Wednesday, August 17, 2011

NASA Juno Tweetup: day 1 - Launch Complex 41 tour

Read my previous blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series: "Day 1 - Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center tour"
Jump back to my first blog entry in the series:  "Preview of my report"

Less than a day before this Atlas V launches pushing Juno toward Jupiter

So far our amazing tour of Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station has included stops at Launch Complex 17 to see the Delta II Heavy that will launch the GRAIL spacecraft, the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center that houses the firing room and an Atlas V that will launch toward Mars in November, and coming up in the next blog entry, the Vehicle Assembly Building with a little surprise inside.  That's jumping ahead, because this entry is all about the reason I spent two days participating in this TweetupLaunch Complex 41 with the Atlas V rocket that will launch Juno tomorrow.

As bus 1B made its way from the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center toward Launch Complex 41, we passed by Launch Complex 40, which is currently used by SpaceX.  SpaceX is one of the exciting, up and coming, private space companies that seem to be shaping the future of space exploration.  Their big money maker is the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, and their Dragon spacecraft that can either carry cargo to the International Space Station, or carry humans in a capsule.  The company is headed by Elon Musk, a 40 year old who made most of his money as one of the founders of PayPal.  He has wonderful visions of private companies involved in the future of space flight, and is continually dumping money into developing and expanding SpaceX.  Click here to watch a (slightly outdated) tour with Elon of SpaceX's Cape Canaveral facilities and Launch Complex 40.

SpaceX is the current resident of Launch Complex 40, which was previously used by the Titan rockets since the 60's.  As we drove by, we noticed their shiny (literally) new building that is used to process their Falcon 9 launch vehicle.  Just last week, the state of Florida approved $7 million in funding to stimulate the state's aerospace industry, and it looks like SpaceX will be the recipient of that money.  This will allow SpaceX to expand their facilities at Cape Canaveral, and not doubt bring jobs to the region.

Past the SpaceX Falcon 9 facility and their Launch Complex 40, we continued down Titan III Road to Launch Complex 41, the current home of the Atlas V rocket with Juno perched on top.  LC-41 is another launch complex that was previously used to launch Titan rockets.  Just before reaching LC-41, we passed by the Vertical Integration Facility.  

Atlas V and Juno paired up in the Vertical Integration Facility (photo courtesy of NASA)

Think: mini Vehicle Assembly Building.  The Atlas V was assembled vertically in this building, the Juno spacecraft was placed on top of the Atlas V, and the morning before launch day, the entire rocket was rolled out vertically on a mobile launch platform down railroad tracks on Titan III Road (seen in photo below), and onto the pad at LC-41.  This concept is different than, for example, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches.  The Falcon 9 is assembled horizontally, then rolled out to Launch Complex 40 and stood upright at the pad.

Railroad tracks the Atlas V's mobile launch platform rides on from the Vehicle Integration Facility to Launch Complex 41

From the LC-39 Press Site and our Tweetup tent, four miles away from LC-41, all you can see are these four lightning towers and the very tip of the rocket.  Florida weather can pretty wild, so all the launch complexes on Cape Canaveral have extensive protection from lightning strikes.

Juno waiting for its ride to Jupiter via an Atlas V rocket

The version of Atlas V rocket being used to launch the Juno spacecraft is a version 551, which is the largest version of Atlas V.  You can see two solid rocket boosters on this side of the rocket, and there are three other SRB's on the other side.  The people standing in front of the mobile launch platform give you a good idea of how tall this rocket is:  197 feet.  The Juno spacecraft is encapsulated in the white bulb/cone that you see on the top.  The SRB's and the bottom stage of the Atlas V will provide the initial thrust for liftoff, but they'll eventually be depleted and detach, and the upper Centaur stage will take over.  The white cone will split open, exposing the Juno spacecraft, which will detach from the upper Centaur stage and begin its five year long trek to Jupiter.  Juno will travel out into space for one year, head back toward earth for one year, slingshot around earth to gather speed, and spend the next three years heading to Jupiter.  The Atlas V is an expendable launch vehicle, meaning the rocket is used one and not recovered.  It was amazing feeling knowing that I was standing next to a rocket that would launch less than 24 hours later, carrying a spacecraft that will study a planet that 400+ million miles away.  It really puts things into perspective when you start thinking about that.

Shuttle Launch Complex 39A

As we jumped back on bus 1B and headed toward our next destination, the Vehicle Assembly Building, we drove on Cape Road and took a left at Launch Complex 39A, the last standing space shuttle service structure.  Less than one month earlier, this was the location that STS-135 Atlantis launched from, which was the final space shuttle mission.  Our bus slowed down long enough for us to snap some close up photos of the historic pad.  One of the buses (number three, I believe) was able to convince their tour guide to stop and let them get out to take pictures of LC-39A.  Unfortunately, due to our little missing door incident earlier, we were pressed for time, so we didn't stop.  It was still amazing to be so close to the pad, even though we were in a bus.

Crawler tracks

When the program was still in existence, the space shuttle would be vertically attached to the external fuel tank and the solid rocket boosters in the Vertical Assembly Building, then placed on the Mobile Launcher Platform, and the Crawler would move the whole package along Saturn Causeway vertically out to one of the LC-39 pads.  The Saturn V rockets in the Apollo program followed the same path.  As we drove along Saturn Causeway, I noticed the crawler tracks were still visible from when the final space shuttle was rolled out to the pad.  The stones used along the Crawlerway are river rock brought in from Alabama and Tennessee, because that special rock has less of a chance of creating a spark as the 2,721 ton Crawler moves over it.

LC-39 Launch Control Center

Just before we got to the Vehicle Assembly Building, we passed by the LC-39 Launch Control Center, which houses (behind the black windows) the firing room used for the Saturn V and shuttle launches.  As soon as the Saturn V or shuttle would clear the tower, control of the rest of the mission would be handed over to the Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center in Houston.  Hence the famous Apollo 13 quote:  "Houston, we've had a problem."

One final stop left on our amazing KSC and Cape Canaveral tour, and they've saved the best for last:  the Vehicle Assembly Building with a little surprise waiting for us in there.

Read my next blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series:  "Day 1 - Vehicle Assembly Building tour" 
See all my pictures from the NASA Juno Tweetup

1 comment:

  1. I was on Bus 3, and they did indeed do a quick pit stop across a fence from LC39A to let everyone breathe and take some pics. That was the bus that had no air conditioning at all the whole afternoon so it was kinda hellish.