Orion’s Delta 4-Heavy rocket moved to launch pad

The Delta IV Heavy rocket is lifted to the vertical position at Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral. Photo: NASA/KSC.
The Delta IV Heavy rocket is lifted to the vertical position at Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral. Photo: NASA/KSC.

The booster rocket that will launch NASA’s next-generation Orion space capsule on a two-orbit, four-hour shakedown cruise in December has been rolled to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

United Launch Alliance’s triple-body Delta 4-Heavy rocket was moved from its assembly building to pad 37B Tuesday night.

Crews erected the 170-foot-long rocket vertically Tuesday morning.

NASA’s Orion capsule will make Exploration Flight Test 1 on Dec. 4, flying to an altitude of 3,600 miles — about 15 times higher than the International Space Station orbit — and slamming back into the atmosphere to simulate re-entry speeds astronauts will face returning from deep space.

It is an unmanned flight test for the spacecraft systems, software, heat-shield, parachutes and recovery gear in preparation for one day carrying crews to an asteroid or Mars.

United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4-Heavy is America’s biggest unmanned rocket currently in service, capable of lofting the largest and heftiest cargos. The mammoth vehicle is created by taking three Common Booster Cores — the liquid hydrogen-fueled motor that forms a Delta 4-Medium’s first stage — and strapping them together to form a triple-barrel rocket, and then adding an upper stage.

Riding horizontal aboard a 36-wheel, diesel-powered transporter, the bright orange and white rocket emerged from the Horizontal Integration Facility hangar Tuesday night and took the brief trip down the road and up the pad’s ramp to the Florida spaceport’s Complex 37.

Technicians then prepared the rocket to be raised vertically. The cradle-like pallets upon which the rocket is resting will be tied down to the Fixed Pad Erector on the pad’s surface. The diesel-powered transporter used to drive the rocket to the pad was expected to disengage from the pallets and pull away.

The erector system, with its two hydraulic pistons, lifted the rocket upright, putting the vehicle on the pad’s launch table. After the rocket was set, technicians planned to unhook the booster from the pallets.

The erector, along with the pallets, was to be lowered back to the ground. The transporter then returns to the erector to retrieve the pallets for reuse on another mission.

Orion will be attached to the rocket at the launch pad in November.

The sunrise liftoff Dec. 4 should be visually spectacular, lighting up the Space Coast with three distinct pillars of fire from the main engines trailing more than 200 feet long. Ideal viewing spots include off SR401 at Port Canaveral, along the 528 causeway or on the riverbanks in Titusville.

Orion will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph, generating temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

The Lockheed Martin-built spaceship in the exploration key to NASA’s future expeditions beyond Earth orbit.

The craft recently underwent fueling with hydrazine, ammonia and high pressure helium at Kennedy Space Center’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility. It was moved over the weekend to another facility for integration with the launch abort system.

“Once the launch abort system is integrated and functional testing concludes, the spacecraft is considered done,” said Michael Hawes Lockheed Martin Orion program manager. “Then in November we’ll integrate to the rocket, which is rolling out to the launch pad today.”