Friday, August 19, 2011

NASA Juno Tweetup: day 1 - Vehicle Assembly Building tour

Read my previous blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series: "Day 1 - Launch Complex 41 tour"
Jump back to my first blog entry in the series:  "Preview of my report"

Our final stop on our tour of Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was the Vehicle Assembly Building.  As I wrote about in previous blog entries, our visits to Launch Complex 17, the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center, Launch Complex 41, and a drive-by of Launch Complex 39A were all amazing sights, but the VAB was really the stop that we were all looking forward to.  This was especially due to the fact that many of us knew about the surprise that was waiting for us inside the iconic building.  Bus 1B's tour guide, who's name completely escapes me, worked for many years in the VAB, so I'm able to regurgitate many VAB facts that he told us.

The Vehicle Assembly Building is a building that is rarely visited by those of us that don't work for the space program.  Including it on our tour was a treat that we all were just giddy about.  Built in 1966, the VAB was constructed to vertically assemble the 363' tall Saturn V rocket and capsule that transported humans 235,000 miles away, to the moon.  All of the separate pieces of the massive rocket would be brought into the VAB, hoisted with a crane on the ceiling, and placed into position on the Mobile Launcher Platform.  The support structure (tower) would be attached to the Mobile Launcher Platform, and the whole package (rocket, MLP and support structure) would be moved by the Crawler from the VAB to Launch Complex 39A or 39B.  The assembly of the space shuttle's orbiter, external fuel tank, and solid rocket boosters would follow the same idea as the assembly of the Saturn V.

The view from my parking spot each morning

The volume of the VAB equals almost four Empire State Buildings. The building is so large that without proper cooling and air handling, a rain cloud can form inside it up along the ceiling. It also takes the building about 12 hours to adjust to temperature changes outside, due to the massive volume of air inside it.

Facing north, looking down the "transfer aisle" inside the VAB

As we entered the VAB, I snapped the photo you see above.  This photo doesn't even begin to represent the sheer size of this building.  Known to be the tallest one story building in the world, you can look up in the transfer aisle and see the ceiling 526' above you.  We entered the VAB on the south side, so the view you're looking at above is facing north.  There are four "high bays" that surround the transfer aisle, with service structures that surround each high bay.  Peter Crow has a good picture of the VAB floor plan on his blog.

Looking straight up in the transfer aisle at the crane

Looking at the picture above, you can see the crane that is on the ceiling of the transfer aisle.  The assembly process would start with the component (shuttle orbiter, Saturn V lower stage, external fuel tank, etc.) trucked in horizontally and parked in the transfer aisle.  (The VAB is right next to the Orbiter Processing Facilities, which are the shuttle storage hangers, so this wasn't a long trip for the orbiters.)  The crane you see above would lift the pieces up, and move them laterally into one of the high bays to be mated with the other pieces on the Mobile Launcher Platform.  After assembly, the bay doors on the east side of the VAB would open.  You can see those doors in the very first picture of this blog entry, next to my right shoulder.  Those doors take 45 minutes to completely open or close.  The space shuttle only needed the bay doors opened halfway up, but the Saturn V needed them open all the way to the roof, showing the height difference between the two.  After the bay doors opened, the Crawler would vertically move the Saturn V or shuttle down the Crawlerway along Saturn Causeway, down to one of the two Launch Complex 39 pads.  There are some great pictures of the shuttle assembly process inside the VAB on this page

The surprise is finally revealed

As we made our way down the transfer aisle, we finally came to the surprise waiting for us at the bottom of high bay 4:  Space Shuttle Discovery.  One of the many space enthusiasts I follow on Twitter had just posted pictures of a shuttle in the VAB, so I was really hoping that it was still there, and luckily it was.  Since the shuttle program came to an end less than a month prior to my KSC visit with the STS-135 mission (Atlantis), the shuttles were being processed for donation to museums.  Discovery is going to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in DC, Endeavour is being donated to the California Science Center and Atlantis will remain at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.


It was amazing to stand 20 feet away from such an important piece of technology.  Discovery has left earth 39 times, logging 148 million miles traveled and, when totaled up, spent almost a full year orbiting earth.  I was star struck (pun intended) as I stood next to this machine.  I stood there and told myself that this is a once in a lifetime experience. I'll never have another chance to stand next to a space shuttle inside the Vehicle Assembly Building.  I realized that this would be one of those moments that I would remember for the rest of my life.  My kids and grand kids will roll their eyes every time I tell them about the day I stood next to Discovery in the Vehicle Assembly Building.

As you can see, part of the nose of Discovery has been removed.  Technicians are in the middle of decommissioning all three remaining orbiters to remove any potentially harmful components.  Endeavour and Atlantis were next door in the hangers at the Orbiter Processing Facility receiving the same treatment.  As sad as it is to see the shuttle era come to an end, this simply means that NASA and private space companies are ready to move into a new era of space exploration.  The space shuttle has been flying since the 1980's, so it's time for technological advancement to take over and push the space program ahead.

Facing south, looking back down the transfer aisle

Looking back down the transfer aisle, you can start to get an idea of the immense size of the VAB by looking at the photo above, with people in the shot for reference.  The VAB currently sits under utilized, as NASA makes important decisions as to the future of space exploration.  The VAB was set to become the home to the Ares rocket assembly, but after the Constellation Program was canceled, NASA's next human launch vehicle and spacecraft are still being determined.

Discovery staring us down

As I walked away from high bay 4, I took one last look at Discovery.  I really didn't want to go, and was one of the last people to walk away from the shuttle.  I was just trying to wrap my head around the amazing history this machine had made, and the incredible places it had been.

Wall of shuttle technician signatures

As we were walking back down the transfer aisle toward the exit, we passed this wall, with thousands of signatures of many of the technicians that worked on the space shuttle program.  It was amazing to see how many people it took to maintain and launch the shuttle fleet.

We all piled back into bus 1B, which returned us to our Tweetup tent at the Launch Complex 39 Press Site.  This marked the end of day one, and what an intense day it was!  I had a nice dinner with two fellow Tweetup attendees that night, Amanda Marron and Ranz Adams, and I think we had a really hard time wrapping our heads around what we had experienced on day one.  Amazing guest speakers and a truly unforgettable tour of America's busiest spaceport.  Early to bed, since tomorrow is launch day for the Atlas V rocket and the Juno spacecraft.

Read my next blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series:  "Day 2 - guest speakers and demos"
See all my pictures from the NASA Juno Tweetup 

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Mike! I finally had a chance to read through all your blog posts about the Juno Tweetup so far, and they are great! I love that you've dedicated a separate post to each stop on the tour. I was on bus 4, and we started out at the VAB, then did LC17/GRAIL, ULA, and ended at LC41/Juno. It was truly a spectacular experience and I enjoyed reliving it through your blog.

    Oh, and I laughed out loud at your comment: "We couldn't help but notice there was no door on the bus." I think no one ever heard what exactly happened...