Tag Archives: Space Shuttle

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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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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External Tank is almost to California, and rescued four fishermen on the way!

The last External Tank from the Space Shuttle program has been slowly making its way from Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, Louisiana to its final home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, California.  The trip by ocean-going barge left April 12, took it down to Panama, crossed over via the Panama Canal, and then up the Pacific Coast.  It isn’t the first ET to do this; another ET took this route back in the early 80s when NASA was preparing for west coast Shuttle launches from Vandenberg AFB; an ET was delivered to VAFB to be stacked along with two SRBs and the prototype shuttle Enterprise for fit checks.  After the Challenger accident, west coast Shuttle preparations ended, and that ET when back through the Panama Canal and around to Florida, where it eventually flew to space.

This ET, of course, never went to space.  ET-94 was one of a set of three Lightweight Tanks built after production of the Super Lightweight Tank began, ordered for use on non-ISS science missions.  Why continue to build Lightweight Tanks at all?  It had to do with logistics mainly, and would have been a cost saving decision.  Ultimately, however, only two of the “deferred build” Lightweight Tanks were ever built.  After ET-94 was completed, ET-93, the first of the deferred build LWTs, was stacked and went to space on STS-107, the fateful final flight of Columbia.  With Columbia and her science-only missions gone, there was no reason to build the third LWT — and as foam shed from the ET was quickly identified as the root cause of the Columbia accident, ET-94 immediately became the target of intense scrutiny.  Large sections of foam were removed from it for testing, to determine whether a design flaw was behind the accident.  These sections were never replaced, as ET-94 was too heavy to support ISS missions, and it was removed from flight status and kept essentially as a spare.

The final SLWT flew on STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program, leaving ET-94 as the only flight ET left in existence.  (All the tanks that flew were destroyed, as it is by design an expendable component.)  So with the Shuttle program over, and hardware gradually filtering out into museums around the country, this one needed a home.  The California Science Center came up with what may be the perfect proposal — when they proposed taking Endeavour, they also proposed taking ET-94, and building a set of high fidelity mock SRBs and actually stacking the whole thing together as if it were a real Shuttle stack, ready to launch.  The upshot is that all three Orbiters will be displayed in different configurations: Endeavour ready to launch, Atlantis as if in flight, with payload bay open, and Discovery on her landing gear, as if just returned from space.  (Enterprise, the flight prototype, is also displayed on her landing gear.)

So, once CSC was ready to receive, preparations were made for ET-94 to leave the MAF, and it’s been slowly motoring its way around.  This week, as it headed up the Mexican coast, they had an extra surprise: a fishing boat sunk off the coast of Mexico, leaving its crew of four stranded in a lifeboat.  The tugboat Shannon Dann was able to retrieve the crew, and brought them along.  Yesterday, they arrived with the ET in San Diego, to go through US Customs.  The rescued fishermen got off there, and the Shannon Dann resumed her journey north towards Los Angeles, and are expected to arrive at Marina del Ray on Wednesday.  There will be a parade next Saturday through the streets of Los Angeles, following the ET to CSC much as they did with Endeavour a few years ago.

Here, ET-94 passes through the Gatun locks in the Panama Canal (thankfully, sped up — locks are not particularly speedy):

And here’s from the Centennial Bridge to the Pedro Miguel lock:

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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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The last External Tank begins its last voyage

There was one surplus External Tank left over when the Shuttle program ended, due to some unusual timing, and for some time it’s had an ultimate destination planned: the California Science Center, where it will join Endeavour and a pair of mockup SRBs.  Endeavour currently is sitting horizontal on the support structure that tied into its ET attach points and was used to move it from LAX to the museum, mounted on a set of remote-control heavy-duty dollies.  Its sheltered by a very utilitiarian temporary hangar.  But that’s not its intended final setting.  California Science Center has all along planned to display it as if ready for launch.  It’ll be an epic display, and the only one showing an entire Shuttle stack with a real ET and a real Orbiter, with a real payload (the payload bay doors will be opened, as if the vehicle is being serviced on the pad) — a SpaceHab module that was on display next to Endeavour up until a few months ago, when the Orbiter payload bay was opened to install the module.

The External Tank is of course a vital element of this vertical display concept, as the ET carries the full weight of the Orbiter while sitting on the pad.  That final External Tank is rolling out of the Michoud facility in Louisiana.  It will board NASA’s Pegasus barge, which ferried all the other External Tanks to Florida, for a very special trip south, through the Panama Canal, up the Mexican coast, past Baja California, and then to the port of Los Angeles.  It will then be offloaded and shipped through town over city streets to the California Science Center.  There was such a great turnout for the cross-town ferry of Endeavour that the city of Los Angeles is thinking about making an event out of the External Tank delivery too.  So stay tuned.  😉


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Three years ago today: the last Shuttle launch

STS-135 blasted off on July 8, 2011, three years ago today, after a short hold at T -31 seconds due to an issue getting the gaseous oxygen vent hood (the “beanie cap”) to retract all the way, causing the automatic sequencer to call a hold.  After establishing that it was indeed adequately retracted (and, alas, destined never to be used again anyway), they overrode that and resumed the countdown, and Atlantis blasted off into history for the last Space Shuttle mission.

I really miss hearing that “foomph” of main engine start in new launch videos…..

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