockets, each designated as AV-073 and AV-080, will be the first to be certified by both NASA and ULA to fly people to and from the International Space Station.
We continue to reach out to SpaceX regarding progress at nearby KSC LC-39A, but the company will not release any details except through Elon’s Twitter account. Boeing and ULA, however, speak with us about their Commercial Crew Program progress, even inviting us to their operational facilities on occasion for progress updates.