NASA’s launch complex 39B: Paving our path to Mars

-August 10, 2017

On June 14, 2017, NASA celebrated the 50th anniversary of Launch Complex 39B (LC39B). My recent visit to the site took me back to Friday, May 5, 1961 when I was 11 years old. Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. went into a 15 minute, 26 second suborbital flight as the first American in space inside the very small Freedom 7 Mercury spacecraft. That’s the day I began my quest to be an electronics engineer. The Mercury Redstone 3 rocket, with Freedom 7 atop, launched from Launch Complex 5 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. I watched ABC all that day, not missing any of the coverage. This effort began our quest to set foot on the Moon.

Now in 2017, I had the awesome privilege of being behind-the-scenes at Launch Complex 39B. The Orion Spacecraft will be launched from here atop the Space Launch System (SLS) – the most powerful rocket in history – in two years, on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), and ultimately will carry us to our first stop in deep space: the Red Planet, Mars. In the late 2030s, we will set foot on a planet other than Earth for the first time.

Figure 1  The SLS (Image courtesy of NASA)

For my journey at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Complex, I was escorted by Matthew Miller from the NASA Communication Office, who introduced me to Nick Moss, Deputy Project Manager, LC-39B, a young man who is a mechanical engineer by trade, but knew every aspect of the Launch Complex and gave me an excellent overview of the electronics and other key features of the area being renovated for the Orion spacecraft and SLS rocket.

Figure 2  Matthew Miller (right) and I posed in front of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the only building to assemble a rocket that carried humans to the surface of another world. Next stop, Mars. For 30 years, it served as the final assembly point for the Space Shuttle as the orbiter was attached to an external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters for launch. Without Matthew’s help, I would not have such awesome tech articles to bring to EDN and Planet Analog.
(Image courtesy of Loretta Taranovich)

Some history

Launch Pad 39B was originally constructed in the 1960s and was the starting point for Apollo, which led to America’s landing on the Moon. The new renovations will bring humanity to Mars.

Figure 3  Workers pouring concrete at Launch Pad 39B on March 7, 1966. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Originally, NASA planned to use Ares I to launch Orion, the Mars spacecraft intended for human spaceflight missions after the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. Ares I was cancelled by U.S. president Barack Obama in October 2010 so NASA commissioned the Space Launch System (SLS) as its new vehicle for human exploration beyond Earth's orbit.


Some of the key renovations in progress are:

  • adding a new communications and wiring system
  • replacing the Environmental Control System
  • new heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems
  • replacement of various water system pipes within the pad perimeter

In addition, there is:

  • installation of new ignition overpressure/sound suppression bypass valves at the valve complex
  • reinforcement and replacement of the pad surface crawlerway
  • refurbishment of the pad's cryogenic propellant storage spheres

Later in this article we have more details about these additions as well as the Flame Trench (Figure 4).

Figure 4  Here you see Nick Moss (left) and Editor Steve T (right) directly in front of the Flame Trench. The SLS exhaust will be directed straight back away from where we are standing (thank goodness!) to the north, in the direction of the water. Towards the north side the flame trench is about 571 feet long, 58 feet wide, and 42 feet high. (Image courtesy of Loretta Taranovich)

Two side flame deflectors, repurposed from space shuttle launches, are being refurbished, and will be reinstalled at pad level on either side of the flame trench to help reduce damage to the pad and the SLS rocket.

In the background of Figure 4, you will see on the right a black numeral 3 on a cylindrical post, and on the left, a black numeral 6 on an identical post. These are two of six posts that will be a major part of a support system that will hold the SLS Launch Platform. In Figure 5 is the crawler that will transport the SLS Launch Platform (Figure 7) to Pad 39B. The SLS will be on the Launch Platform when the Crawler moves underneath the Launch Platform and raises it up off the ground for the slow journey to LC39B.

The crawler

NASA's crawler-transporters are two of the largest vehicles ever built. They have carried NASA rockets and spacecraft to the launch pad for the last 50 years, and will continue to be the "workhorses" of the nation's space program.

The crawlers are being modified to carry NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) with the Orion spacecraft atop it.


Figure 5  A crawler similar to the one seen here will slide under the SLS Launch Platform and carry it to Launch Complex 39B, a short distance away (Image courtesy of Loretta Taranovich)


Figure 6  A Crawler Tread Belt "Shoe". Each one is 7.5 feet long, 1.5 feet wide, and weighs over one ton. There are eight tracked tread belts on the Crawler, each with 57 tread belt shoes like this. (Image courtesy of Loretta Taranovich)


Figure 7  The SLS Launch Platform under which the Crawler will slide, lift up, and slowly move towards Launch Complex 39B. The SLS will be mounted to this platform before the journey to LC39B. (Image courtesy of Loretta Taranovich)



Loading comments...

Write a Comment

To comment please Log In