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Kennedy Space Center's quiet rebirth slowly taking shape

Kennedy Space Center is relatively quiet these days, but there’s a rebirth taking shape in the historic buildings and grounds.

On a recent tour, I was able to see ongoing work to retool large areas of the complex for a new era of space flight. I saw and learned more about four big projects happening at NASA that I had only read about before.

First of all, anticipation is building for the unmanned Orion flight in December. The new capsule, designed to carry astronauts into deep space again, will be sitting on top of a huge Delta IV heavy rocket.

Lockheed Martin is building the capsule in the renovated Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy. Florida threw $35 million at the project to make sure it was located here. The project employs about 150 people currently. The goal is to have a manned Orion launch in 2021.

On my tour there last week, I saw the capsule under construction in the 1964 operations building, now named after Neil Armstrong and completely renovated. The Orion is the first capsule to be built at Kennedy. It the past, capsules were only inspected there after being manufactured elswhere.

The second big renovation I saw was at the Vehicle Assembly Building itself. The equivalent of a 52-story skyscraper, it is one of the largest buildings by volume on the planet. It was built in the 60’s to accommodate enormous Saturn V rockets; it was also used for 30 years to assemble Space Shuttles.

NASA engineer Jason Hopkins, who showed me the VAB, pointed out bright orange fiber optic cables running through metal frames along the walkways high up in the building.

“These cable trays here were stacked high with cables from the Apollo program and the shuttle program until recently. The fiber optics have replaced a large volume of cables and circuits. After Apollo, they didn’t necessarily gut everything,” he said. “From that perspective having some down time is good.”

Also being retooled at the VAB: the crawler platform that moves assembled launch rockets to the launchpads.

Hopkins oversees planning for the complex’s Ground Systems Development and Operations. In the past, rockets would often spend a month on the launch pad before liftoff. Now, Hopkins said the goal is to occupy the pad for only a week, allowing other rockets to use it.

Even if new spaceports spring up all over Texas and California, they won’t have the heritage, expertise and structures that Florida has. And that is good news for Orlando and Central Florida’s tech industry.

“If it’s leaving the planet’s gravity and it’s carrying people on board, it’s probably going out of Kennedy,” said Jules Schneider, a senior manager for Lockheed Martin’s Orion space capsule operations.

Hopkins and the press people I spoke to also explained the Commercial Crew Program. Later this year, NASA plans to award one or more contracts that will transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station by the end of 2017. Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX are competing. Boeing has said it plans to bring several operations to Florida if it wins the contract.

And finally, NASA is also prepping for the eventual Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which is being tested and designed to carry the Orion capsule to an asteroid and eventually Mars.

SpaceX, which also operates in California and is planning a new launch facility in Texas, is also developing its own heavy lift systems, the Falcon Heavy. And there are plenty of questions about whether NASA will get properly funded for all of its goals. But there is a new era dawning, and it could  mean big things for Central Florida. 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Heavy EngineeringManufacturing and EngineeringAerospace ManufacturingOrion Space MissionNASAKennedy Space CenterNeil Armstrong
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