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Voyages to deep space will originate from shuttle pads

Posted: July 24, 2011

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With demolition nearly complete on Kennedy Space Center's northernmost launch complex, NASA plans to put launch pad 39A into mothballs in the coming months for long-term storage until human expeditions depart for asteroids or Mars, according to agency officials.

Launch pad 39A stands empty immediately following launch of the shuttle Atlantis on July 8. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
After space shuttle Atlantis blasted off July 8 from pad 39A, technicians started several weeks of standard post-launch cleanup and repairs. But with no more missions on the pad's manifest, normal work on the complex will cease in the next few weeks, according to a NASA spokesperson.

The space shuttle's two beachfront launch pads at the Florida spaceport supported a rapid cadence of flights over the last 30 years, but NASA launched its last shuttle from launch pad 39B in 2006 as the program entered its final years.

After finishing back-up rescue duty for the space shuttle's last servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, pad 39B hosted the test launch of the Ares 1-X rocket in October 2009.

A private contractor began dismantling the pad's fixed and rotating service structures last summer, and the demolition team removed the final major pieces of the complex earlier in July.

It took 10 months to complete the lion's share of the work due to interruptions from shuttle operations at nearby pad 39A, which lies about 1.6 miles south of pad 39B.

There's no funding for similar safing and demolition of pad 39A. NASA will instead keep the facility in its current state for now, according to Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center.

"We're not going to start dismantling pad A right away," said Mike Leinbach, the space shuttle launch director. "We're going to keep it in roughly shuttle-shape in case the next program can utilize some of those facilities out there."

"Our planning is to safe and secure pad [39A] for the near-term and put it in a mothball state," said Pepper Phillips, the NASA manager in charge of transitioning KSC ground facilities for the future. "Our intent is to preserve pad [39A] for future use as it still is considered a valuable and necessary asset for our Mars campaign. As we preserve pad [39A] capability, we will, of course, evaluate potential uses in concert with commercial interests and make adjustments accordingly."

Cabana said the launch pad will go into a "caretaker" status, much like the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building, which will one day be needed for new human expeditions into deep space.

"Eventually, as we explore beyond our home planet, there are scenarios where we need two big launch pads to support two big rockets to go do some of the things we want to do," Cabana said. "Down the road, we do see a need for that pad. In the meantime, we'll make sure that it's not in such a condition that we can't bring it back up when we need it."

NASA officials envision pad 39B as the initial home for a heavy-lift rocket to haul humans and cargo into deep space on voyages to asteroids, the moon, Mars and other destinations.

File photo during demolition of launch pad 39B. Credit: NASA/KSC
The space agency is finalizing the design of the Space Launch System, which will likely use shuttle-derived hardware, engines and other equipment. NASA managers, the White House and independent consultants are reviewing the design before it is released to the public and contractors.

"We're obviously preparing to be able to launch a heavy-lift rocket off that pad as soon as possible, with our goal being 2016," Cabana said.

NASA says the SLS won't be flying astronauts until 2020 under current budget projections, but Kennedy Space Center aims to have the launch pad ready years before then.

"We'll press ahead to have it ready as soon as we possibly can for accommodating NASA rocket launches off it," Cabana said.

Pad 39B's future concept will utilize a clean pad design with no permanent structures. The rocket's servicing tower will be bolted to the mobile launch platform and rolled to the pad for final preparations.

A 390-foot-tall mobile launcher designed for the canceled Ares 1 rocket sits outside the VAB. Although the tower doesn't have a mission now, it could be modified for commercial launchers or NASA's heavy-lift rocket program.

Officials currently foresee pad 39B being tailored for the Ares mobile launcher, whatever vehicle it ends up carrying.

Engineers are upgrading the pad 39B's computers, electrical network and control systems. NASA is also refurbishing propellant tanks at the seaside facility.

Three 600-foot-tall lightning masts were erected at pad 39B in 2009 as part of a next-generation weather protection system for large rockets.

The pad's concrete surface, first constructed for the Apollo program in the 1960s, will remain intact for the next space program. NASA elected to demolish the pad structures with cranes and cutters instead of explosives to ensure the concrete wasn't damaged by falling debris.

Launch pad 39B was first used by the Saturn 5 rocket on the Apollo 10 mission, a dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing. Saturn 1B rockets launched crews on missions to the Skylab space station in 1973. Three astronauts took off from the pad aboard another Saturn rocket in 1975 on a mission to dock with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft during a detente in Cold War relations.

The pad's servicing towers were used to prepare 53 space shuttle missions for flight between 1986 and 2006, beginning with the final launch of the shuttle Challenger.

The Ares 1-X test flight also used the pad for its launch in October 2009.

Pad 39A was the departure point for 82 shuttle flights and every Apollo mission that landed on the moon.