An Insider’s Tour of Kennedy Space Center

cd_and_atlantisApril 14-20, 2009

When I first took up being an astronomer, I looked forward to all kinds of exotic travel; spending nights on remote mountain-top telescopes in exotic parts of the world. But most of the telescopes I use are in orbit (which is also pretty cool, but doesn’t provide me with the exotic travel) so the most exotic places I’ve traveled to recently have been Annapolis, Long Beach, and Austin. However, finally, I’m getting my due perks!

I am now employed by the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), an instrument built by the University of Colorado due to be installed in the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in the fourth Servicing Mission (SM4). This has been a long time coming; it was originally planned for 2004-ish and has slipped extensively and repeatedly since then. However, this time it looks like it really might happen and launch is slated for May 11th. In preparation, COS and various other hardware are being installed in the cargo bay of the space shuttle Atlantis. People from the instrument team (with which I am associated) need to provide around-the-clock support while this happens, so here I am in Florida in the wee hours of the morning babysitting our instrument.

Wednesday – Rockets Past and Present

Wednesday morning, Brian and I found ourselves with security clearance, a good map, a rental car, and a couple of hours to kill. Naturally, we headed over to check out a couple of the historic launch pads (this place is lousy with abandoned launch pads). We wandered around the old Saturn 1 launch pad and then Pad 14 where John Glenn took his first orbital flight.

After lunch, we were treated to a tour of Pad 39A where the space shuttle Atlantis is currently being readied for launch. Regular tourists get bussed to a viewing station about a mile from the pad where they can look through binoculars and long telephoto lenses at things. We were passed through several security checks and walked right up the long ramp to the launch pad. We took the elevator (the doors have to be replaced after every launch) up to the top (235′ level) of the launch tower about even with the tip of the big, orange External Tank. To say it was impressive would be a drastic understatement. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

The whole shooting match from the 255' level of the FSS.

The whole shooting match from the 255′ level of the FSS.

We descended various stairways getting different views of Atlantis along the way eventually ending up ducking under her tail and wandering around on the massive launch platform itself.

Since we were in a sight-seeing mode, we stopped off at the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on the way back. It’s hard to fathom how monstrously huge this building really is. It was designed to hold four fully-assembled Saturn V rockets at a time. At the moment, was housing one fully-assembled shuttle stack (Endeavour) in one corner and parts of the new Ares 1-X rocket in the opposite bay. The entire upper half the building is unused. The elevators go up to level 37, but the top of the tank is only level 19.

Friday – Endeavour Rollout

Today’s big event was the rollout of the Endeavour. It’s going to Pad 39B while Atlantis is on 39A. If the Hubble repair mission gets in trouble, Endeavour will rocket to the rescue (at least that’s the theory). If not, then it will blast off for the Space Station in June on it’s regularly scheduled mission (STS 127).

Despite my better judgement, I got up ridiculously early this morning to come see the Endeavour start the journey from the VAB at midnight. I missed the actual rollout, but got there in time to see a ghostly shuttle stack perched on the mobile launch platform perched, in turn, on the crawler headed slowly, oh so slowly, down the crawlerway. After taking some pictures, I figured the show was over and I might as well get down to regular (albeit very early) work for the day.

But this was not to be! At 5-something, Chris called up and invited Brian and I to go see the arrival of Endeavour. The theme for this trip is definitely taking advantage of any opportunity, so we dropped everything and hopped in the car. We got to Pad 39B just as the crawler was arriving. Like everything related to spaceflight, it’s hard to describe how massive the combined crawler plus mobile launch platform plus shuttle stack is. Much to my amazement, they let us stand not more than 30′ away as it ground inexorably past. It feels a lot like the opening sequences in the Star Wars films. It’s pretty loud, but very, very smooth. The crawler tracks are pressed completely smooth and lots of golf-ball sized pebbles are shattered.

Saturday – CRF and Merritt Island NWR

Saturday I was stationed in the Canister Rotation Facility (CRF). The payload is loaded into a big white canister which is the same size and shape as the space shuttle cargo bay. The CRF is a tall building where, you guessed it, the canister is rotated from horizontal to vertical before being driven out to the launch pad. It was a surprisingly involved process.

