Spaceflight Insider

Insider Exclusive: America’s ‘Booster Belt’ Part Two – Decatur

A booster core for a Delta IV Heavy rocket on the production floor at United Launch Alliance's Decatur, Alabama facility. Photo Credit: Vikash Mahadeo / SpaceFlight Insider

A booster core for a Delta IV Heavy rocket on the production floor at United Launch Alliance’s Decatur, Alabama facility. Photo Credit: Vikash Mahadeo / SpaceFlight Insider

DECATUR, Ala. — Located near the Tennessee River, United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Decatur facility is where its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets are assembled and where the new Vulcan launch system is coming together. Situated on some 35 acres, the roughly 1.6 million-square-foot facility is so massive that its roughly 1,000 employees have to get around via golf carts and bicycles. It was day two of our tour and we were looking forward to learning more about the aerospace workers that produce some of the nation’s rockets.

Atlas V components are welded together, continuing the launch vehicle's more than 15 years of service. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

Atlas V components are welded together, continuing the launch vehicle’s more than 15 years of service. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

We were greeted at the exterior of the building by a row of geese marching single file, this helped establish the relaxed mood that would be prevalent throughout the day.

We met Lyn Chassagne, a public and media relations officer who we have worked with in the past and, as always, her calm; professional demeanor was a guide in terms of letting us know parameters.

Having the background that I do, it takes a lot to intimidate me. having said that I found Shannon Coggin, one of the two folks who accompanied us through ULA’s facility – very intimidating. 

As we were guided along the Atlas V section of the facility and were provided with information regarding the rockets, the facility itself as well as Coggin’s and Anton Kolomiets’ backgrounds. 

It was obvious from the start that Shannon was a natural in front of the camera, she was extremely knowledgeable about the Atlas V launch vehicle and how the system was going to be used to launch astronauts as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. 

As Chassagne began rattling off the degrees, experience and wealth of experience that Shannon had, I felt severely unprepared to interview her. This was alleviated by the ease and casual demeanor that Coggin worked to convey. Having said that, Coggin was incredibly knowledgable and I had to race to catch up with the volumes of information that she shared with us.

“What you see here is flat, raw-stock aluminum weighing about 10,000 lbs (4,536 kg) that are then loaded onto these beds where we will away about 85 percent of the material, but introduce some strength with our isogrid and orthogrid pattern,” Coggin told SpaceFlight Insider. “As we’re milling, we use coolant, to not only cool the drill bits but to wash away the excess material into basins where Tennessee Valley Recycling comes and picks it up [recycles] what’s remaining.”

As was the case the day prior, the workforce at Decatur were just as casual – and just as professional. Our interactions with ULA’s workers wasn’t as varied as the day before, we communicated primarily with Lyn, Shannon and Anton, but it was obvious that the workers here operated in a somewhat similar manner to that of their colleagues up river at Iuka, Mississippi. 

Stretching down the length of one of the primary corridors of ULA’s Decatur facility were rows of booster cores. To the left – Delta IVs and to the right Atlas Vs. To say that it is an impressive display – simply does not do it justice (be sure and watch our exclusive video below to see what we mean).

At points during the tour, Vikash Mahadeo, the SpaceFlight Insider photographer who had accompanied me on this tour, and myself asked for a moment to just stop and take a moment, to truly appreciate what we were seeing. Keep in mind, both of us have attended numerous launches and been into the clean rooms in and around Kennedy Space Center – we’ve seen our fair share of hardware. But to see so much of it, in one place, it required a moment to allow us to process just what we were seeing.

ULA workers prepare a Delta IV Heavy booster core end cap for its eventual voyage to space. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

ULA workers prepare a Delta IV Heavy booster core end cap for its eventual voyage to space. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that all of the rockets that were being constructed at Decatur – are already tasked with missions. In terms of what Shannon was guiding us through we were seeing the components for the Atlas V that would hoist Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner on flights to the International Space Station. 

“After almost four years of design and development we’re finally in a production mode, with our launch vehicle adapter to support Stariner,” Coggin said. 

We’d met and interviewed Anton during one of the previous Delta IV launches down at Cape Canaveral and it was nice to catch up with him again. Although he touched on Atlas, in terms of what he spoke to SpaceFlight Insider about, he focused on the Delta IV.

Shannon walked us through the very first steps of the Atlas V’s production – right down to the components being milled from aluminum, to it being bent and shaped. The workforce was omnipresent, with a better idea of what we wanted to see, we were able to watch their efforts and worked to both capture their work so we could impart it to our readers. In some ways, their work appeared to almost be an art.

However, this wasn’t quite right either, as the components were being tooled to exacting and extremely precise specifications. Portions of work that were being done on both the Atlas V and Delta IV was particularly interesting, especially in terms of its “eye-candy” value. We also noted that composite structures that we’d seen in Iuka on the day prior were here being integrated onto the launch systems that they would eventually fly on.

“We do any mission modification work on these components that needs to be done, that’s work that we would also do here,” Kolomiets told SpaceFlight Insider

Being able to see Atlas V components welded together (if you listen around the five minute mark of the video, you can hear the welding machine operating in the background) and the composite end caps that top the port and starboard booster cores for the Delta IV Heavy being worked on – were just a few of the more memorable highlights. 

Without a doubt, one of the most amazing parts of ULA’s Decatur facility – was Integration and Checkout. Kolomiets let us know a little bit about what took place at this impressive and important part of the expansive facility.

“All of our final assembly, all of the bolting the tanks together, all of the skirts and adapters, everything gets integrated in this area,” Kolomiets said. “By the time that the booster gets done here, it’s ready to get shipped to the launch site and make its debut in space.”

Initial concerns we had that the workers and environment at Decatur would not be similar to those at Iuka, were unfounded. Both turned out to be very similar and we found this to be very reassuring (although not at all surprising giving the near perfect success rate of the launch vehicles) as it meant that the powerful rockets that boost an array of payloads to orbit were being produced by a highly skilled and experienced workforce.

We were now ready to tour the facilities of one of Orbital ATK’s and United Launch Alliance’s customers – NASA. We would pay a visit to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center located in Huntsville, Alabama the following day, the final stop on our tour.

Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider

The views expressed within this feature are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily, reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider

 

 

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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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