Image above: In Firing Room 3 of the Launch Control Center, technicians are removing legacy consoles and monitors to make way for new systems designed to be flexible so controllers can process and launch multiple types of rockets and spacecraft, whether they are government or commercial models. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
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Image above: The historical nature of legacy consoles and monitors in Firing Room 3 of the Launch Control Center is marked with an "artifact" label as some will be displayed in museums and other educational institutions. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
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NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla.
For more than 40 years, the Firing Rooms of the Launch Control Center, or LCC, have served as the "brain" for launches at NASA's Florida Spaceport. Space agency and contactor personnel staffed consoles monitoring every aspect of launch countdowns. Whether an Apollo-Saturn rocket or the space shuttle, the focus was always on one program. In the near future, however, the Kennedy Space Center control rooms could support a variety of upcoming launch vehicles.
When the LCC and its four Firing Rooms were built in the 1960s, all attention was on launching the Saturn V vehicles that would take astronauts to the lunar surface. In the years following the conclusion of Apollo, teams staffing the consoles focused solely on sending space shuttle crews to Earth orbit to conduct research, deploy, service and retrieve satellites, as well as construct the International Space Station.
Kennedy's Launch Complex 39 is now transitioning to be able to support multiple users such as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the Space Launch System, or SLS, and spacecraft for the Commercial Crew Program. The Firing Rooms are also being modified to be more generic in nature for upcoming programs.
"While our first focus will be on supporting Orion and SLS, we want to be able to be multi-disciplined, supporting other launch vehicles that may be coming along," said Stephen Cox, NASA Operations Manager for End-to-End Command and Control, and Communications Elements. "That could include commercial or other NASA customers."
That adaptability will be crucial as NASA moves forward. According to the recent Kennedy Space Center Future Development Concept report, "In the years ahead, Kennedy will transform from a government and program-focused, single-user launch complex to a more capability-centric and cost-effective multi-user spaceport. Kennedy's new mission will be to enable both government and commercial space providers with facilities, (and an) experienced workforce (with) the knowledge necessary to support existing mission sets and new space programs."
"Flexibility in design is now the key, as we prepare for the future," said Cox. "We want to be sure we are building the right tools for the jobs ahead."
Orion is part of NASA's plans to explore beyond low Earth orbit and into deep space. The Space Launch System is an advanced heavy-lift launch vehicle that will provide the capability to boost spacecraft such as Orion for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. Plans also call for commercial companies to provide crew transport vehicles ferrying astronauts to the space station in low Earth orbit.
About six months ago, crews began removing the legacy consoles, cables and flooring from Firing Room 3, much of which had been in place since the Apollo era.
"One of the many changes is the electrical and data cables being replaced," Cox said. "New codes require cables that won't burn. That's a positive step since ensuring safety has always been our foremost concern and continues to be with the work going on now."
While old is making way for new state-of-the-art equipment, history is being preserved.
"Representatives of several museums and other educational institutions have come in and identified artifacts they would like to display," said Cox. "The Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the California Science Center in Los Angeles were among those requesting artifacts. We're proud these consoles will be used to help tell Kennedy's story."
As work progresses, Cox's team still faces some challenges.
"Since we don't know specifically all the launch vehicles the new Firing Room configuration will support, we have to design in the ability to modify systems as we go along," he said. "Certain things you know will be needed such as data, voice and video communications. We also have 'smart' systems that mean fewer people on individual launch teams."
"Smart systems" include devices incorporating functions for sensing, actuation and control. They are capable of analyzing a situation based on the available data in a predictive or adaptive manner, thereby performing appropriate actions.
Better systems will allow for more efficient staffing of Firing Rooms. During shuttle launches, approximately 200 managers, test conductors and engineers were stationed in the prime firing room for the mission at hand.
"We want to reduce the number of people required to support mission processing and launches," Cox said. "At the same time we want to make sure there is the right number of people to do the job."
Once the modifications to Firing Room 3 are complete, its first role will be to serve as a development laboratory in support of up-to-date systems.
"We plan to work on implementing the new Launch Control System, or LCS," Cox said. "The LCS will be the successor to the Launch Processing System."
The Launch Processing System was the highly automated, computer-controlled system used to process and check out the space shuttle from its arrival at Kennedy and continuing through liftoff.
"The plan is to restructure the space center's command and control system," said Cox.
Initial testing of the software developed in Firing Room 3 will take place in the newly modified Firing Room 1. This will include checking systems at Launch Pad 39-B, last used for the Ares I-X flight test successfully launched October 28, 2009.
"The LCS will ensure we can operate electrical systems, propellant storage spheres, ground support equipment and other systems at the pad," Cox said. "We also want to be sure capability is built in to operate systems remotely."
As the Kennedy Space Center celebrates 50 years, America's spaceport continues to evolve with new programs on the horizon.
"While we don't know all the exact programs we may be supporting," Cox said, "but we plan to make sure the new Firing Room 3 will have the capability to adapt to whatever is needed."