By Bob Granath
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla.
Construction of the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida began a half-century ago this summer. After serving through the Apollo and Space Shuttle Programs, the mammoth structure now is undergoing renovations to accommodate future launch vehicles and to continue as a major part of America’s efforts to explore space for another 50 years.
Construction began with driving the first steel pilings on Aug. 2, 1963. It was part of NASA’s massive effort to send astronauts to the moon for the Apollo Program. Altogether, 4,225 pilings were driven down 164 feet to bedrock with a foundation consisting of 30,000 cubic yards of concrete. Construction of the VAB required 98,590 tons of steel.
When completed in 1965, the VAB was one of the largest buildings in the world with 129,428,000 cubic feet of interior volume. The structure covers eight acres, is 525 feet tall and 518 feet wide.
To accommodate moving, processing and stacking rocket stages, 71 cranes and hoists, including two 250-ton bridge cranes were installed. On the east and west sides are four high bay doors, each designed to open 456 feet in height allowing rollout of the Apollo/Saturn V moon rockets mounted atop launch umbilical towers.
The VAB was constructed 3.5 miles from Launch Pad 39A and 4.2 miles from Launch Pad 39B. A pair of crawler-transporters, among the largest machines ever built to move on land, carried the assembled rockets to the pads.
After the conclusion of Apollo in the 1970s, the building was refurbished to accommodate the space shuttle. Inside the VAB, the shuttle solid rocket boosters were stacked atop a mobile launcher platform. The external fuel tank was attached between the two boosters and the shuttle mounted to the tank. Following three decades of flight, the shuttle was retired in 2011.
Modifications of the VAB are underway to support the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, which also will result in the ability to process multiple launch vehicle types. SLS will be the agency’s advanced heavy-lift launch vehicle providing a new capability for human exploration beyond Earth orbit. However, NASA also is partnering with private industry on launch vehicle and spacecraft development options for taking astronauts to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.
Last year shuttle-era work platforms were removed from the VAB’s High Bay 3 as a project of Ground Systems Development and Operations, or GSDO, to accommodate the SLS heavy-lift rocket.
According to Jose Lopez, the VAB senior project manager in the Vehicle Integration and Launch Support Branch of GSDO, the changes are part of a centerwide modernization and refurbishment initiative in preparation for the next generation of human spaceflight.
Lopez noted that some of the utilities and systems scheduled for replacement at the VAB have been used since the facility was originally built. This initial work is required to support any launch vehicle operated from Launch Complex 39 and will allow NASA to begin modernizing the facilities while vehicle-specific requirements are being developed.
Plans for 2014 include awarding the construction contract for new access platforms, including structures and systems required for the SLS.
Some of the current work has included removal of over 150 miles of obsolete Apollo- and shuttle-era cabling. This will make room for installation of more efficient, state-of-the-art command, communication, control and power systems needed to perform testing and verification prior to the SLS and other rockets being rolled out to the launch pad.
As plans move ahead to outfit the VAB with the new infrastructure, code upgrades and safety improvements, the building will continue in its role as a central hub for the Florida spaceport well into the future.