Tag Archives: KSC

The Rockets of LC-39A

 

Yesterday, LC-39A moved into a new chapter by launching a Falcon 9, but it’s just the latest of many chapters.  Originally constructed in the 1960s for the giant Saturn V rocket, and consequently one of the biggest and toughest pads in the world, it has hosted four different rockets in its history (five if you count a different configuration of Saturn V).  I thought I’d share clips of each of them taking off.  😉

Here’s the first launch from LC-39A, of the uncrewed Apollo 4 test flight:

The pad would host many more Apollo launches, including Apollo 11.  After the Apollo mission was over, NASA got funding to expend the surplus hardware mounting the Skylab program.  The last launch of a Saturn V came from LC-39A and placed the Skylab space station into orbit, easily the most massive single payload of any mission in history:

Following this, the crewed missions to Skylab were launched using the much smaller Saturn 1B (itself an impressive rocket, but most things look small next to Saturn V).  However, the pad originally used for Saturn 1B Apollo flights out of Cape Canaveral Air Station was no longer configured for it, so NASA modified one of the Mobile Launchers to basically adapt Saturn 1B to a Saturn V launch tower — by adding a structure nicknamed “the milkstool”.  Here’s the final Apollo mission, for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

After that, LC-39A would not see another flight for nearly six years.  During that time, it received substantial modifications for the Space Shuttle program.  The Mobile Launchers were stripped of their towers, in favor of a Fixed Service Structure that would remain permanently at the pad.  The Apollo-era Mobile Service Structure, which normally sat parked about a mile from the pad, was scrapped as well, in favor of a Rotating Service Structure that would sit attached to the FSS at the pad.  And in April of 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia baptized the modified pad with her own fire (notice the white External Tank, and Columbia’s distinctive black chines):

And then, thirty years later, the Shuttle era came to an end with the final flight of Atlantis, also from LC-39A:

After that mission, LC-39A was mothballed.  39B was earmarked for the Space Launch System, the next monster rocket, and has been converted back to a “clean pad” configuration, a la Apollo.  But 39A had no immediate mission and was offered up to civilian use.  It took a while, but eventually SpaceX made a case for adapting it to the massive Falcon Heavy rocket.  SpaceX has left much of the original Shuttle-era hardware present, including the FSS and RSS (although both were long since stripped of salvageable and historic gear by NASA); I’m not sure whether they plan to keep them all there.  Their eventual crew-access arm could be added to the FSS, but the RSS has little value for them.  But in the meantime, it is good to see the pad back in use, and slightly quicker this time.  😉

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The Falcon has landed — after lifting off from the same pad as Apollo 11!

This morning, a Falcon 9 rocket roared into space from Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A, the first commercial launch to lift off from this NASA launch facility.  (Previous Florida launches of the Falcon 9 were from the neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Station, operated by the USAF.)  Fittingly, this was still a NASA mission; the payload is the CRS-10 Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station.  But the next flight won’t be; the next flight will deliver the EchoStar 23 commercial commsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit.

LC-39A was originally built to support launches of the gigantic Saturn V for the Apollo mission, and so everything is proportionately gigantic on this pad.  Falcon 9 is the smallest rocket ever to fly from it, but later it is planned to support the massive Falcon Heavy, a triple-core variant that will be the most powerful rocket in the world when it flies, and that is the real reason for using this pad.

