Space Station Processing Facility
On August 10, 2010, we arrived at Kennedy Space Center met by tour guide and retired KSC employee James Johnson. Our first stop for the day was the International Space Station Processing Facility where we were greeted by our guide for the facility, Wellmon Speed. The entrance took us into the low bay. In front of us, a few workers sat at a check in desk while large screens to our right logged what was going on at each job station. To our immediate left we saw an end cone for a Logistics module which brings six months worth of supplies to the ISS, is filled with waste, and then is sent back to Earth to burn up on reentry. The low bay contained more interesting things such as rack handling adapters that are used to fill the modules, pallet carrying systems that have been used in the payload bay of the shuttle, ready for flight hardware containers, and orbiter replacement units (ORUs) full of spare space station parts.
Next we moved into the high bay. In front of us was an ExPRESS Logistics Carrier attached to a large bridge structure. Experiments, including a robotic arm, were in the process of being mounted to the bottom of the large radiator panel that will soon be transported to the ISS by way of the shuttle. As we walked around the bay, it was pointed out to us that the floor was created to be adaptable to the hardware needed at the time. Panels in the floor created multiple possibilities for the positioning of racks on the bay floor. On the other side of the high bay we saw the Italian module Leonardo which had flown to ISS multiple times and was undergoing preparations to become a permanent module. It was attached to an assembly which allowed the module to be rotated to aid in the insertion of racks. Near Leonardo was a marker on the floor 361 feet from the far wall of the high bay. This is the current length of the ISS. Looking back at the far wall put into perspective how large the ISS is. What a feat to put that amazing ship into orbit!
Orbiter Processing Facility: Endeavor
After a short trip to the NASA Exchange gift shop, we made our way to one of the three orbiter processing facilities. We walked through the doors and there in front of us was the shuttle Endeavour encased in a permanent scaffolding-like enclosure. We didn’t notice this, however, until we made our way to the front of the shuttle. The enclosure was so thick, that the shuttle itself was hidden. After standing in awe at the realization we were in the same room as a space shuttle, we had the chance to walk under the belly of the shuttle which stood merely 4 or 5 feet above our heads. Over 21,000 tiles line the bottom of each shuttle, each one unique to position and shuttle. Moving around the back of the shuttle we saw two of the engines. The shuttle is sometimes referred to as the most complex machine created by humanity with over 2.5 million parts, most of which reside in the main engines. Two 17” pipe connectors reside on the bottom of the shuttle where the LOX connects to the engines. The fuel pump on the shuttle has the capacity to move the amount of liquid equal to that of an Olympic sized swimming pool in less than one minute.
Vehicle Assembly Building
We sadly had to leave the vicinity of the orbiter to carry on with our tour. We were headed to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where the Saturn V was assembled during the Apollo days and where the Space Transport System is assembled today. On the way, we passed the Crawler and a Mobile Launch Pad (MLP) which move the complete STS to the launch site from the VAB. The VAB sits on 9 acres of land and contains 4 bays. At 526 feet tall, we were informed that the building was so large that precipitation systems form inside the building. Two of the bays are used to assemble the STS, while all four were used in the days of Apollo. The two extra bays are used for storage of external tanks and solid rocket booster (SRB) support. Both of the currently used bays contained MLPs on which STSs were being assembled. The SRBs were just beginning to be built in one bay while the second had full stacks as well as an external tank. To reach the bays, the parts of the system have to be lifted up and over the supporting structure of the bay, known as the sill. On one of the walls, there were rows of signatures from those who have been a part of the shuttle program. So many people!
Launch Pad 39-A
We left the VAB and followed the river rock road beside the crawler path to the launch pad site. The mobile launch pad is carried by the crawler from the VAB through the huge bay doors, which take 20 minutes to open, right to the launch pad. The entire journey takes a few days for the crawler, but in the bus we made it to the site in minutes. Upon first inspection, one realizes that the permanent launch pad has quite a sloped base. The crawler is created in such a way that the MLP stays level and the STS stays completely vertical as it crawls up to set it in its final place before launch. The complexity of the launch pad itself is amazing! There are hydrogen and oxygen tanks to fill the external tank; there is a water tower to flow water at the time of launch which helps deaden the sound at takeoff. There are also nitrogen tanks which are used to pump nitrogen into the area to keep oxygen levels low and prevent an explosion. The launch pad itself must be resistant to the high temperature and large amount of thrust produced by the shuttle. Crew evacuation slide wires and baskets lead from the top of the pad down to a bunker area for astronaut abort and an 80 foot lightning attractor sits atop the entire structure to protect the shuttle. The entire structure of the launch pad even acts as an enclosure to protect the STS before launch.
Saturn V Center
The bus rolled off of the launch pad area and proceeded to the Saturn V Center. We were presented with a short show about the Apollo mission which took man to the moon and proceeded on to the 1968 Apollo Firing Room. It was in the same condition that it had been during the first Apollo Launches. They simulated the conditions in the room as if it were, again, the first manned launch of the Saturn V. The Saturn V contained the same amount of power as an atomic bomb, so the control room was originally placed the minimum safe distance of the 3 miles from the site of launch! After the show, we walked into a large museum area containing an actual Saturn V rocket. This thing is the most powerful rocket ever created by human hands and can produce 7.5 million pounds of thrust! The sheer size of the rocket really put into perspective how much of a feat the Apollo program really was. At the other end of the large display was a theatre that presented a show about the Apollo missions. It ended with children explaining why they thought it was important to explore space. It was fitting that on our last tour with the Academy we were reminded of the successes of the past and left with the knowledge of what was left to be accomplished. We returned home with an even stronger desire to accomplish the impossible and inspire the generations of future scientist and engineers to come after us.