Archive for the ‘NASA’ Category


October 28, 2009

The Crawler-Transporter that brought Ares 1X and its Mobile Launcher (MLP) to the pad last week is one of two that were originally built in the mid-60s for the Saturn series of flights, and have been in use since, for Saturn, Shuttle and now Ares.

Crawler-Transporter near the VAB

There are really two alternatives to transporting rockets vertically to their launch position. The first is to build the rocket horizontally, move it horizontally and hoist it erect at the pad. The massive scale of the Saturn boosters really rules this out. The second option is to build the rocket at the pad. Several factors are against this: weather at the Cape is pretty volatile – hurricane winds, rain, lightning – holding up work; the rate of launches required to meet the end of ’69 deadline meant that having a rocket under construction at the pad would lead to unacceptable congestion.

So the solution was to build a massive Vehicle (initially Vertical) Assembly Building (VAB), construct each rocket inside, out of the weather and transport the rocket to the pad from there. But, again, the massive scale of the Saturn boosters meant this was no trivial problem.

Barges on canals (problems with stability and wind)  and railways (difficulties with rail stability and cornering) were both considered as options, but the solution settled on was to transport the rocket, MLP and Launch Umbilical Tower (LUT) by crawlers.

The coal miners of Ohio had been using massive tracked excavators to strip mine coal.

Bucyrus-Erie steam shovel crawler, Kentucky. Note man on top for scale.

These remain some of the biggest vehicles in the world. In February 1962 NASA engineers from the Launch Facilities and Support Equipment Office (LFSEO) were contacted by the Bucyrus-Erie Company who realised the potential of their massive machines to move launch vehicles.  The Marion Power Shovel Company won the tender, bidding 8 million dollars (competing with Bucyrus-Erie Company, its Ohio competitor, which has since bought Marion, who bid 11 million dollars) and built two wonders. Philip Koehring worked on the Bucyrus bid, and was immediately recruited by Marion to project-manage the massive engineering work.

The first test of the C-T took place in (July?) 1964, attended by several dignitaries and managers from NASA.

First test of the Crawler-Transporter

The image shows, from L:  Richard L. Drollinger, Director of Engineering, Marion Power Shovel Co.;  Theodor A. Poppel and Donald D. Buchanan, both of Kennedy Space Center;  S. J. Fruin, Executive Vice President and Philip Koehring, Project Engineer, both of Marion; and Kurt H. Debus, Center Director at Kennedy Space Center

Each of the two crawlers weighs in at 2700 tonnes, and is supported by four pairs of enormous caterpilar tracks, one at each corner. Each of these tracks has 57 shoes, 0.3 x 2.3m, each weighing nearly a tonne in themselves. The tracks are driven by 16 electric motors. Steering seems to be via three hydraulic rams which push the truck around on its guide tube.  The turning radius is 152 metres, only four times the vehicle’s length.

Crawler truck assembly

The platform which supports the MLP and vehicle has an area of 726 square metres or so, and can rise from 6m above the ground to 8m above ground level. This platform can be kept horizontal, even during the ride up the 5% slope to each pad.

The massive power needed to move such loads is supplied by a diesel-electric system. Generators with a combined power of 5500 kW supply motors, steering and hydraulic pumps. Despite this massive output, the speed of the C-T is limited to about 2mph (0.9m/s) when unloaded, and 1mph when loaded. Bearing in mind the cumbersome nature of its loads, that seems fast enough.

Bob Myers, Crawler Systems Engineer, in one of the cabs

The monster is driven from one of two cabs.  Controls seem very simple, belying the precision achievable:  the C-T must deliver the vehicle and MLP to the pad and lay it down gently within very tight limits.  It is said that the C-T can be moved forward and back in increments as small as 1/8 of an inch (about 3mm)!

So large is the crawler it has a control room inside, under the main deck.  Here engineers monitor and control the motors and generators that supply the electrical power for C-T and MLP systems.  The whole thing is surrounded by catwalks allowing engineers to access any part of the C-T and gain access to the MLP.

