Derby and District Astronomical Society


A Visit to the Kennedy Space Center

by Simon Allcock

In 2004 we went on a family holiday to Florida. In between the hectic schedule of theme parks we managed a half day visit to Kennedy Space Center! KSC is about a 45 minute drive east of Orlando and bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, and is remotely located on Merritt Island in the midst of a national wildlife preserve where more than 500 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians live, and yes that does include alligators!


The Vehicle Assembly Building, (VAB). Each star in the US flag is 6 feet in height!

Upon arrival we paid the usual entrance fee plus extra for the National Aeronautics And Space Administration, (NASA), up close tour. After entering the visitor complex (and being virtually strip searched!) we were each presented with a rose to take to the Astronaut Memorial space mirror, as it was the first anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew on re-entry.


Area map showing layout of KSC


Local wildlife! There is an estimated 5,000 alligators on Merritt Island.


My daughter Hannah and myself at the Astronaut Memorial space mirror.

The names of US astronauts who have died in the line of duty are carved in the mirror-finished, black granite face of the Astronaut Memorial. The memorial is designed to allow reflected sunlight to pass through from behind. The resulting effect has the astronautsí names floating among the clouds in the sky.

The following pictures and accompanying text are in the same sequence as we experienced in the NASA up close coach tour, stopping off at various places of interest along the route. Obviously since the Columbia tragedy, there have been no shuttle launches (at the time of writing the next return to flight is scheduled for a launch window, between the 13 and 31 of July, 2005). Because of this I have included three extra photos of the space shuttle from other sources to explain certain procedures and technical issues.

Standing 525-feet tall, the VAB was originally designed to support the stacking of four Saturn V moon rockets at the same time.  It is now used for getting a Shuttle ready for launch.

A shuttle orbiter spends somewhere between two to three months in an Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) being processed. There are three OPFs in total, each one accomodating one orbiter. After a shuttle orbiter has been processed in an OPF it is transferred to the VAB. An empty Launch Platform is moved into place in one of the two high bays within the VAB. Then segment by segment, twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) are stacked on the platform, followed by attachment of the orange-colored external tank. The SRBís are pre-filled and manufactured at Morton Thiokol in Utah. Then a flight-ready Shuttle Orbiter is lifted off the floor and carefully lowered into its proper position and connected to the external tank, the whole assembly now becomes the Shuttle Stack! The Launch Control Center (LCC) can be seen to the far right of the above picture. At the LCC, the KSC launch team gathers to direct and monitor all efforts to prepare the Space Shuttle for launch. It is home to the computers that control the last nine minutes of the countdown. Inside the LCC are four firing rooms. Two are used as the nerve center for countdowns. After a successful launch, the launch team gathers for a traditional bowl of hot beans.

The Shuttle Launch Platform.  Note the two large rectangular supports atop the platform, the rear edges of the orbiterís wings rest in these.

A Crawler Way

The Crawler Transporters move the Shuttle Stack from the VAB to one of two Launch Pads via the Crawler Ways. The Crawler Way beds are several meters in thickness, the top meter or so is made up of stone. The stone was brought in from a specfic river bed in the US, where the stone has no sharp edges at all. This reduces the risk of the Crawler Transporter's tracks creating sparks as they travel over the Crawler Ways. Remember those SRBs are full of propellant!

A Crawler Transporter.

The Crawler Transporter track assemblies are made by Ferrari - the Italian sports car manufacturer! Ferrari donít advertise the fact they make the track assemblies for the crawlers. This probably has something to do with the fact that when the Crawlers are taking the Shuttle Stack to the Launch Pad they have a top speed of 1 mph, and when returning the empty Launch Platform to the VAB, manage a staggering 2 mph!

Launch Pad 39A.

The Crawler Transporters have a hydraulic system to keep the Shuttle Stack perfectly level while negotiating the incline between the end of the Crawler Way and the Launch Pad.

Launch Pad 39B.

Note the liquid oxygen fuel dome on the far left , liquid hydrogen fuel dome far right, there must be a reason why they are kept so far apart! These two domes fill the Shuttle Stackís external tank to power the Orbiterís three main engines, this is done on launch day. They are also used to fill tanks inside the Orbiter two days prior to launch, this will be used to generate electricity during the mission in space. To the left of the Launch Pad is the water tower which is is emptied 10 seconds prior to launch. In between the Launch Pad and water tower are seven wire hawsers that travel from the top of the Fixed Service Structure of the Launch Pad to ground level. A basket is attached to the top of each wire hawser, and at ground level is a lot of webbing - type catch fencingÖ.! If there is an emergency prior to launch, and the astronauts actually survive the descent in the baskets, they have two options. Option 1 - there are at least two underground bunkers, where they can sit out the mayhem above! Option 2 - see below...

Two armored personnel carriers!
The astronauts can make a high speed get away!

