The next generation of space exploration will begin in summer 2020 with the inaugural launch of NASA’s Space Launch System Exploration Mission from Mobile Launcher 1. It will end with man – or, more likely, woman – landing on Mars.
This new era of space travel is just the latest piece in a story of continual innovation that includes RS&H from its very beginnings.
Original Mobile Launchers
Despite its name, Mobile Launcher 1 is not the first mobile launcher to be used in Kennedy Space Center’s launch vehicle programs. In the 1960s, as the United States prepared to send astronauts to the moon, the first mobile launcher came to be. Over the years, more mobile launchers, called mobile launch platforms, joined the original in transporting astronauts to space, with RS&H involved in the creation of each iteration.
The original mobile launchers and mobile launch platforms are now out of commission due to the cancellation of the Apollo and space shuttle programs. As a result, the United States has in recent years paid for seats on Russian rockets to get astronauts to the International Space Station.
That will soon come to an end. Mobile Launcher 1 is nearly ready to enable the launching of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1). It will be joined in the coming years by more launchers for even bigger vehicles, which will not only end the United States’ reliance on Russia, but will also allow astronauts to travel to the moon and eventually to Mars.
RS&H has been involved with Mobile Launcher 1, the first of this generation, since 2006, when it was conceived for a different program. So has the woman who now serves as construction project manager for the launcher.
RS&H works on SLS Mobile Launcher 1
Paula Endicott never thought she would know so much about space travel.
“My mom thinks I’m a rocket scientist,” said Paula, ML1 construction project manager. “I’m not, but I do have a lot of conversations I never thought I would have.”
As Paula and the entire team work to complete the mobile launcher, they must consider numerous complex factors, including rocket exhaust flow, abrasive blasting – and raking rocks.
“The rocks under the crawler transporter need to be raked to reduce the compaction under the crawler transporter – providing a softer surface for the crawler transporter to travel on,” she explained.
Some of the project considerations are more down-to-earth, though, she said. Strong project management and a highly skilled technical staff are especially important in a project of this complexity and magnitude.
Information Request System
The latest phase in the mobile launcher project has been aided in part by the introduction of an internal information request system.
Engineering construction projects such as this one necessitate individual design packages for each of the different parts within the project. In a project of this size, that means the design and construction teams are dealing with hundreds of documents. They must ensure all design pieces are not only correctly constructed, but also that the different parts fit together into one cohesive facility.
In order to ensure the project’s success, Paula and her team implemented the information request system, which includes details about who is coordinating a part of the project, what that person has done and what’s been communicated. If issues crop up, then the team can go back and access the information about the project thus far. The RS&H on-site construction representatives who interface directly with the contractor, sub-contractors and clients in the field also rely heavily on it.
“That’s been instrumental in this last phase of the project,” said Paula.
Looking Toward the Launch
In total, 20 to 35 associates across the country are currently working to ready ML1 for its first launch. At the project’s peak, up to 90 associates nationwide supported the design of ground systems, facility systems and ground support equipment for ML1. It has taken years, numerous stakeholders and countless sleepless nights to get to this point.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to near the end of this project with NASA,” said Paula. “We love working with the agency, and seeing the mobile launcher in action will be the culmination of all of the hard work from many RS&H associates, past and present.”
With the first launch scheduled for late summer 2020, only two milestones remain.
In the next milestone, currently scheduled for the end of May, workers will transport ML1 to Launch Pad 39B for full operational testing of all systems. The second roll to the pad will include a “wet” dress rehearsal for launch with the vehicle on board. During the wet dress rehearsal, liquid hydrogen and oxygen will be loaded into the vehicle from ML1. Workers will ready all systems, proceed through a full countdown and stop only nine seconds before launch. The propellants will then be drained back from the vehicle to ML1 and the pad storage systems.
The third trip to the pad will be for the launch of the SLS, NASA’s most powerful rocket to-date.
Future of Space Travel
Initial launches from ML1 will be uncrewed. But by the mid-2020s, they will include astronauts. By 2026, astronauts will journey back to the moon and eventually will explore Mars.
Paula says working on a project of this importance is an honor.
“I don’t know of many engineers who aren’t geeks who grew up watching Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly or Serenity,” said Paula. “Sometimes, you have to take a small step back from your work to realize how amazing what we get to do every day is.”
But as the first launch nears, those steps back are far and few between, as the Mobile Launcher team works furiously to help ready the country – and the world – for another giant leap forward.
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About the author
- In her role as a communications professional, Eliza gets to tell the stories of RS&H associates and the amazing work they do for clients, colleagues and their communities.