ULA, Boeing break ground on LC-41 crew access tower

CBS News

Boeing, United Launch Alliance, NASA and the Air Force broke ground Friday for construction of a 20-story-tall launch pad crew access tower that will be used by astronauts taking off atop ULA Atlas 5 rockets carrying Boeing's commercially developed CST-100 ferry craft starting in 2017.

The access tower, which will be built in pre-assembled sections and then stacked at launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, will include state-of-the-art safety systems, including walk-in slide-wire baskets to whisk crew members to the ground in the event of a pre-launch emergency.

"It was 53 years ago today that John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, launching on an Atlas rocket just a few miles from here," said Jim Sponnick, vice president of Atlas and Delta Programs at ULA. "We are thrilled to be collaborating with the Boeing company and with NASA to be continuing that legacy and to be returning America to launching astronauts to the space station."

Boeing holds a contract valued at up to $4.2 billion to build and launch the company's CST-100 capsule to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX won a $2.6 billion contract to develop its futuristic Dragon crew craft.

A new service tower being built at Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station will support launches of NASA astronauts aboard Boeing's CST-100 crew capsule when piloted flights begin in late 2017. The company broke ground for the new launch gantry Friday. (Credit: Boeing)

The commercial crew capsules will end NASA's sole reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for access to low-Earth orbit, a major objective for the space agency in the wake of the space shuttle's retirement in 2011.

But to protect against contingencies that might force a Russian or U.S. crew to depart the station unexpectedly, leaving an all-Russian or all-U.S. crew aboard the lab complex, NASA still plans to launch a U.S. astronaut aboard every Soyuz flight to the station with one cosmonaut going up on each U.S. ferry flight.

That way, at least one NASA astronaut, or at least one cosmonaut, would be aboard the station to operate their respective systems even if one ferry ship -- and all its crew members -- had to depart.

In any case, SpaceX and Boeing managers say they plan to be ready for initial unpiloted test flights to the station in 2017 with the first piloted missions taking off later that year.

SpaceX is leasing one of NASA's deactivated shuttle pads for its Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon crew capsules and modifications are already underway. Launch complex 41 is just two miles south at the Air Force station.

United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, currently uses pad 41 to launch Atlas 5 rockets carrying military satellites and NASA science probes, including the Curiosity Mars rover and the New Horizons spacecraft currently closing in on Pluto.

The new service tower will be built in stages to minimize interference with upcoming missions. Sponnick said ULA plans 12 launches off the pad over the next 18 months.

Howard Biegler, a ULA launch operations engineer with the company's Human Launch Services group, said the tower would be built off site in 28-foot-tall 20-by-20 foot sections, reaching a height of more than 200 feet when fully assembled. A pivoting 42-foot-long crew access arm, which the astronauts will use to board the CST-100, will be positioned at the 172-foot level of the tower.

"We're going to build all the major segments in 20-by-20-by-28-foot-tall tiers and then we'll bring those tiers out and start stacking them," Biegler said. "Those tiers will be completely outfitted, so they'll have the stairwell, the elevator shaft, all the cable chases, the water suppression system will all be in these tiers so when we bring them out, they are an integrated unit."

Once the segments are built, "we believe we can get all those seven tiers stacked in a little over six weeks," Biegler said. "Then we've got about 400 pieces of outboard steel that'll make up the rest of the tower."

The tower also will be equipped with an emergency escape system -- four baskets that crew members can walk into for a 1,345-foot-long slide-wire descent to safety. The system is similar to one used at NASA's shuttle pads, "except we've taken a lot of the lessons learned from shuttle and made some great improvements," Biegler said.

The Air Force began work on pad 41 in 1962, using the complex to launch different versions of the venerable Titan rocket for military and civilian payloads, including NASA's Viking Mars missions and the two Voyagers currently exiting the solar system after combined flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The pad was deactivated in 1977, but it was brought back into service in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster as the Air Force opted to use upgraded Titan 4 rockets to carry high priority military payloads to orbit that originally were slated for launch aboard the shuttle. Eleven Titan 4s were launched from the complex between 1989 and 1999.

After the final Titan flight, the huge fixed and mobile service gantries at complex 41 were demolished and a year later construction began on what would become United Launch Alliance's 292-foot-tall Vertical Integration Facility just south of the pad.

The pad itself no longer features a fixed service tower. Atlas 5 rockets are assembled vertically in the VIF and hauled to the pad atop a mobile launch platform equipped with its own service mast.

To prepare complex 41 for piloted flights of the CST-100, ULA will build the fixed service tower to one side of the launch mount to provide access to the crew capsule.

"This is an historic pad," said Robert Cabana, a former shuttle commander who is now director of the Kennedy Space Center. "It's launched a number of NASA scientific missions -- Voyager, Pluto New Horizons, the Curiosity rover on Mars -- and now it's going to launch an even more valuable, precious cargo, and that's NASA astronauts to the International Space Station."

Boeing, United Launch Alliance, NASA and the Air Force broke ground Friday for construction of a 20-story-tall launch pad crew access tower that will be used by astronauts taking off atop ULA Atlas 5 rockets carrying Boeing's CST-100 ferry craft starting in 2017.