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Solving Today's Challenges for Tomorrow's Future
06.29.12
 
KSC's environmentally friendly Propellants North Facility

Image above: NASA's Kennedy Space Center opens the doors to the environmentally friendly Propellants North Administrative and Maintenance Facility in 2011. Image credit: NASA
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Atlantis ends Space Shuttle Program with STS-135 mission landing

Image above: Space shuttle Atlantis brings a close to NASA's Space Shuttle Program with the STS-135 mission, landing on Runway 15 at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility. Image credit: NASA
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Discovery departs for Washington, D.C., atop a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft

Image above: Space shuttle Discovery departs NASA's Kennedy Space Center for Washington, D.C., atop a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft in 2011. Image credit: NASA
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SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Dragon to ISS

Image above: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches the company's Dragon capsule to the International Space Station in 2012. Image credit: NASA
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Artist's depiction of Kennedy Space Center's future

Image above: An artist's depiction of what the future holds for NASA's Kennedy Space Center, including government and commercial customers. Image credit: NASA
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NASA's Kennedy Space Center is transitioning from doing things that are extraordinary to doing extraordinary things regularly.

In 2010, President Barack Obama set the agency on a course to provide new avenues into space for its astronauts without giving up on ambitious desires to explore the reaches of the solar system. From today's robotic probes to Mars and Jupiter to the future's heavy launchers designed to take humanity to deep space, the spaceport at Kennedy is gearing up for a remarkable future.

At the time, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said, "We have been given a new path in space that will enable our country to develop greater capabilities, transforming the state of the art in aerospace technologies. We will continue to maintain and expand vital partnerships around the world. It will help us retool for the industries and jobs of the future that will be vital for long-term economic growth and national security."

The center faced some challenges early in the decade with the cancelation of NASA's Constellation Program, which saw a successful flight test of Ares I-X a year earlier. The work on Constellation was not lost, though, and as programs such as the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) emerged, there became new uses for its hardware, data and workforce.

"Change brings with it opportunity," said Center Director Bob Cabana. "We don't back away from something just because it's hard. We decide what needs to get done and we go make it happen."

One by one, the Kennedy team methodically processed and launched the space shuttles on their final journeys: Discovery on STS-133, a flawless flight to outfit the International Space Station residents with a new module for research; Endeavour on STS-134, a complex mission to deliver to the station the Alpha-Magnetic Spectrometer, which relays cosmic particle data to Earth; and Atlantis on STS-135, the final chapter of the space shuttle's 30-year era, delivering a stockpile of supplies and parts to the station.

A team of shuttle workers currently is ensuring that the shuttles and other artifacts are safely prepared for their new homes and the lessons learned through the program's history are gathered for future generations.

"This truly is a team that can take on any challenge and make it happen," Cabana said. "I can't say enough about their professionalism and dedication during these transitional times."

In order to make the space station the research hub it was intended to be, the group that supported its assembly here on the ground began to redefine its focus.

"We reorganized in order to better support the full utilization of the ISS and to increase our fundamental research," said Bill Dowdell, deputy director of the International Space Station Ground Processing and Research Project Office. "As an orbiting laboratory, the ISS provides a microgravity test bed to conduct innovative science. Plus, as a human-tended low Earth orbit outpost, critical systems required for humans to explore into deep space can be validated in the relative safety of the station, close to home."

During the next 10 years, researchers expect a wealth of research to return from the space station, resulting in new vaccines, medicines and a number of commercial applications that are currently unanticipated.

A realignment of Kennedy's other core programs also was in order to support the agency's new direction. The center's Engineering and Technology directorates merged to provide a matrix of services to a multitude of programs and partners, from research and technology development to design, development and implementation of hardware and software.

Meanwhile, the Center Planning and Development Office took significant steps to grow strategic new partnerships and position the spaceport to become a multiuser space launch complex. The office's potential partnerships span from clean energy and research tenants to new uses for the pads in Kennedy's Launch Complex 39.

Some of those new uses could come from partners of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which was established at Kennedy in 2011 to accelerate the development of astronaut transportation capabilities to and from low Earth orbit, and is the center's first opportunity to manage a human spaceflight program for NASA.

One facility already seeing a steady flow of traffic is the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) runway, where the performance, suspension and aerodynamic characteristics of aircraft and cars are being tested by commercial entities. This year, the relatively flat, grassy area north of the runway will become a rock- and crater-filled planetary scape for NASA's Morpheus lander to negotiate through, simulating what a spacecraft might encounter while landing on another terrestrial surface.

GSDO currently is refurbishing Kennedy's launch pads, Launch Control Center and Vehicle Assembly Building. It also is modifying and strengthening the new mobile launcher and old crawler-transporters to support the new heavy-lift rocket, SLS, and Orion spacecraft, which will expand human presence beyond low Earth orbit and enable new missions of exploration across the solar system.

"We're taking the agency's launch and processing capabilities to the next level," said Pepper Phillips, program manager of GSDO. "By building on five decades of experience and planning to support future rockets and spacecraft, Kennedy will be the bedrock to launching NASA's exploration goals for decades to come."

In 2011, the Propellants North Administration and Maintenance Facility opened its doors with the highest rating in green building standards -- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum rating. Propellants North is a "net-zero" facility, which means it generates more energy on a yearly basis than it requires to operate.

One directorate that has remained constant for nearly 15 years is NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP). The LSP team successfully managed and launched complex scientific and robotic missions to Jupiter, the moon and Mars in this decade. It sent a mission to study oceans and another to study the sun.

"The Launch Services Program will be bustling for the foreseeable future," said Chuck Dovale, LSP's deputy director. "We're already preparing for missions that will continue to expand our knowledge of our home planet and beyond."

Kennedy's Education Directorate continues to find new ways to inspire a new generation of pioneers through innovative programs, such as the Lunabotics Mining Competition, which gives college students the opportunity to design and develop excavators much like they would if they were designing a machine bound for another planet.

"It's these kinds of programs that are helping our future engineers and scientists develop ideas and solutions which could be used in the not-too-distant future," said Hortense Diggs, chief of Kennedy's Education Programs Division.

Kennedy's Engineering and Technology Directorate also is digging in the dirt for future missions. NASA's Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction, or RESOLVE, has been tested several times across the globe in Hilo, Hawaii, where the soil resembles the lunar surface.

Perhaps the most significant milestone in this decade occurred on May 22, 2012, when Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. Three days later, the company's Dragon capsule became the first privately launched spacecraft to berth with the station, validating the agency's decision to rely on commercial partners to re-supply the orbiting outpost.

Dragon also is being outfitted with life support systems and a launch abort system that could make it ready to transport astronaut crews for CCP around the middle of the decade. Six other aerospace companies also are maturing launch vehicle and spacecraft designs under Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) activities, including Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK), Boeing, Blue Origin, Excalibur Almaz Inc., Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

"There is a real need to have some redundancy in our capability up and down to the International Space Station and the Commercial Crew Program is going to provide that redundancy," said Ed Mango, CCP manager. "The next time you see an American rocket lifting off with NASA astronauts on board it will most likely be through this program."

The resounding theme of this decade and of the coming decades is that Kennedy, even at 50 years old, still is in its infancy and its list of extraordinary accomplishments will only continue to grow as it transitions into the world's most affordable, sustainable and premier launch site of the future.

"I know we will face significant challenges in the years ahead," Cabana said, "but we have faced them before, and we will rise above them as we have in the past."

 
 
Rebecca Regan
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center