February 8, 2007
Each year, millions of people from around the world journey to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), located on the east coast of central Florida, to see its launch and landing facilities. Only a select few, however, have the opportunity to go behind the scenes to see how the experts process launch vehicles and spacecraft for flight. This elite group includes leaders of government and industry, and as of January 18, 2007, members of MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) community.
Shawn Quinn, Future Elements Manager of the Constellation Ground Operations Project Office at KSC, designed the two day tour specifically for SDM students and faculty. Quinn is responsible for planning for ground processing and launch operations for Constellation systems planned for lunar missions, including the Lunar Surface Access Module and Lunar Habitat. He is also an SDM student.
Quinn said he organized the tour because a significant component of SDM’s master’s program involves developing the ability to understand and synthesize large scale engineering systems. "Visiting KSC offered a close-up look at three distinct approaches to the ground processing of some of the world’s largest launch vehicles in service today – the Space Shuttle, Delta IV and Atlas V," he explained.
NASA domain experts from the Space Shuttle Program, Launch Services Program (Expendable Launch Vehicles) International Space Station Program, as well as contractor personnel from the United Launch Alliance, led the group around the 140,000 acre center.
On the first day of the tour, SDMs saw elements of the International Space Station being readied for launch, Space Shuttle firing rooms in the launch control center, lSpace shuttle launch pad 39B, Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters undergoing stacking operations in the 525 feet tall Vehicle Assembly Building, the Crawler Transporter and Atlantis undergoing final preparations for its next launch in March in the Orbiter Processing Facility. On day two, the group visited Atlas V and Delta IV launch processing facilities and Pads used for un-crewed missions for NASA, Department of Defense and commercial companies. The tour concluded at the Apollo Saturn V Facility where an actual unused Saturn V is on display, along with many historical artifacts from the America’s first journey to the moon.
"We compared and contrasted three different vehicle processing architectures and got an up-close look at the scale and scope required to process launch vehicles and spacecraft for flight," said Quinn. The group also saw what it takes to process international space station elements of the largest man-made system in earth orbit prior to launch.
Quinn noted that the design of new launch vehicles and spacecraft for the Constellation Program will leverage heritage hardware designs from the Apollo and Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle and Space Shuttle Programs. The new Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares V Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle will both be larger and more capable than the Apollo Command Module and Saturn V Launch Vehicle.
Participants were thrilled, especially those who had never been to KSC before or who had not visited in a long time.
"I’ve been interested in space vehicles since the 10th grade, when I wrote a research paper on the shuttle program," said SDM student Harry Ayubi, who works for Boeing Commercial Airplanes on the 787 Program. "Boeing is a significant contributor to many of the programs at KSC, so this was a great opportunity."
SDM student Ilana Davidi, who visited KSC when she was about 8 years old, added, "I’ve always been interested in space travel, an interest which was increased by SDM’s Engineering Apollo course I took in 2005." In contrast, Prof. Olivier de Weck visited KSC more recently, in April 2005 for research on interplanetary supply chains and in December, 1999 to see the night-time launch of STS-103, the third Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission.
This time, de Weck had two reasons going to KSC. "I needed to deliver our SpaceNet 1.3 software to our project monitor there," said de Weck. "I also wanted to tour with the SDMs. The sophisticated questions they ask and the level of discussion that ensues makes for the experience different from being on a public tour or with a younger, less experienced group. Having had most of the SDMs in my project management class last fall, it was nice to spend some time in a more relaxed, off-campus setting."
De Weck said he was particularly impressed by the dedication and knowledge of the local workforce and the detailed work required on the thermal protection system in the orbiter processing facility, as well as the reconditioning of the space shuttle’s main engines and solid rocket boosters. "KSC has been under criticism because the Space Shuttle program costs taxpayers over $4B annually, but in fact only a relatively small portion of this is spent at the spaceport directly. I saw many examples of lean operations and a desire for continuous improvement."
De Weck observed that there is a tremendous desire to be both safe and efficient in executing the remaining Shuttle flights, as well as transitioning smoothly to the new Constellation transportation architecture.
"A root problem of the current situation is that ample time and money were not invested in the 1972-1981 timeframe to ensure that maintainability and reliability of the Shuttle, and promised turnaround times, could actually be met," said de Weck.
"I suspect a number of design decisions would have been made differently over 30 years ago if the designers knew what we know now about actual workflow for turning the shuttle around between flights. The KSC tour was especially valuable for SDM because we are trying to emphasize these lifecycle issues in our curriculum."
Photos courtesy of Shawn Quinn.