Schematic drawing of the Crawler Transporter

Control room windows

The first Crawler transporter ready for service, Jan 1966

A while ago I enjoyed building a Saturn V scale model (and here).  While researching this I’ve found there is a model of the C-T you can build as well.  It looks fantastic, although it is 1:144, so not compatible with my original Saturn V.  However, if this modeller ever finishes this and gets the plans out there I’ll be occupied for ever, but happily!

1:96 Crawler model detail

Sources:  All the sources are referenced in text links or image links.  Most useful, and recommended reading for an understanding of the development of Cape Kennedy Space Center and its hardware is ‘Gateway to the Moon’ by Benson and Faherty.  This book is the first 14 chapters of Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations, 1978, part of the NASA History Series.

Ares 1X Rollout

October 20, 2009

Today launch controllers supervised the rollout of NASA’s brand new Ares 1X rocket. It is the first time we’ve really had a chance to see the nature of the beast.

Ares 1 is certainly a slender rocket, the first stage of which is basically a Shuttle SRB. I note that little work has been done to modify the Mobile Launcher being used for this flight – it still has the two Tail Service Masts seen in the photo below. I believe this is the same Mobile Launcher used to support the launch of Apollo 11. I know that work is being carried out to build brand new Mobile Launchers.

Ares 1X on the way to LC39B

Ares 1X on the way to LC39B

Launch is due on 27 October, although this is still to be confirmed. The flight is suborbital: only the first four of the five segment SRB are live, and the rest of the booster and capsule are dummy. An Ares 1Y flight is scheduled to use live five segment first stage, live second stage and live Launch Escape System, with a boilerplate Orion capsule.

Launch Complex 39B, July 2009

Hammer & Feather II

April 18, 2008

Time I posted some video of my favourite astronaut experiment. This is such a simple demonstration, and Dave Scott carries it off well. He actually carried two feathers with him as he wasn’t sure how the static building up as he moved around would allow him to drop the first one. He didn’t need it, of course, but no-one knows what happened to the second feather. Do they?

Apollo Bookshelf

April 14, 2008

I thought it would be interesting to publish a list of some of the Apollo books and stuff I’ve collected over the years. I can recommend just about anything on this list, but top 5? Here’s a first stab, but I might change my mind:

  1. Apollo: the race to the Moon [the story of the engineers and managers of the Apollo program]
  2. Carrying the Fire [Mike Collins’ experiences of the Gemini/Apollo programs]
  3. A Man on the Moon [Andrew Chaikin’s famed history of Apollo. HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon was based on this]
  4. Full Moon [one of the most beautiful books: a collection of Apollo photographs]
  5. First Man [the only official biography of Neil Armstrong]

I’ll have a look at DVDs in the same way sometime perhaps, but what’s missing from my collection that is a must read?



A Man on the Moon Andrew Chaikin
Apollo Al Bean
Apollo: the Race to the Moon
Charles Murray & Catherine Bly Cox
Apollo 11:1 Ed. Robert Godwin
Apollo 11:2 Ed. Robert Godwin
Apollo 12 Ed. Robert Godwin
Apollo 13 Ed. Robert Godwin
Apollo 15:1 Ed. Robert Godwin
Apollo 16:1 Ed. Robert Godwin
Apollo 17:1 Ed. Robert Godwin
Apollo Orbiting Moon, Heads Back Today (newspaper original edition)
Astronomy Now: Man on the Moon 30th Anniversary (magazine)
Carrying the Fire Michael Collins
Facsimile: Guardian 21/07/69 Front Page
First Man James R Hansen
Friendship 7 Ed. Robert Godwin
Full Moon Michael Light
History of the 20th Century: Man in Space: A New age of discovery (magazine)
Life: To the Moon and back (magazine)
Lost Moon: the perilous voyage of Apollo 13 Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger
Moon Map Philip’s
Moondust Andrew Smith
NASA LM Chart Series: 1: 1 000 000 NASA
On Mars Patrick Moore
On the Moon Patrick Moore
Project Apollo Charles Coombs
Project Constellation Tim McElyea
Rocketman Nancy Conrad & Howard A Klausner
Saturn V News Reference NASA (printed from website)
Spaceflight Jan 1968
British Interplanetary Society magazine
The Last Man on the Moon Eugene Cernan & Don Davis
The Man Who Ran the Moon Piers Bizony
Virtual Apollo Scott P Sullivan
Virtual LM Scott P Sullivan

Orion solar panels

April 12, 2008

It seems to me that the Altair and Orion spacecraft, in their journey from Earth to Moon will need the same thermal control as the Apollo spacecraft did. This was achieved by a ‘barbeque roll’ of the spacecraft, perpendicular to the direction of the Sun meaning that no part of the structure got too hot or too cold.

