It took only 35 days to build the main column of a new fixture to the skyline along the Florida Space Coast. The 200-foot-tall Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida will meet the unique needs of astronauts and ground crews at Space Launch Complex 41, or SLC-41, where Boeing will launch its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Atlas V rockets operated by United Launch Alliance, also known as ULA.
“We spent a lot of time with conceptual designs and with the human elements, which is very important for a project of this nature,” said Howard Biegler, ULA’s Launch Operations lead for Human Launch Services. “Building a structure is one thing, but building it so that it’s useful, that it provides a safe environment for the people who are going to be called to use this system is the hard part.”
The structure features wider, more open areas than NASA’s previous crew access towers, providing more room and comfort for astronauts who will walk around the area in pressure suits and possibly wearing helmets, and in emergency cases, walk through walls of water from fire suppression sprinklers. An escape system for the ground support teams and flight crews will be added to quickly move people from the top of the tower to the safety of an evacuation vehicle in less than a minute.
The tower location is unique, as well. Since 1968, all astronauts launched from the United States have flown exclusively from Launch Pads 39A and B at NASA’s adjacent Kennedy Space Center.
Construction at the pad began in September when the first of seven steel tiers was trucked from four miles away where it was built and then placed atop a strengthened concrete foundation at SLC-41.
Built with many of the features already in place such as stairways, cable trays and blast shielding, each tier was designed to fit atop the other perfectly to reduce construction time at the pad. That’s because ULA kept the pad operational so it could continue to launch Atlas V missions in between stages of tower construction.
“We have certainly changed the landscape out here,” Biegler said. “The day the first tier physically made contact with the concrete and was bolted up brought a new level of reality to the project.”
More work is ahead to complete the tower, but the main column stands in place as a herald for the next generation of human spaceflight in America. Steel sections branching off the main column will be in place by mid-January then the tower will be fitted with elevators, data lines and other elements. The tower’s steel frame will weigh about 966,000 pounds when it’s completed in fall 2016.
In late October, the structure’s crew access arm was connected to the White Room, which will serve as the final corridor astronauts will pass through as they enter the Starliner spacecraft standing atop the Atlas V. The two components will be tested together extensively off-site before they are trucked to the launch complex and installed next summer.
Boeing anticipates launching the first flight test of its Starliner spacecraft carrying astronauts in 2017, but will use the tower before that time in the preparation for an earlier flight test without a crew aboard.
“It takes a lot of people working hard together to get any spacecraft into orbit successfully, and that’s doubly true for a new spacecraft being built for humans,” said Mike Burghardt, director of Launch Segment Integration for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. “The Starliner will feature modern, high reliability components to significantly increase crew safety and we back that up with robust launch system, including this Crew Access Tower.”
All the work is adding to the feeling that a new dawn of spaceflight is nearing as NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and its partners Boeing and SpaceX continue development on systems that will carry up to four astronauts at a time to the International Space Station. With commercial spacecraft transportation, NASA plans to add an additional crew member to the station, effectively doubling the crew time dedicated to research on the orbiting laboratory.
While Boeing and SpaceX focus on transportation opportunities in low-Earth orbit, NASA is moving ahead with its Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft that will take off from Kennedy’s Launch Pad 39B to carry out deep-space exploration missions that will advance the agency’s journey to Mars.