Almost every historic American launch occurred at one place in Cape Canaveral: Launch Complex 39. Good old LC39 was build for the Apollo spacecraft, and then modified for the Space Shuttle program. And now it’s carrying on this tradition for upcoming SpaceX rockets. Let’s explore the history of this instrumental launch facility.
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Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online. The world longest running online astronomy degree program, visit astronomy.swin.edu.au for more information.
Male Speaker: Astronomy cast episode 345 Launch Complex 39. Welcome to astronomy cast our weekly facts base journey through the cosmos we help you understand only what we know but how we know it. My name is Fraser Cain I’m the Publisher of Universe Today and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, and the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey, Pam, how are you doing?
Female Speaker: I’m doing well; I love the fact that you and I seem to be in two totally different climate zones today. I’m doing the – not willing to turn on the AC up but deeply wishing that I had AC and you’re clearly doing the I still need heat.
Male Speaker: Yeah, and people need to be watching us when we record this live on YouTube every Monday at noon Pacific and then they can see our various often choices and yeah it’s kinda chilly here. So but it was really hot, now it’s cold so I don’t know. How do you like the climate change now? So before we get on to this week show just one last pitch for CosmoQuest Hangout-A-Thon fundraising, it’s still going for a little while?
Female Speaker: Yeah, so if you go to CosmoQuest.org/Hangout-A-Thon you can still contribute and the folks over planetary resources for anyone who donates before May 18, they’re going to give the largest individual donor a stunningly gorgeous slice of meteorite has a nice crystal instructors in it. And I’m really kind of thrilled and grateful for everyone out there has contributed so far our median donation is just $30.00 and all of that has added up over $24,000.00 in science coming.
This is going to enable us to launch a new project to do citizens science study in Mars and the more donations comes in the more we are able to do, the more times we are able to say yes to scientists who have new and exciting citizen science projects that they just want to see go into existence if they can, well, discover our universe. So please go to CosmoQuest.org/Hangout-A-Thon all lowercase, and no amount is too small, but at the same time no amount is too large.
Male Speaker: Go ahead pause podcast we’ll wait.
Female Speaker: And I am writing hand written thank you. Well a hand type thank you to everybody so the thank you, actually, comes directly from me so thank you, in advance, please give please, please
Male Speaker: So the plan now is, we are going to be doing a multipart series on numbers in space, so part one today is going to be launch complex 39. How many Debbie thoughts we want to do Pamela?
Female Speaker: I’m still pulling them out, we do have an interruption Memorial Day weekend we’re going to have a life episode from Baltican. So if any of you are in the Baltimore area on Memorial Day weekend, I hope that I can see you at the con and other than that send us ideas for science things, not like random places that have no science associated with it. So this idea – so we are going to do area 51 launch complex 39, it’s that sort of a team going.
Male Speaker: 42.
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Male Speaker: So almost every historic American launch occurred at one place Cape Canaveral launch complex 39. Good old LC39 was built for the Apollo space craft and then modified for the space shuttle program and now it is carried on its tradition for the upcoming SpaceX launches. Let’s explore the history of this instrumental watch facility and what’s cool about this is we’ve both been to launch complex 39.
Female Speaker: We have, I was there for the launch of STS 123 and what were you there for?
Male Speaker: Ah, 125 I think, 126 –
Female Speaker: We both did – we’ve got to see one before –
Male Speaker: No, I missed it. It didn’t launch.
Female Speaker: You missed but we tried.
Male Speaker: We try yeah, yeah, I tried. I went down and I saw space shut off on the horizon just the nose of it, and they wouldn’t even let us go out on do the tour of the shuttle because it was like high wind and stuff so no, we couldn’t even – I didn’t get a chance to see it. So yeah, I still haven’t actually seen him – a rocket launch. So but I’m gonna fix that that now with SpaceX’s coming back to the Cape and launch complex 39 is going to get put back into use.
Female Speaker: Yes.
Male Speaker: And so you know, I mean launch complex 39 the thing is – the most recognize feature is the VAB, the vehicle assembly building. So if you’ve seen that building that’s the place where talking about.
Female Speaker: And what is so amazing about the VAB is it has doors that accommodate a Saturn V fully vertical being driven on a four-story crawler through the doors. And it’s a building of a size that you can’t fully comprehend until there is a helicopter right next to it.
Male Speaker: So let’s go back to the beginning then and let’s talk about this amazing facility and where it came from and sort of what it has been used for. So I guess when did they start to decide that they gonna need something of this scale of launch complex 39?
