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Bolden Touts Progress During Mobile Launcher Tour
Charles Bolden at the mobile launcher NASA Administrator Charles Bolden talks with news media during a tour of the mobile launcher at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The ML will be used for the Space Launch System, a rocket designed to carry astronauts beyond Earth orbit. Photo credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis
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Looking down from the mobile launcherThe view from above: The ML's tower reaches 355 feet up from the surface of the platform at the bottom. Adding in the height of the platform as it stands on pedestals like those at the launch pad, the top of the ML is about 400 feet above the ground. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
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The exhaust port on the mobile launcherLooking up: The exhaust port cut into the ML's surface is about a third the size it will need to be for the Space Launch System. The ML was designed originally for the Ares I rocket, which has since been cancelled. To accommodate the new, larger SLS, the cutout will be increased to a 60-foot-by-30-foot rectangle.Phot credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
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The mobile launcherThe Mobile Launcher includes a service structure on the platform, rather than relying on a structure in place at the launch pad. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
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Artist concept of the SLS on the MLThe Space Launch System as it will look standing on the Mobile Launcher at the launch pad. Artist concept: NASA
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A major part of NASA’s recently announced heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) already is here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The mobile launcher, or ML, standing next to Kennedy’s Vehicle Assembly Building will be strengthened and swing arms will be installed during the next five years to support the SLS, a rocket quite a bit larger than the Ares I launch vehicle the tower was originally built for, NASA officials said during a media tour of the ML on Oct. 11.

"I think it's exciting anytime you find that some asset you have is going to be able to be converted or transitioned to another program because it's one less dollar that you have to spend," Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, said while standing under the 355-foot-tall ML. "This is tremendous that we get to do this."

Bolden's visit to Kennedy on Oct. 11 came on the heels of last month’s unveiling of the Space Launch System’s design. SLS will be used to launch astronauts far from their home planet on voyages to the asteroids, the moon and Mars.

NASA also will build the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle spacecraft, which will ride into orbit on top of the SLS after lifting off from Kennedy’s Launch Pad 39B, to make the trips into deep space.

With current planning calling for four space shuttle main engines and two solid rocket boosters plus an upper stage, the early version of SLS is reminiscent of the Saturn V that lofted Apollo crews to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, some of its technology is taken straight from the Space Shuttle Program.

Just as the rocket is a reminder of past successes, the mobile launcher also will be fitted with elements that were not needed for shuttle launches, mainly arms to feed and vent the liquid-powered engines' propellants. As during the Apollo/Saturn V launches, those arms will have to remain connected in some cases until the last moment, then they must swing quickly and safely out of the rocket's way.

Larry Schultz, the ML project manager at Kennedy, smiled recalling his first thoughts of the assignment to modify the launcher for a new rocket that eventually will be the largest launch vehicle ever built.

"Whatever they want me to do, I'll go design and build," he said.

Because the SLS will weigh two-and-a-half times more than an Ares I, Schultz said workers will retrofit the platform with stronger, larger support beams. The exhaust cut-out also will be widened from a 22-foot square to a 60-by-30-foot rectangle.

Currently, the SLS with Orion is due to make its first test flight, without a crew, in 2017, Schultz said.

Bob Cabana, Kennedy's center director, said the ML represents one facet of the changeover to allow the space center to become a multipurpose spaceport, serving several kinds of missions and rockets, both government and commercial.

Other elements of the change include basing two new programs at Kennedy, including the first at the center for human spaceflight, the Commercial Crew Program, or CCP. The 21st Century Ground Systems Program has also been established at Kennedy, charged with adapting and upgrading the center's infrastructure for the future, as well as managing the processing and launch for the SLS. Kennedy already hosts the agency’s Launch Services Program, which handles launching NASA’s science and research missions that do not involve astronauts.

Launch Pad 39B has undergone extensive work, with the removal of the shuttle's launch gantry and a million feet of copper cabling. Further modernization work will continue with the installation of fiber optic cables and the refurbishment of the flame trench. Pad 39B is being modified with the needs of several different rockets and spacecraft in mind, including those that commercial companies will operate.

Cabana said no one should have been surprised by the progress that's been made in the few months since space shuttles were retired.

"We have a clear path forward," Cabana said. "Change is extremely hard, but look where we are now, what we've done. I think we're in a very good position."

Steven Siceloff, KSC