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Launch Pad 39B Retooled for Future
Launch Pad 39B after shuttle towers removed.Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida as it stands following the removal of the fixed service structure and rotating service structure that were used to support the space shuttle. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
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The flame trench at pad 39B. The flame trench at Launch Pad 39B will be refurbished and the flame deflector in the middle could become portable to handle future rockets. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
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Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida recently made way for a new generation of rockets when workers took down the gantry that stood in support of space shuttles for 30 years and replaced it with, well, not much really.

But that was the idea.

Whatever rocket heads out to the pad in the future, it's going to bring its support structure with it. With that in mind, Pad B will provide all the fluids, electrical, and communications services to the launch platform.

"This is progress," said Regina Spellman, deputy project manager for the pad's makeover.

NASA plans to use the Mobile Launcher, or ML, to carry the new Space Launch System rocket to the pad, and could use one of the Mobile Launcher Platforms, or MLP, for commercial vehicles, Spellman said. She said, “all Pad systems are being designed to support both the ML and the MLP.”

Construction will start soon to build two electric elevators at the pad to replace the aged one there now. The new ones will be sized to reach all levels of the ML, which is being used as the platform that carries the new Space Launch System rocket to the pad, and the MLP. The MLP will be used for any commercial rocket that will be interested to fly from the Pad B.

"Pretty much everything that's staying is for access to the ML and the MLP," Spellman said. "What we're trying to do is not preclude a mobile launcher or mobile launcher platform because there are a number of scenarios with commercial companies possibly using the MLP. With anything we do, we want to make it so you can still use the Pad with an ML or MLP."

Along with the dramatic changes on top of the pad that removed the shuttle structures, there is a considerable amount of refurbishment under way inside the launch pad perimeter.

A million feet of cables already have been removed, as have the storage tanks for hypergolic fuels, the corrosive chemicals that powered the shuttle's thrusters in space. Instrumentation that monitors and controls the facility and ground systems as well as the communications systems have been replaced with new state-of-the-art equipment. A new weather instrumentation system has been installed at the pad that monitors meteorological conditions and detects lightning.

“We are also going to spend a large amount of funds upgrading the existing infrastructure” said Regina.

Chipped and damaged concrete pedestals supporting propellant lines running from storage tanks to the pad's surface are being fixed and sealed to handle at least 25 more years beside the ocean.

The huge white spheres that held liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen have been emptied, too. They will be repainted, but not taken down. The old liquid oxygen water-cooled vaporizer will be replaced with modern, air-cooled one that is far more efficient than the water-cooled system used the past 30 years.

The reworking of the pad began while the shuttle fleet was still active. Three large lightning towers, each taller than the Vehicle Assembly Building, were completed in time for the shuttle Endeavour to be positioned on the pad as a backup for Atlantis ahead of the STS-125 mission to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

Pad B was the starting line for the astronauts of Apollo 10 and on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission before it hosted space shuttle liftoffs and then the Ares I-X flight test on Oct. 28, 2009.

The flame trench, lined with fireproof bricks and concrete, also will see significant changes. For one, the flame deflector, which is the pyramid in the middle of the trench, may need to be moveable, as it was during Apollo. That's because the launch pad is to be set up to serve different rockets, and each one needs a different flame deflector arrangement.

The flame deflector splits the exhaust from the rocket into different directions of the flame trench. The water that is dumped into it at liftoff keeps sound waves from reverberating directly back on the rocket.

"I think the flame deflector's going to be our biggest challenge if we have to make it moveable," Spellman said.

While Pad B undergoes its extensive work, its twin, Pad A, will be put into a mothball state, the pad may be reactivated if a commercial company decides to launch from it.

Steven Siceloff, KSC