After work ended at 8am, I drove back up to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge north of the Cape. I’d done a quick scouting trip there on Friday and done a lovely 2.5 mile hike on the Oak and Palm Hammock trails and checked out the visitor’s center. Today, I came back to see the Manatee Observation Deck (there were, technically, manatees, but the were less impressive than I’d hoped) and do some running. I ran two laps of the Scrub Ridge Trail (1 mile each) before driving over to the Black Oak Wildlife drive (very scenic) to run the 5 mile Cruickshank Loop trail. The trail was mostly grass winding around the top of a mosquito control levy and there were numerous birds of all sorts. Unfortunately, it was pretty hot and I wasn’t reacting well, so the last couple miles of the run were pretty stoic.

Sunday – On the Pad

Sunday morning, the canister had been rotated and hoisted up into the launch tower where everything would transferred from the can into the Payload Changeout Room (PCR) and thence to the shuttle. Like most of the shifts, not much happened. I was stationed in a minivan on the pad occasionally looking at a computer to make sure the far-UV detectors hadn’t spontaneously imploded and the batteries hadn’t walked off and spent most of my time wandering around taking pictures and talking to people. After the shift, Chris and I drove around and got pictures of the somewhat rare event of having two shuttles on the pad at the same time. For the Nth time on this trip, I wished I’d brought a longer lens! Though my tiny Canon SD1000 camera takes surprisingly good pictures given it’s size and optics (once you figure out the controls), high-powered zoom is not its forte.atlantis_predawn

Monday – Payload Changeout Room

For my last 4-8am shift, I was stationed in the PCR up in the Rotating Service Structure (RSS). It’s a clean room, so we had to gown up in bunny suits (always humorous) and follow various protocols. In theory, we weren’t supposed to bring cameras in there, but Chris said, “Here, give me your camera” as we were gowning up. He wiped it down with some sort of special cloth and handed it back to me. Cool! Not that there were a whole lot of interesting things to see, but at least we got some pictures. COS and the other instruments, all snug in their carriers and clad in two layers of anti-static bags, were arranged in the five-story tall cleanroom ready to be slid directly into the cargo bay of Atlantis.

While we were in the PCR, they rotated the RSS to mate with Atlantis. If we hadn’t been looking out the two, tiny windows in the PCR, we never would have known that the whole enormous structure was moving! The whole rotation took about 20 minutes. Then the inflatable seals were arranged and docking was complete. When we emerged from the PCR, it was surprising to see that the sun had risen and we were in a different place than we were when we came in. The RSS/FSS structure is a bit like Hogwarts with ramps and staircases moving around strangely between one visit and the next. Fortunately, they block off paths that lead to sudden drops (or so I was told).

The "last place on Earth".

The “last place on Earth”.

After our shift, we de-gowned and spent a while running around the pad again. Chris is firmly of the belief that asking politely and being nice to security people will let you go anywhere and I am definitely inclined to agree. We spent a while talking to various workers and security people and ended up both on the roof of the launch tower and, the in biggest coup of all, in the White Room. We stood carefully in the back out of the way when a gowned-up worker popped his head out of the shuttle and said, essentially, “Hey, come look at this!”.. And that was how we ended up with our heads almost inside Atlantis, having the commander’s seat and zero-g toilet (not the same thing, by the way) pointed out to us. Most people are generally kind of bored and just pleased to talk to folks who clearly think this is all the coolest thing ever. I’m pleased to say that there are very few places on the pad I have now not been.


This trip has given me a new appreciation for a lot of things. In particular, I’m impressed by the sheer amount of work and number of people that dedicate their lives to getting me the astronomical data I so-often take for granted. Secondly, it’s great to see the pride and skill of the various regular blokes who work at KSC driving trucks, operating cranes, sitting at security posts, and performing the incredible number of highly specialized and precise jobs required, often at strange times of day and night. These guys are just as excited about doing the job as I am about watching them do it and they are nearly universally friendly and expansive. Finally, I’m more impressed than I thought I’d be by the bravery required of astronauts. I used to think I’d volunteer in a heart-beat to ride on top of thousands of pounds of highly explosive fuel into orbit. Having now seen it up close I’m a lot less sure.

Many thanks to the folks here for inviting me along on this truly once-in-a-lifetime trip. I tried to take advantage of every opportunity to see and do something new (always with camera in-hand for you my loyal readers). Still, it was really nice to come home. I look forward to watching the scheduled May 11th launch of Atlantis (2 pm EDT, check your local listings).

Over and out.

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