Monday June 30, 2008 – NASA Glenn Research Center – Cleveland, OH
After entering the ARES I-X Manufacturing Facility we were instructed to put on the necessary personal protection equipment of hard hats and safety glasses. Elmer C. Bartels, our tour guide, began with an overview of the ARES I-X test flight and how GRC is supporting the flight tests for NASA’s next generation launch vehicle. The ARES I-X flight test will launch with 4 of 5 Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) segments and test the flight dynamics and performance of the new SRB system. Since the upper stage hardware of the ARES I rocket will not be completed by the time of the flight test, an Upper Stage Mass Simulator is being designed and built in-house at Glenn. Also, since only 4 of the 5 segments are being used, the 5th segment will also be simulated with a mass as well. ARES 1-X is being made out of steel with a diameter of 18 to 19 ft and is known as the USS, Upper Stage Simulator. The mass simulators are being built out of steel to account for the missing weight of the actual system components and propellant. The actual ARES rocket will be built out of a lighter material like a Lithium-Aluminum composite.
Our tour guide then took us into the manufacturing area of the facility and explained the processes going on inside the fabrication shop. This project started 1½ to 2 years ago with an expected launch date in 2009. All of the raw materials are stored in a large white dome on-site that looks like a smashed Hershey’s kiss. When the ARES I-X upper stage simulator is completed it will be 100 ft tall. The crew module and launch abort system (the astronaut compartment and cone atop the rocket), currently being manufactured at the Dryden Flight Research Center and Langley Research Center, will be added last. The Upper Stage Mass Simulator will need to have the same mass and size as the eventual flight vehicle.
Inside the fabrication facility, a countdown clock reads 67 days and 22 hours with some odd minutes and seconds. Currently, the rocket is being built in sections out of steel. We saw the 80160 Jet Machining OMAX, which uses a sandblaster and water to cut steel for the rocket. Glenn Research Center had some trouble purchasing steel due to its high demand.
To move the pieces of steel cut with the OMAX, 7.5 ton cranes move the steel throughout the facility. The steel ring sections are built from 2 pieces of steel, 10 ft long and 30 ft wide. To shape the pieces into rings, the welders went through special screening to make sure they could perform the job properly. X-rays are not used but radiographs are to ensure the quality of the rocket sections.
There are some rocket section rings that are brown with weld marks and others that are painted white. The ones painted received an industrial primer and two coats of white surface paint and are ready to be shipped to Columbiana, OH. The painted pieces have already been pre-stacked in Building 333 to make sure all measurements are correct. The engineers and welders use a $250,000 laser tracker to verify dimensions. It tells them how straight and flat a surface is, can pinpoint a hole, and measure everything within 1/1000 of an inch precision. Once the pieces are in Columbiana, OH, they make their way to the Kennedy Space Center on a barge where the final rocket assembly will occur along with final instrumentation analysis.