Female Speaker: It really was born out of the Apollo era prior to that this piece of land has the strangest history. It was originally developed by a bunch of wealthy Harvard grads who basically wanted a clubhouse on the ocean. And that just deeply amazes me no end and so out of their little clubhouse on the water, Air Force Base was built north of there in the 1900s. The Air Force Base in the late 1950s, early 1960s got turned over to Project Mercury and slowly but surely as NASA came into existence that entire Islandly bit got turned into Air Force base plus NASA facility.
And it’s – a lot of it you can get through unless you have an NASA badge, but the Google images are really quite spectacular and what’s also kinda cool it’s near the Cape Canaveral cruise ship port as well. So you have cruise ships that inadvertently park there and then get to have prime real estate for watching launches and that also deeply amuses me. So its history is basically – it’s a nice piece of land, right next to the ocean, pointed in the correct direction to go launch over the ocean. It’s fairly far south; there is already an Air Force Base there, so NASA just kept building.
Male Speaker: But I mean launch complex 39, there’s other stuff on that area. I mean if you have ever seen Cape Canaveral it’s this big long – its myth of land that serve you know, but it’s mostly like forests and swamp and –
Female Speaker: Crocodile or alligator rather.
Male Speaker: And crocodile yeah gators and but then the launch complex is just one chunk there’s other stuff on this –
Female Speaker: And there’s multiple launch complexes.
Male Speaker: Yeah.
Female Speaker: So launch complex 39 is the most iconic, it – it I wouldn’t say most historic like you did simply because there’s all of the Mercury and Gemini stuff that happens as well. There’s the landing strips that get used for ferrying stuff around but launch complex 39, it was originally envisioned as a five pad structure that they’d be using to launch Apollo after Apollo after Apollo. People don’t realize like just like the space shuttle program got deeply curtailed the Apollo programs facilities got deeply curtailed as well.
So instead of building all five, they ended up building pads B and C and then realizing that sounded kind of stupid. And so they renamed C the A, but it’s a complex of two instead of five pads. The vehicle assembly building and the roads for the crawlers and there’s actually, this really neat a point out on the roads for the crawlers. We were like ah, the road keeps going and the reason it keeps going it is because of the plans for future launch pads. And that land is still there and there is still the capacity to add more launch pads someday in the future.
Male Speaker: Someday so then let’s – I guess it got set up for the Apollo mission so that was sort of the original requirements for this whole facility.
Female Speaker: Yeah.
Male Speaker: So break it down for me then, I mean how did the launch facility get used from I guess when all the parts arrive Cape Canaveral to when they blast it off?
Female Speaker: So just like if you ever played Kerbal Space which I have now watched people do Fraser, can stop like speaking a foreign language I don’t understand. Just like with Kerbal vehicle assembly building down at the Kennedy Space Flight Center allows the different rocket components to be put one on top of the other using a series of cranes and harnesses basically. And they’d construct all of the parts of the Saturn rockets and later the space shuttle program inside this giant – essentially a warehouse and –
Male Speaker: But all the parts have come from all over the place, right?
Female Speaker: Yeah.
Male Speaker: Like they bring in the space shuttle boosters on trains coming from I forget –
Female Speaker: Barges.
Male Speaker: Yeah, they got pieces coming on barges and then it all just get assembled in this amazing building.
Female Speaker: Yes, and so they construct everything up on top of this four story tall crawler. They’ve switched up crawler since the Apollo age and back in the Apollo age it wasn’t just the Apollo rocket that they were assembling there. They also had part of the launch tower that got assembled up on that crawler as well. And so you have the launch platform, the attached launch arm and all of this gets assembled one piece at a time, stacked up on top of each other and then with the Apollo missions they roll them all the way out slowly but surely down the crawler trail –
Male Speaker: Hold on sorry before we go any further, have you got any ridiculous statistics on the VAB? I just want you know, any like –
Female Speaker: So my favorite ridiculous statistics on it is it was the tallest building in Florida for several years at 160 m tall. It was eventually supplanted by an insurance building, and my other stupid statistics on it is if you look at the picture of it there is a big US flag on one side of the more modern pictures of it. And each stripe on that modern buildings flag is the width of a school bus.
Male Speaker: The stars are like bigger than people, right?
Female Speaker: Yeah, they are.
Male Speaker: Yeah. So I got some more stuff here so one thing they – when I went and they told us was it got its own weather system?
Female Speaker: Yes, yes.
Male Speaker: So you can have clouds up above inside the VAB, it got 71 cranes inside of it – it’s –
Female Speaker: Have you got to go inside the VAB?
Male Speaker: No.
Female Speaker: Yeah, I haven’t either.
Male Speaker: No, it got 8 acres inside so just imagine like if you know an acre of land, eight of those and so it encloses 3,600,000 m³ of space.
Female Speaker: Yeah, it’s big.