Space Shuttle Discovery at Launch Pad 39B

The Fixed Service Structure (visible as the tall tower to the left of the Shuttle in the above picture) includes the elevator and swing arm the astronauts use to board the Shuttle. The shorter, more squat tower is called the Rotating Service Structure - this pivots on a giant hinge and completely covers the Shuttle orbiter when itís on the pad. This protects the Shuttle itself from bad weather, and local wild life. Not so the external tank - apparently woodpeckers have acquired a taste for the orange insulating foam!

Space Shuttle Discovery lifting off Launch Pad 39B

At T minus 10 seconds, sparks are released underneath the Shuttle Stacks main engines and SRBs, this is to burn off any fuel vapors, left over after filling of the external tank. Approximately at the same time, the water tower dumps 300,000 gallons of water onto the Launch Platform and Pad! This absorbs some of the acoustic energy that occurs during lift off and helps protect the Shuttles electrical components and payload. At T minus 6 seconds the Orbiterís three main engines ignite. When the computers verify the engines are operating at the correct thrust level, they send a signal to ignite the SRBs. This is because the SRBs burn from the top down, and once ignited cannot be shut down! One SRB ignites slightly before its twin, and this tends to rock the Shuttle Stack. The resultant effect of this is to stabilize and centre the Shuttle Stack before lift off. At T minus 0 seconds, the hold down explosive bolts blow and the Space Shuttle lifts off the Launch Pad, and seven million pounds of thrust is unleashed! At about T plus 20 seconds the Space Shuttle executes a roll maneuver. This reduces stress on the Orbiterís wings and tail created by near Mach one speed at this stage. It is also easier for the computers to control the Space Shuttle and enables the astronauts to see the horizon and pin point a landmark in case of an emergency.

At around T plus 120 seconds the SRBs ahve expended their fuel and are jettisoned using explosive charges. The SRBs briefly continue to ascend, while small motors fire to push them away from the Space Shuttle. The SRBs turn and begin to descend, and parachutes deploy to decelerate them for a safe splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. Two ships recover the SRBs and return them to a processing facilty for refurbishment and eventual reuse. At approximately T plus eight minutes, the Space Shuttle's three main engines shut down and the external tank is jettisoned, again via explosive charges. The external tank continues on a ballistic trajectory and enters the atmosphere where it disintergrates. The external tank is the only non re-usable part of the Shuttle Stack. After main engine cut-off, the Orbiter and external tank move along a trajectory that, if not corrected, would result in the Orbiter entering the atmosphere about halfway around the world from the launch site! However, a brief firing of the Orbiterís two Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) thrusters changes the trajectory and orbit is achieved in 8.5 minutes after launch! The OMS engines are also used in orbit for any velocity changes and upon re-entry.

The Shuttle Landing Facility

This concrete runway is where the Shuttles land after a successful mission, and measures 15,000 feet long, 300 feet wide, has 1,000 feet of paved overruns at each end and is an average of 16 inches thick! The Shuttle approaches the runway at an angle seven times steeper than a commercial airliner and at about 200 mph! If unforeseen circumstances prevail to prevent a Shuttle landing at KSC, the Shuttle can be diverted to Andrews Air force Base in California - it is then piggybacked on a modified 747 jet back to KSC.

The International Space Station (ISS) Center.

The above two pictures were taken in the International Space Station (ISS) Center. They show three modules and various components being processed by NASA. When the parts are ready they are taken to the ISS via various designated Shuttle missions. Nations representing every continent are joining together to create the Station.

The Firing Room Theatre in the Apollo/Saturn V Center

The tour of the Apollo/Saturn V Center begins with a multimedia review of NASAís history begnning with the Apollo 8 mission, the first launch of a Saturn V rocket with astronauts aboard. The Firing Room Theater (shown above), re-creates the sights and sounds of a Saturn V launch. Visitors then enter the Saturn V rocket plaza. There are numerous exhibits, the centerpiece being a fully restored Saturn V moon rocket!

Hannah standing by the Saturn V moon rocket.  Itís big!

After the two hour tour, (three!), we returned back to the Visitor Complex, in time to catch a daily Real Astronaut Encounter presentation!

Apollo astronaut Al Worden, with me and my daughters Emily and Hannah!

Al Worden was the command module pilot for Apollo 15, July 26 - August 7, 1971. His companions on the flight were David R Scott, mission commander and James B Irwin, lunar module pilot. Apollo 15 was the fourth manned lunar landing mission and the first to visit and explore the Moonís Hadley Rille and Apennine Mountains which are located on the southeast edge of the Mare Imbrium, (Sea of Rains). Al Wordenís talk was very interesting, and one thing I remember him saying was that a colleague of his, who went on to command early Shuttle missions once told him, "Once those SRBís are lit up, we donít know where were goíin, but were sure as hell goíin somewhere!"

All too soon it was time to head back to Orlando, chill out by the pool, have a few Budís and reflect on a great day out! If you are going to Florida I would recommend visiting KSC whether you are into space travel or not.

Related Links:

[Top]