Monday, November 21, 2011

The New Mobile Launcher

The giant Crawler takes the ML out to Pad 39B.

In a scene reminiscent of the glory days of the Saturn V launches to the Moon, a giant launch tower is again seen moving to the pads. NASA engineers have moved the huge 355 foot tall tower to Launch Complex 39B to test how the new structure responds to the stresses of moving on the large Transport Crawler.

The ML tower was originally constructed for use with the Aries 1 rocket, which was cancelled three years ago by the Obama administration. Three years after its cancellation, the project is again alive thanks to Congressional intervention. During the last year, Congress has passed laws requiring NASA to design and build a new heavy-lift rocket to replace the lifting capacity of the cancelled Space Shuttle program. The new rocket is designated (for now) as the SLS, standing for Space Launch System. There's a creative, catchy name for you, eh? Despite my sarcastic response to the name, the new system will provide the United States with a rocket capable of lifting large satellites and spacecraft into orbit and beyond to the Moon and the asteroids.

Currently the ML tower stands at a total height or 400 feet while on the tremendous transporter. The trip from the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) to Pad 39B takes about 14 hours and travels 4.2 miles. The tower weighs in at a wopping 6.5 million pounds. It currently does not yet have the swinging arm bridges that will allow engineers to access parts of future rockets along its length.

Pad 39B is also going through changes. The old towers that serviced many shuttle flights have been torn down, and new structures are building in its stead in preparation for the new ML series of towers. In fact, the base of the ML will need enlargement for exhaust, as it was originally designed to work with the thinner Aries rocket. The new SLS will be wider at the base and include side-mounted Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs, like the shuttle had).

My hope is that the shuttle towers will be broken into small pieces for sale to space collectors like myself. I currently own a piece of the gantry from Launch Complex 26, from which the historic Explorer 1 satellite (America's first successful space satellite) launched atop a Jupiter rocket in 1958. I would love to add a remnant of the space shuttle era to my collection.

Launch of Ares 1-x in 2008. This was the test rocket for the cancelled Ares series of rockets, launched from Pad 39B to test the marriage of the SRB as a first stage with a second stage test structure. The temporary tower used at the pad will be replaced with the ML Tower structures.

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