Male Speaker: It’s just mental, yeah, and then has all kinds of – I forget what it was. It was like the largest – for a while there it was the largest building in the world and then –
Female Speaker: No, largest building in Florida or tallest building, Florida.
Male Speaker: Yeah, but like for just like volume and stuff –
Female Speaker: Oh, enclose volume.
Male Speaker: Yeah, but I think the Boeing facilities is bigger now, I’ve been to that, I’ve being inside that and it’s mentally huge yeah I’m looking great. So anyway, we got – hooked up this rocket, it has been assembled like if the Kerbal Space Program in the VAB and then it is crawled out to places unknown.
Female Speaker: And well, they know exactly where it is going so it’s places known. It’s either going to 39A, or 30 9B pick one. And once this happen they roll it out and they connected it to the launch tower that was out there and this had a whole series of little connectors that allowed them to do fueling and cooling, get the astronauts back and forth, get people who are working on the cargo back and forth so they are essentially building and un-building a multi-story structure every time did the launch.
So there’s the fixed launch pad, the mobile’s and it was able to swing back and forth for the space shuttle one and with all of this construction with all of the cement they had to put down to support this massive structure on the Swamp lands of Florida. One of the other things they had to figure out how to do was damping the acoustical noise because otherwise they are going to start shuttering things with sound and that’s never a good thing. So they had a sound damping system which basically meant they had a giant water tank and they’d flood the launch pad just prior to launch and that dampen the acoustical noise.
They actually had a white room for the astronauts up at the top of the tower where you would go up the tower in the elevator and there’s a room that you can keep your astronauts nice and safe and temperature controlled and then there’s these scary little bridges. At least to me there scary little bridges that go from these many story high launch towers, walk across this little tiny bridge and then you climb into your capsule.
Male Speaker: And those crawlers they go so slow, they just go just like a mile an hour I think and just slowly crawls. It takes all day from when they leave the vehicle assembly building to when they actually reach the launch pad. And there’s a great video of people walking alongside this thing and just to see the scale.
Female Speaker: Yeah.
Male Speaker: Just imagine, I mean you don’t want to tip. You can just imagine that’s about as fast as you could accelerate to without having this rocket to tip over.
Female Speaker: So what was kind of amazing is the crawlers themselves weighed 6 million pounds. That’s 2.7 thousand tons so the crawlers themselves were tiny compared to the spacecraft and these are really scales that human brains just don’t cope really well. And it’s interesting to see how all of this has slowly changed over time. So we started with Apollo and they had to figure out everything with Apollo so they had flame deflectors, they had acoustical dampeners all of these different ways to try and keep people safe.
They had an emergency evacuation system, which was a fancy word for a zip line that – to allow you to go from the top to the bottom very quickly in a controlled non-doc kind of manner, but then they had to innovate everything again for the significantly smaller space shuttles. So the VAB itself got reconfigured so that they could roll this space shuttles in and of their little tails could go up through the top of a notch in the doors, they had to reconfigured how cranes work on the inside because now instead of stacking things they’re having to make them side-by-side.
And then with the space shuttle there is the issue of they have the cargo bays and the cargo bays that’s completely new. They didn’t have that during the Apollo era so they had to reconfigure how the launch pads worked so that they have a basically set of mobile swingable scaffolding that can swing out to allow people to access everything inside the cargo bays as needed. Check on cargo, connect batteries, un-connect batteries the whole nine yards and then swing that away.
So I have seen this especially on the pad, but I’ve only seen it when it was covered up with this arm and it just – it really looks like a construction site when that swinging arm is in place covering up the cargo bay and –
Male Speaker: Yeah. It’s like a big metal glove that sort of wrap around a whole part of the space shuttle and then as they’re adjusting – just about to make their preparation to launch they’ll swing this whole arm back and I guess that leaves this sort of little more exposed and a little more in accessible for that time until they actually you know, launch it off. And if they need to they could bring that array back in and hold it snugly again.
Female Speaker: And they also with the space shuttle they changed how the rocket is fuel. So with the space shuttle they had the two side’s solid rocket boosters, but then they also had the central liquid fuel booster. And so they had to be able to pump that’s full of all the different fuels, so we’re looking mostly at liquid oxygen is or troublemaker. And so they had to have a cap up on top of it with recapture all of the vented gas that was coming out and wouldn’t invent all of it out into the atmosphere and lose it.
So they had to add all sort of new and advanced systems and so every time we go to use these we have to change how they are used. Think about new concerns, new ways to protect both the people in the spacecraft and also the land around the spacecraft.
Male Speaker: And so on a typical mission then let’s just kinda go back to the beginning. So they would bring all the parts, they would assembly it either stack it up like as you say Kerbal Space Program or side mate it for the space shuttle. They would then crawl it out to the launch pad few days, sometimes weeks before the launch. It would – the crawler would be able to sort of turn and go to one or the other of the launch pads either A or B and then – what would happen and launch date?
