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Mammoth mobile launch mount moves to pad today

Posted: November 15, 2011

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One of NASA's heavy-duty diesel-powered crawlers will move the space agency's towering new 39-story mobile launch platform Wednesday to pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.

The mobile launcher will move from its current location at the east park site north of the Vehicle Assembly Building to launch pad 39B. Credit: NASA/KSC
The 4.4-mile trek is due to begin around 8 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) Wednesday from the mobile launcher's park site north of the Vehicle Assembly Building.

The crawler will adjust its speed during the rollout, ramping up to a top speed of 1.1 mph. The crawler operators will also command two so-called emergency stops to measure how the tower reacts.

"We want to watch how much the tower moves as you're driving down the crawlerway at various speeds," said Larry Schultz, NASA's project manager for the mobile launcher. "What if you slam on the breaks? What happens to the tower?"

Cameras and 3D imaging gear will be mounted on the tower's base to examine how the structure moves and flexes during the move, Schultz said.

"People do not have a good feeling for exactly how does the tower move under the current design," Schultz said. "The design we had for Apollo is different than the design that we have here. I believe we're going to end up with a stiffer tower than what we had for Apollo."

Loaded with instrumentation, the crawler and 6.75-million-pound mobile launcher should reach the stripped-down seaside launch pad by early afternoon. The crawler will lower the platform on top of six pedestals for stability.

Plans call for the tower to remain at pad 39B for up to two weeks. Engineers will hook the platform up to electricity and water at the complex while they test the platform's systems.

Launch pad 39B's shuttle-era servicing structures were demolished and now the complex is mostly bare except for its water tower and three 60-story lightning towers. It will be the home of NASA's future heavy-lift rocket.

Originally built for the Ares rocket program, the 390-foot-tall structure will be the tallest passenger to ride on a crawler since 1975. Its height surpasses the Ares 1-X rocket, which rolled to the pad and launched in October 2009.

"These crawler guys have moved a lot of mobile launchers over the years, but it's been a while since we've moved one with a tower on it," Schultz said. "But they're all eager to try something new. We thought we'd give them a challenge."

The Obama administration redirected NASA's human space program in 2010, canceling the Constellation moon program and turning to commercial providers for regular manned transportation to low Earth orbit.

The White House and Congress agreed NASA should focus on developing a heavy-lift rocket and multi-purpose capsule for expeditions to asteroids, Mars and other deep space destinations.

NASA announced the basic design for the Space Launch System in September, unveiling an architecture that initially features two solid rocket boosters and a hydrogen-fueled core stage powered by three revamped space shuttle main engines.

It would lift up to 154,000 pounds into Earth orbit at first. At liftoff the rocket would stand 320 feet tall and weigh 5.5 million pounds, according to NASA.

The first launch of the SLS is scheduled for late 2017. Before then, crews will modify the former Ares mobile platform to support the more powerful heavy-lifter.