Today’s mission was completely successful, including the first daylight shore landing of a Falcon 9 first stage.  That stage landed on the existing SpaceX landing pad at Cape Canaveral.  And there’s some great footage.  😉

Full newscast:

And here is spectacular drone photography of the landing:

 

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LC-39A return to flight with SpaceX Falcon 9: SCRUB, reset for Sunday

The historic return to flight for LC39A, last used for STS-135 and still sporting most of the Shuttle-era Fixed Service Structure and Rotating Service Structure, has been delayed at least a day, after a scrub at T-15 seconds. The launch was set to take off this morning, but was scrubbed due to “slightly odd” behavior in the upper stage — a routine preflight hydraulics check revealed something off-nominal in the behavior of an upper stage steering hydraulic piston (presumably part of the engine gimbaling system).  The Falcon 9 with Dragon attached has been lowered back to the horizontal position, but SpaceX is pressing ahead towards the second opportunity, tomorrow at 9:38:59 a.m. EST.  This will be the first commercial spaceflight from Kennedy Space Center.  (Prior Falcon 9’s launched from Air Force pads.)

Meanwhile, in other KSC news, a NOTAM (Notice To Airmen) was issued earlier this week which strongly suggested the X-37 that has been orbiting the Earth for nearly two years might be coming down again.  The NOTAM expired the same time the range opened up for Falcon 9.  It seems plausible, then, that X-37 may make a landing attempt once the Eastern Range becomes available again.

Stuff going up, and stuff coming back down . . . it’s gotta be exciting at the Cape and on Merritt Island!

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LC-39A: Bringing the Heat Back

As part of routine preparations for the upcoming Dragon flight to the ISS, SpaceX has also passed a historic milestone: allowing the flame trench at LC-39A to taste fire again.

Ignition is around two minutes into the video.  Several things to note in this video: the extra-large Falcon 9 strongback, designed to support the Falcon Heavy, the Shuttle-era hardware still resident (particularly the Fixed Service Structure and Rotating Service Structure, although both have been stripped of most of their equipment, as well as the huge Apollo-era water tower for the sound suppression system), and the distant white shape of the SpaceX Falcon 9 assembly building at LC-39A.  Never before have rockets been assembled at LC-39A; the pad was built for the gigantic Saturn V, which was assembled in the VAB and then ponderously rolled to the pad, and then the same strategy was employed for the Space Shuttle program.  But Falcon 9 is a much simpler vehicle, and does not require such a large assembly hall as the VAB.

The Falcon 9 hotfire test concluded successfully. The vehicle will be lowered and pulled into the assembly hall for attachment of the Dragon spacecraft.  After returning to the pad with payload installed, Falcon 9 is slated to lift off February 18 on a mission to the ISS, returning LC-39A to service for the first time since 2011.  SpaceX has additional flights already manifested for LC-39A; the next will be EchoStar 23 no earlier than February 28, and SES 10 sometime in March.  The SES 10 launch will be closely watched, as it will feature the first reflown Falcon 9 core.

Just for fun reference, here’s the last flight from LC-39A:

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John Glenn, last of the Mercury 7 – rest in peace

At the age of 95, John Glenn has passed away.

You almost certainly know his name; John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, a hard-working and principled man who already had an impressive career before NASA selected him for its first astronaut class, the Mercury Seven.  (The others were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepherd, and Deke Slayton.)  He’d flown fighter aircraft in WWII and Korea, then after that set a record as the first person to fly across North America at an average velocity above the speed of sound, proving that the aircraft was strong enough to tolerate that. He wasn’t just fast; he was a damned good fighter pilot as well, earning a reputation for flying dangerously low (to improve shooting accuracy on ground targets, a decision which improved his kill rate but caused him to often return home with holes in his airplane, a fact which earned him the nickname “Magnet Ass” for all the literal flak he took) and for killing a lot of MiGs.

