What goes out, must come back: NASA moves Mobile Launcher to VAB for year of work leading to EM-1
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — After journeying out to Launch Pad 39B for several days of fit checks and tests, NASA has rolled the 11-million pound (4.99-million kilogram) Mobile Launcher (ML) back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for further work.
The multi-hour trip — part of the agency’s Exploration Ground Systems effort to prepare Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for the maiden launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) — culminated with the nearly 380-foot (115.8-meter) tall tower entering High Bay 3 in the VAB, offering those in attendance views similar to those seen during the Apollo program as the Saturn V’s ML returned to the cavernous facility.
Now inside the world’s tallest single-story building, the ML will continue to undergo fit checks and equipment installation over the next year as NASA makes the Florida-based spaceport ready for the inaugural, uncrewed launch of SLS. This is currently scheduled to take place 2020.
Transporting the ML on the nearly 9-mile (14.48-kilometer) journey it undertook is no trivial task, and is not something just anyone can do. Indeed, there are only six operators on contract to drive the tracked Crawler Transporter (CT) that carries the ML — and its constituent launch vehicle — between the VAB and Launch Complex 39B.
“It’s a big responsibility,” stated Bob Myers, a mechanical systems engineer on the Test and Operations Support Contract in a release issued by NASA. “There’s a lot of weight on my shoulders, so to speak.”
Operating the CT is decidedly not something for those short of patience would want to undertake. Simply preparing to get underway can take between 30 to 45 minutes, and even when it gets going, it lumbers forward at a mere 0.7 miles (1.13 kilometers) per hour. Stopping is also not something that happens in short order.
While the CT has air brakes that can be used to stop the CT/ML combined stack, operators generally let the vehicle come to a natural stop so as to not jerk the payload. The CT operator, in conjunction with more than 30 engineers and technical staff, work together during a move to ensure that the drive goes as smoothly as possible.
Though the CT’s appearance might scream 1960s-vintage, it has been subject to numerous enhancements over the years to bring it into the “digital age.” These improvements may be provide the vehicle with a bit of an upgrade, but the CT is still a far cry from a spry sports car.
“The crawler has longevity,” Myers noted. “Upgrades have brought the crawler into the 21st century and made it much easier to drive, but it still feels like a ship on land.”
That doesn’t dissuade Myers from taking part in the next chapter in America’s space program. The operator is notably proud of his responsibility.
“It will be an honor carrying America’s rocket,” concluded Myers. “In a sense, we’re carrying America’s future.”
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.