Altair/Orion spacecraft

Now, Altair/Orion (let’s just call it Orion shall we?) will have the same problem, and I presume a similar solution. However, with the winglike solar panels on Orion will it be simple? I suppose it might be possible to drive the panels so that they were always facing the Sun, but with current design concepts it looks awkward, with some kind of universal joint being necessary.

Perhaps the heat management of Orion will be different so that the passive thermal roll is unnecessary, or the solar panel orientation is easier to control than I suppose (and I’m no engineer). I do know that a single axis rotation such as that achieved by the Apollo crews was very difficult to manage, but guess it would be simpler with modern avionics.

Wrong Way Round

February 29, 2008

I’ve just noticed something odd about the configuration of the Earth Departure Stage (EDS) and Orion, with the Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM – which I’m now reading is to be called Altair).

After Earth Orbital Rendezvous the stack will then depart for the Moon, with the EDS (effectively the Ares V 3rd stage) providing the thrust. It’s just that the thrust is the wrong way. The astronauts will be accelerating in the opposite direction to that in which they left Earth. They will accelerate in the -x direction, rather than +x. The cone of the CEV will be accelerating blunt end first rather than sharp end first as they will for the other main acceleration phases of any mission, including transEarth injection (TEI) and reentry/landing.

I can imagine astronauts basically suspended in their harnesses as the up they were familiar with on take off becomes down. I can’t imagine it is easy to design couches that are reversible in this way.
This just doesn’t seem right. The acceleration of the EDS stack must be significant, and will be several minutes in length if it is anything like Apollo/Saturn. You’ll recall that the Apollo/Saturn TLI stack, with the SIVB pushing it, was in the same +x axis as at launch, TEI and reentry. How will astronauts cope?

So, have I just ruined a whole vehicle development programme, or am I missing something, or is the problem just not as serious as I think it must be?


February 2, 2008

Constellation logo

I’ve been reading a bit about the Constellation Program, the suite of boosters and spacecraft NASA are currently developing to replace the shuttle, return to the Moon and go on to Mars. I’ve been keeping an eye on developments, but haven’t even trawled through all Wikipedia has to offer. It’s nice to see books appear, just like they did for Apollo, which summarise the craft being developed. I shall be interested to see how quaint they, like the Apollo material, look when we see the real thing.

I wonder if Constellation/Orion will capture the imagination like Saturn/Apollo? Is it just that Apollo is no more that it seems more romantic? Is it a love of something lost, a kind of nostalgia? Or is it that we know, in our world of mp3 players, mobile phones, pocket calculators forgoodnesssake that it all seems so amazingly primitive.

Remember the first ‘mobile’ phones? The ones you kept in the car. The ones that, if you wanted to walk with it you had to unplug from the car and carry a briefcase with the battery? Sophisticated weren’t they? That was what, 15 years or so after Gene Cernan stepped off the Moon! But the laws of physics, as NASA engineers are fond of saying (or was it Scotty?) haven’t changed. Electronics can help streamline and automate systems, but massive boosters are still needed (the Ares V, for example, is likely to be nearly as tall and more powerful than Saturn V).

I think the main challenges of any travel outside low Earth orbit are likely to be physiological and psychological. We’re planning to go back to the Moon to spend weeks and months at a time there. A Mars mission is going to take years. Crew will be isolated (in communication time as well as in space) from all but a very few others. The toll of weightlessness or 1/6 gravity is known to be significant, and medical emergencies are inevitable but unthinkable. Space will be limited (ironically, I suppose).

So, will crew members on a 6 month cruise to Mars, and during their 2 year stay there be given holiday? How would that work? Or will they be kept busy every day for 3 years? How will they get away from it all?

The astronauts of the future really will have to have the Right Stuff.

