Friday, August 12, 2011

NASA Juno Tweetup: day 1 - Launch Complex 17 tour

Read my previous blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series: "Day 1 - arrival and guest speakers"
Jump back to my first blog entry in the series:  "Preview of my report"

Launch Complex 17 with a Delta II Heavy inside the service structure

After a wonderful morning getting to know my fellow Tweetup participants, and hearing stimulating talks from many of the Juno and launch services team members, it was time for our bus tour of Kennedy Space Center.  This is a portion of the Tweetup that everyone has been very excited about.  This wasn't the KSC tour that you can purchase from the Visitor's Complex.  This was a tour of Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station sites that only employees really get to see.  The tour consisted of visiting Launch Complex 17 to see the Delta II Heavy rocket that will launch the GRAIL spacecraft, the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center run by ULA, Launch Complex 41 to see the Atlas V rocket with Juno on top, and finally the Vehicle Assembly Building, which contained a surprise for all of us.  You'll read about the last three sites in subsequent blog posts, because this post is all about Launch Complex 17.

After lunch, we all piled in three buses and headed off in different directions.  I was on bus 1A (I'll explain that in the next blog entry about the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center), which started off on our journey to our first stop at Launch Complex 17, which is currently home to a Delta II Heavy rocket that will launch the GRAIL spacecraft to the moon on September 8th, 2011.  I was lucky enough to be sitting near Dave Allen, a fellow Tweetup attendee, who really knew his KSC/Cape Canaveral history.  He was giving the back of the bus a great, impromptu tour as we made our way to LC-17.  On the Air Force Station, we drove by what looked to be one or two of the space shuttle solid rocket boosters.

Dave also made sure to point out the location of Launch Complex 5, which was where Alan Shepard left earth for 15 minutes on a Mercury Redstone rocket in 1961, becoming the first American (second human) in space.  Based on the number of rocket failures the American space program experienced in the early years, I think it's safe to say that Alan Shepard is a daredevil.  They were still unsure of the effects that space would have on a human, and especially unsure if the rocket would even get off the launch pad successfully.  Shepard had plenty of time to think about all of this, while the techs on the ground worked out issues with Alan in the capsule on the launch pad for over four hours.  His frustration with the delays caused him to say one of my favorite phrases to the crew:  "light this candle."

Launch Complex 17 A and B

We finally arrived at our first stop:  Launch Complex 17 on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  This launch complex has been home to the Delta launches since the early 60's.  Currently, pad 17A isn't in use, but 17B is, and was loaded with a Delta II Heavy rocket that you can see inside the support structure.

Launch Complex 17B with a Delta II Heavy rocket inside the support structure

Looking closely, you can see the many solid rocket boosters that surround the bottom of the Delta II Heavy.  This rocket is awaiting delivery of the GRAIL spacecraft that will study the moon's gravitational fields to determine the moon's interior structure.  Actually, the GRAIL spacecraft is really two twin spacecraft that will both orbit the moon together.  FYI:  GRAIL stands for "Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory".

When the GRAIL spacecraft is delivered, it will be placed atop the Delta II Heavy right at the launch pad.  The right side of the support structure contains a crane that will lift the spacecraft to the top of the rocket.  When it's launch time, the support structure rolls out of the way to expose the rocket on the pad.  Launch is set for September 8th, 2011.

NASA employee (in black baseball cap) and ULA employee (in blue polo shirt) talking about the GRAIL mission and the Delta II Heavy rocket

While we were at LC-17, we were treated to a quick talk about the GRAIL mission and the Delta family of rockets from a NASA employee and a United Launch Alliance employee.  I really wish I remembered their names, but I didn't write them down.  Very interesting guys that gave us some great info.  ULA is the private contractor (owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing) hired by NASA to coordinate the launch logistics for the GRAIL mission, and also the Juno mission.  ULA produces the expendable launch vehicles (Delta II, Delta IV and Atlas V rockets) that launch NASA unmanned spacecraft missions.  It was interesting to see how the private companies are now so involved in the space program.

The ULA employee made sure to point out the fact that the Delta II rocket has had a 100% success rate.  I'm not sure exactly what he was referring to, since a Delta II rocket exploded shortly after takeoff from LC-17 in 1997.  I'm guessing he was referring to a different, more modern version of the Delta II that hasn't experienced a failure.  The ULA employee did mention that there are more Delta II rockets built and ready to go, which was a reference to the fact that NASA (and the Air Force) may or may not decide to continue using the Delta II.  When asked about ULA's competitors in the private space flight market, he posed the question:  what would you rather trust to keep your your astronauts and expensive cargo safe, a rocket that has had two test flights (SpaceX) or rockets (from ULA) that have had hundreds of successful launches?  He also stated that all the GPS satellites we use on a daily basis were put into orbit by Delta rockets.  The NASA employee did make a funny statement when someone asked about the condition of the pad right after a launch.  He said it's just like when you throw a BBQ at your house, you come out with the power washer the next day and flush everything away.  He said it's surprisingly cleaner than you think, but still does require a good cleaning.

So far, our KSC and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station tour was off to a great start.  Next stop, the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center to see ULA's firing room and to stand 15 feet from the Atlas V rocket that will launch the Mars Science Laboratory mission with the Curiosity Rover in November.

Read my next blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series:  "Day 1 - Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center tour"
See all my pictures from the NASA Juno Tweetup

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