Monday, August 15, 2011

NASA Juno Tweetup: day 1 - Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center tour

Read my previous blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series: "Day 1 - Launch Complex 17 tour"
Jump back to my first blog entry in the series:  "Preview of my report"

ULA employees showing us a scale model of the Atlas V rocket

After our stop at Launch Complex 17 to see the Delta II Heavy that will launch the GRAIL spacecraft, we hopped in bus 1A to continue on our tour to the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center, Launch Complex 41 with the Atlas V rocket that will launch Juno tomorrow, and finally the Vehicle Assembly Building with a little surprise inside.  You'll read about Launch Complex 41 and the VAB in future blog entries, because this entry is all about the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center.

United Launch Alliance is the private company that produces and launches the Atlas V, Delta II and Delta IV rockets.  The recently retired space shuttle is the only launch vehicle that NASA owns.  Otherwise, they rely on private companies to produce launch vehicles for NASA missions.  Popular private space companies are SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and United Launch Alliance.  ULA is co-owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, who produce the Atlas and Delta rockets.  You may be thinking the same thing that SpaceX did in 2005, and that's why they filed suit against Boeing and Lockheed Martin, accusing them of violating antitrust laws when they decided to create ULA.  That suit got tossed out and ULA formed in 2006.

I mention all of this, because when we stepped foot in the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center, operated by ULA, I started thinking about the private sector's involvement in the future of space exploration.  Now that the space shuttle program has come to an end, the private space companies are all presenting NASA with launch vehicles that will carry astronauts and cargo into space for future missions.  With the perception that the privately owned companies can perform these tasks faster and cheaper than a government run organization, it looks like the future of space flight will involve NASA and the private sector working hand in hand.

When we arrived at the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center, I could immediately notice the difference between NASA and the privately owned ULA.  ULA operates the Atlas V Ops Center, so it was ULA employees giving us the tour.  Right off the bat they explained that everyone must stay together, and we could only snap pictures when they said it was OK to do so.  There were always multiple security guards and ULA employees with us, making sure we didn't wander down a hallway that we shouldn't be in.  A couple of times a fellow Tweetup participant cracked a joke, but the ULA employees weren't having any of it.  It was all business there, and I suppose I can see why that was the case.  They had a $1.1 billion spacecraft (Juno) sitting on the tip of their Atlas V rocket that was set to launch the next day.  If anything went wrong with their launch vehicle and Juno was destroyed...well...I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of that phone call.

Our tour started with the ULA employees showing us a scale model of the Atlas V rocket.  (see the picture at the beginning of this post)  The Atlas V is an important launch vehicle for ULA, since Boeing recently announced that the Atlas V will be their rocket of choice to test their seven seat spacecraft capsule.  Next up on the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center tour was the firing room.  Unfortunately, this was one of the areas that we weren't able to take photographs.  Kind of odd, since they show the firing room on NASA TV HD, but I suppose being a private company, ULA doesn't want something confidential to leak out via a tourist's photo.  Here's a photo, courtesy of NASA, showing the firing room:

Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center firing room (photo courtesy of NASA)

We were up on the second floor, in the glass windows looking down on the control room.  It would be great to witness that room in person on launch day, but the viewing area is reserved for the clients that purchased the Atlas V they're launching, and I don't have $200 million to drop on a rocket.  Someone from our group jokingly asked where the big red "launch" button was, and it turns out there's no such button.  The ULA employee did say that there's an actual button at the launch director's console for aborting the launch.

Atlas V rocket that will launch the Mars Science Laboratory mission with the Curiosity Rover

After checking out the firing room, we went back downstairs and were led into a large hanger that was currently home to the Atlas V rocket that will launch the Mars Science Laboratory mission and Curiosity Rover in November 2011.  Looking at the picture above, you can see the upper stage is missing.  It's actually in the room with us, but it's detached and behind the lower stage that you see.  We weren't allowed to photograph the upper stage, and the ULA employees and security guards made sure we didn't venture around the lower stage for a sneak peek.  I'm sure there was a perfectly acceptable reason for why they didn't want images of the detached upper stage floating around blogs just like this one.  We're talking about multimillion dollar rockets, so I can see why a privately owned company would want to keep some secrets to themselves.

The business end of an Atlas V rocket

It was an amazing feeling standing ten feet away from a rocket that will soon be propelling a spacecraft toward Mars.  The picture above shows the bottom of the lower stage, obviously lacking the solid rocket boosters.  The lower stage sits on a frame of wheels, essentially making it a super expensive tractor trailer.  It's transported down the highway towed behind a truck.  Make sure to give the driver a wave next time you pass an Atlas V on the highway.

The lower stage of the Atlas V was so long, it was hard to get it all in the frame

This hanger was the last stop on our tour of the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center.  As we piled into bus 1A, we couldn't help but notice that the bus' front door was now sitting on the rear seats.  No clue how it happend, but while we were touring the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center, our bus' door fell off.  Well, who needs a door anyway, right?  Unfortunately, NASA decided that we needed a door, so we had to wait for a replacement bus.  If you know anything about Florida in August, you know that temps tend to run on the high side, and the humidity makes it possible to slice the air with a knife.  Combine those facts with sitting on a crowded bus, on pavement, in the afternoon sun, with no door....well, you get the picture.  Luckily bus 1B showed up to save us, and we were on our way to our next stop:  Launch Complex 41 to see Juno atop its Atlas V.

Read my next blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series:  "Day 1 - Launch Complex 41 tour"
See all my pictures from the NASA Juno Tweetup

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