In the Shadow of the Moon

October 17, 2007

Check this out! I heard about this film a little while ago, and, if the trailer is anything to go by, it will be unmissable. Interviews with most of the nine surviving moonwalkers (although only archive footage of Armstrong) as well as Jim Lovell, who visited the Moon twice on Apollo 8 and 13, intercut with enhanced contemporaneous footage to tell the story of the Apollo race for the Moon. It is on general release in the UK from 02 November.

This is a Ron Howard production. Ron directed Apollo 13, one of my favourite films, largely because of its technical accuracy, but also because the story told is more real than life, if you see what I mean.

The whole Apollo program embodies the best of human endeavour. Only 32 astronauts crewed Apollo spacecraft, but around 400000 engineers and their managers drove the whole show. This team effort is something Apollo 13 shows pretty well, but wasn’t unique to this mission. None of the journeys to the Moon could have happened without the contribution of the whole, massive, team.

The best book I know which deals with the backstage work for Apollo is Apollo, by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. The stories of the flight controllers, spacecraft engineers, managers, range safety, launch technicians, communications experts, suit makers – you name it – are compelling. How did these (generally) young men do that? You have to buy the book from the authors, but it is worth it. I think I’ve read it 3 times now.

Can America (with Europe/Russia?) repeat the achievement of the 60’s in the twenty-teens? I hope so. Robot missions are great, but robots don’t dream of anything but electric sheep.

Just two left

May 6, 2007

Wally Schirra has died, on May 3rd, aged 84. The fifth American in space, he flew Mercury 8 (Sigma 7), Gemini 6A and Apollo 7, commanding both Gemini and Apollo missions. He was the only one of the Mercury Seven to fly all three pre-shuttle spacecraft. All the missions were successful, firsts in their way. Mercury 8 is described as the first flawless mission, Gemini 6 performed the first rendezvousStafford and Schirra get suited up for Gemini 6 (no docking) with Gemini 7, and Apollo 7 was the first manned flight of the Apollo CSM.

Schirra was well known for his keen sense of humour and clear view of the task of flying safely, eschewing the glamour associated with other Mercury Seven astronauts. He was a superb pilot: once, as a test pilot he out witted a Sidewinder missile he was testing, and which had turned on him, by turning inside the missile’s own path. He flew 90 combat missions in Korea in F84 jets. His cool demeanour was displayed when the rocket engine on his Titan booster for Gemini 6 shut down after lift-off. He, as commander, should have pulled the ejection lever, taking he and Pilot Tom Stafford ‘safely’ away from the exploding rocket. However, as he hadn’t detected any upward motion he stayed put, avoiding the significant risks of ejection. The rocket didn’t explode. The main problem was found to be a plug pulling out too soon and the mission was launched 72 hours later as Gemini 6A.

The Apollo 7 mission in October 1968, the first manned mission after the Apollo 1 fire, was hugely important. Schirra and his crew, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham, were to test the completely redesigned Command Module (and its Service Module, together known as the CSM). Unfortunately the crew all suffered from colds, exacerbated enormously by weightless conditions, and spent much of the mission arguing with Mission Control about workload. None were selected for further missions.

I’m sorry to see another Mercury-Gemini-Apollo astronaut die. The Space Shuttle doesn’t have the romance, the drama, of those missions, perhaps because, for 25 years, it hasn’t really gone anywhere and has been a dead end. I don’t doubt the skill and bravery of the current crop of astronauts though.

Schirra leaves behind only two of the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts: John Glenn, America’s third man in space, and Scott Carpenter, fourth.

Of the moonwalkers, only 9 survive.

Vorsprung Durch Technik

January 30, 2007

There’s a catchy advert on British TV at the moment for Audi cars. It compares the number of patents NASA have to the number Audi have: “To date, Nasa have filed 6,509 patents. To get to the A6, Audi have filed 9,621 patents.”

Catchy certainly, but disingenuous. I have no idea if the figures are right or not, and I’m not going to dispute them. But of course NASA has only a few patents – nearly all it’s work is contracted out. Grumman, Rockwell North American, Boeing, Morton Thiokol, Lockheed and thousands of small businesses – they’re the ones that hold the patents. NASA doesn’t build spacecraft and boosters in the way Audi builds cars.

In a way I’m surprised that Audi have under 10000 patents after decades of car and engine development.