When Glenn was selected for NASA’s initial astronaut corps, he only barely met their requirements, just barely squeaking in under their upper age limit of 40.  (It’s a little ironic he was the last of the Mercury Seven to pass, as he was also always the oldest of them.)  He watched Alan Shepherd and then Gus Grissom fly on suborbital hops, boosted by the little Redstone rocket.  And then, on February 20, 1962, Glenn flew the first manned flight aboard an Atlas rocket.  (Atlas boosted four more Mercury capsules, and then retired from human spaceflight.  Its much more modern descendent, the Atlas V, will return the line to crewed spaceflight in either 2017 or 2018 with the first flight of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.)  He remained active in the space program only through the Mercury program, resigning in 1964 to pursue a political career.  It took a while to get there, but Glenn was as persistent in politics as he had been in everything else, and attained the Senate as a Democrat from Ohio in 1980.  He served in this position until 1998, when he retired.  The election to replace him was held while he was away from home in a very fundamental way — in 1998, he made his second spaceflight, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-95 mission, becoming the oldest person in space at the age of 77.  After that, he retired, and enjoyed a long retirement — finally passing away at the age of 95.

With him, it feels as if an era has ended.  While about half of the Vostok cosmonauts are still living (mostly because Soviet-era astronaut recruiting favored much younger candidates), the Mercury Seven have all passed.  It falls upon us to remember them, and teach our children about them.  They were trailblazers, and we must not let that trail grow cold.

John Glenn’s first launch, on Friendship 7:

And his second, on Discovery’s STS-95 mission:

And now, he’ll fly higher than anyone of us here on Earth can conceive.  Godspeed, John Glenn.  Godspeed.

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Five Years Ago Today: The End of the Shuttle Era

On July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to stop at Kennedy Space Center for the very last time.  If you want to relive that moment, here’s NASA’s STS-135 landing video.  It’s half an hour long; skip ahead to 9 minutes to see the HUD video from the Orbiter, and the runway coming up for the night landing:

STS-135 was commanded by Chris Ferguson, who has since retired from NASA and now works for Boeing.  He’s serving as program manager for the CST-100 Starliner program, and has dibs on the first CST-100 crewed flight; if he gets his way, he intends to retrieve the very same flag he left on the ISS during STS-135 five years ago.

Meanwhile, OV-104 Atlantis herself has been moved to form the centerpiece of a spectacular display at the KSC Visitor’s Center, where she is displayed with payload bay doors open, RMS reaching out across the room, as if in flight — forever.

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35 years ago today: Columbia’s first flight; 55 years ago today: humanity’s first flight

On April 12, 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia blasted off the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A.  Her crew for this test flight were Commander John Young and Pilot Bob Crippen.  Young was already an experienced astronaut, with three flights including a lunar surface mission under his belt, while Crippen was a rookie out of the cancelled MOL program.  This was the first, and so far only, time an orbital spacecraft has made its first flight with human crew on board.  NASA had wanted a suborbital test flight first, but Young had argued against it, saying that the flight profile (a deliberate Return To Launch Site abort) required “continuous miracles interspersed by Acts of God” in order to be successful.  And in the end, he was right.  The risky RTLS was not necessary, and STS-1 was a success.  After thirty seven orbits and 54.5 hours, the two men returned, landing Columbia in the deserts of southern California, at Edwards Air Force Base’s Dryden Flight Research Center (now the Armstrong Flight Research Center).  On this video, note the white External Tank (they stopped painting it after STS-2, which saved considerable weight) and the distinctive black chines that always marked Columbia.

But that’s not the only amazing thing on this date in history, for this is Yuri’s Night.  Today is also the 55th anniversary of Vostok 1.  Yuri Gagarin climbed into the capsule atop an R-7 missile.  The capsule was modified from spy satellites, which had a pressurized reentry capsule to return film for developing and analysis, and it was a tight fight even for the small man.  (All early cosmonauts were short in stature, selected specifically for ease in fitting into tight confines as well as high G-load resistance.)  He completed two orbits of the Earth and then returned, but since Vostok did not have a landing system, he ejected after reentry and parachuted down separately.  He landed in a farmer’s field in Russia, startling the farmer and his daughter.  “When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet citizen like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”  Gagarin immediately was lauded as a hero, and grounded from future spaceflights; sadly this would not save his life, as he died in a plane crash only seven years later.  But it is Gagarin that all astronauts follow, and will forevermore.

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