NASA Podcasts

Space Shuttle Era: Launch Pads
11.15.11
 
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KEVIN PANIK, NASA Pad Manager:
The complexity, you know, the systems we brought together in this one place to do something that very few places in the world do, you know, launch humans to low-Earth orbit, you know, and hopefully with the new program, to the farther reaches of space. So when you go to a system or place like that, you can't help but be overwhelmed.

NARRATOR:
Every space shuttle mission began with a fiery liftoff from Launch Complex 39 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The launch complex had two pads, Pad A and Pad B.

If the launch pads demonstrated anything, it is that complex is the right word for the two pad areas that handled the shuttles for about a month before they made their trips into space.

Outfitted with everything a spacecraft and its crew would need to take the final leap into space, the pads handled fueling duties and crew support, and held precision machinery for a range of payloads.

Its grated floors and gray paint, along with armored boxes for instruments, telephones and elevators, revealed a style more Spartan than space age.

PANIK:
You always find something that you didn't know. You've got so many systems, you've got system level experts and technicians that have been out there for so many years, dedicated, essentially, many of them their entire careers out there. /// Even though, yeah, it's a lot of steel, a lot of wires and lights and tubing and that kind of stuff, it does interface with, it interfaces to a flight vehicle, you know, so you always have those complex interfaces and there's always something to learn. It may look kind of Spartan, but it has its hidden treasures.

NARRATOR:
The launch pad and all its fittings were built to withstand the brute force of a launch, which would rattle the pad with intense fire, corrosive exhaust and thunderous sound waves.

PANIK:
It gets tested. Let's put it that way. There's a tremendous of force that gets placed at liftoff on the structure, on the mobile launch platform, the MLP, heat, acoustics.

NARRATOR:
Each pad featured a shallow-sloped concrete pyramid about 40 feet high with a flame trench carved through the middle to channel exhaust away during launch.

The launch pads were first built for the Saturn V rockets of the Apollo program. Back then, the launch complex did not have any permanent service towers because the support structure was on a mobile launch platform and traveled with the rocket to the pad.

PANIK:
There's an element of the history, you know, to think back and to stand in places where people were launched to the moon, that has a real place for me.

NARRATOR:
For shuttle, a pair of support structures called a fixed service structure, or FSS, and a rotating service structure, or RSS were built at the pad and would remain there for all 30-years of flights. Both structures carried wiring and other infrastructure needed to support and protect a space shuttle for weeks at a time.

A shuttle stack, meaning an orbiter attached to an external fuel tank and a pair of solid rocket boosters, would move to the launch pad about a month before liftoff.

The shuttle was connected to networks of data cables, water lines and the fueling system.

PANIK:
Unless you were out there when the workers and the engineers and the technicians were out there, you really, it's hard to capture the elements of these people working together as a team doing complex tasks, complex jobs with a vehicle there that is just, you know, loaded with solid propellant, you know, it could be dangerous as heck, it really is, I mean, and they did it routinely and made it safe.

NARRATOR:
There's also a bathroom, complete with stainless steel fixtures instead of brittle porcelain.

PANIK:
When we do give some tours up there, or groups come up there, I always point out that that's the last toilet on Earth.

NARRATOR:
Before launch day, the RSS covered most of the shuttle and provided a clean room that safely moved space probes, space station modules and even NASA's Hubble Space Telescope into the shuttle's cargo bay without contaminating them.

Other parts of the launch pad gave workers access to most areas of the shuttle stack, which stood up to 184 feet above the surface of the mobile launcher platform. The launch pad was woven throughout with propellant lines, wiring and machinery.

PANIK:
There's so many complex things out there that can literally kill you if you do something wrong, or, not just yourself. You know, it could be devastating. And we do it safely, routinely day in and day out, that's testament to the workforce, to what this nation built from the Apollo era, learning through hard lessons.

NARRATOR:
Launch day was also when most of the structures at the pad came to life, most by remote control to keep people a safe distance away. The huge white spheres on either side of the shuttle would pump super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the shuttle's external tank. Each propellant had to flow through long lines from the spheres about a half mile from the shuttle.

Workers would carefully survey the tower for FOD, or foreign object debris, which is any scrap or object left behind that shouldn't have been. The top-to-bottom review was called the FOD walkdown.

PANIK:
As you get closer to launch, things just kind of step up and you can feel it. You'd get a team of folks and you'd do a FOD walkdown just prior to leaving the pad and they would warble the pad, just kind of send out a signal that, OK, everyone's falling back. Just pure excitement really as you're getting closer.

NARRATOR:
The last people at the pad on the launch day were the astronauts. They headed into the "White Room", a kind of cramped locker room, before boarding the shuttle. With two and a half minutes to go, the gaseous oxygen vent arm and it white "beanie cap" retracted from the top of the external tank, clearing the way for the launch.

About 16 seconds before launch, some 300,000 gallons of water poured onto the launch pad. Though it might seem to be done to protect against the blazing fire, the water was actually for sound suppression, to dampen the vibrations produced by 7 million pounds of thrust.

The fire and thunder would produce a show unlike any other.

Voice of NASA Launch Commentator Mike Curie: Go for main engine start…we have main engine start. Two, one…booster ignition and the final liftoff of Discovery, a tribute to the dedication, hard work and pride of America's space shuttle team. The shuttle has cleared the tower.

PANIK:
Some of our teams would have to work late shift so you'd have to go home and watch it from the river just like the other folks would or something like that which I actually kind of would enjoy, you know, if I couldn't make it into the center in time, you know, just being out there with the general public and everything like that and just sit back and watch the kids and people enjoy a beautiful launch, it was part of my joy.

NARRATOR:
Now that the space shuttle is retired, the pads are being prepared for another transition.

The structures that marked the space shuttle era have been removed from Launch Pad 39B so it can handle several different types of launchers that are expected to make up the next generation of space exploration.

Pad 39A, the starting point for some of NASA's most famous flights including Apollo 11 and the first and last shuttle flights, will look as it did during the shuttle years for the near term, echoing the thundering success of the space shuttle program.

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