Female Speaker: So on launch day you would either swing away or drop away the unwanted part of the launch tower, the mobile part of the launch tower. And load your astronauts in, then dropped the bridges at a certain T minus moment and then prior to ignition of the engines you’d flood everything with water so that you can damp the acoustical noise and one of the most disconcerting things is when those engines fires they of course generate vast amount of steam. So for a few moments you actually lose sight of your spacecraft and all of steam. And the first time I saw that I had this moment of oh, oh dear, is that supposed to happen because –
Male Speaker: Oh, no, is it exploding? Yeah.
Female Speaker: Yeah, exactly. And then as they take off what’s kinda cool is that dolphins would sometimes jump up out of the water to say hey, what’s going on and all the birds fly away in terror.
Male Speaker: Smart and sometimes frogs fly through the air roasted by steam. So okay so now that sort of – I mean, launch complex 39 was last used the last space shuttle launch, is that right?
Female Speaker: Well, so they actually did use one of the launch pads with the RA series rockets back during the constellation program which NASA has set since canceled. They were trying to come up with a new series of rockets and so they did use one of the launch complex 39s to do that one and only ever test firing an Aries rocket up. But now they’re in the process of doing massive reconstruction out there and some of the reconstruction was started while the space shuttle program was still going on.
They started on B first doing massive additions of lightning poles, and as they did all of this the idea was to create a new clean launch pad. So you basically have big thing of cement, drive your vehicle out plop it down on the clean launch pad. And they had permanent grounded lightning attractors around it so that the poles would get hit instead of the spacecraft. And what’s neat about this is NASA was already thinking ahead when they started doing this to using this launch complex for commercial launches.
So what we’re looking at right now is 39A, is in the process of getting reconfigured by SpaceX to be used for their Falcon series. So in 2015, hopefully during the first quarter of 2015 they are going to be using it to launch the Falcon Heavy.
Male Speaker: Yeah.
Female Speaker: And what’s kind of awesome is this may also be our return to the moon for everyday people in some ways, but instead of sending human it’s going to be as some, as the google Lunar X prize teams are scheduled to launch in some of those early Q1 2015 flights so we have that to look forward to. And here SpaceX didn’t get the vehicle assembly building that’s not theirs. So they are actually looking to assemble their rockets horizontal, roll them out and stand them up and I find that a little bit terrifying but that’s the future that we are looking at.
Male Speaker: Well, that’s what the Russians did it, right?
Female Speaker: Yeah.
Male Speaker: When you see the Protons and the Soyuz, they make this trip from where they are constructed to the bicara cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and then they are lifted up in this crazy structure. Same as kind of thing they got this launch array that then pulls back people will see the video but I’m making a hand gesture and sort of back and then the rocket is able to launch but the scale is the trick right, like the –
Female Speaker: Yeah.
Male Speaker: Like the Aires 5 and they Falcon Heavy are going to be monster rockets so it’s going to be a lot tougher than just the regular Falcon to try and do that trick.
Female Speaker: And what’s interesting to me is the VAB is still going to be in use by NASA for a set of rockets that nominally one hopes are going to start launching in 2017, maybe this is the space launch system. NASA hasn’t given up on building its own sets of rockets and so they have kept – they’ve kept the VAB for themselves and the idea is that this new space launch system will be used to launch as a backup for launching crews, as a way of launching different spacecraft. They’re planning nominally to start doing Luna flybys again in the future and hopefully by no later than 2021, they are saying return humans to the moon.
Now, I’m not sure how I feel about any of these time scales because we’ve been watching SpaceX for years. Slowly build up to getting there launch craft going, testing out there different driving capsules. I feel extremely confident about the SpaceX series, but the space launch systems we haven’t seen yet. And while they are working to build on past space technologies, building on the space shuttle, technology in particular, I don’t know if using it to get to the moon by 2021 is a realistic assessment. But this is why I don’t men, space flight because I am bitterly, deeply pessimistic about our ability to complete rockets on time.
Male Speaker: Right, and this is the kind of conversation that we tend to have on a weekly base hanging out so I’m not going to go into one of my rants. My classic rants and you’re here on astronomy cast which we hope is an episode that will stand the test of time, the news, the history we are providing on launch complex 39. And we would always be the same so yeah, so good luck SpaceX. We hope that works out well for you and good luck to the space launch system.
Female Speaker: And hey, maybe you and I can be down there in 2015 to see a launch that would be an awesome way to spend a winter day.
Male Speaker: Done, it’s a date. All right, well thanks a lot Pamela.
Female Speaker: My pleasure.
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