The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

VAB in March 2005
The VAB is a critical, but aging, piece of both the shuttle infrastructure and that for any future shuttle-derived launcher. (credit: J. Foust)

NASA’s Florida infrastructure: the next generation

As far as we know the shuttle main tank manufacturing facility at Michoud, near New Orleans, is a mess and the people who work there have more important things to do than to think about how they are going to fix the external tank (see “The hurricane and the vision”, The Space Review, September 6, 2005). Our thoughts and prayers are with them and with everyone who has been hit by the storm.

The effects of the storm are going to be also felt at the Cape, where, if NASA gets its wish for the in-line Shuttle-Derived Launch Vehicle (SDLV) as the main heavy-lift launcher in support of NASA’s human exploration vision, implies some major changes to the infrastructure. The main expense will involve either rebuilding or replacing the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). This historic structure was originally built in the 1960s for the Saturn 5. Its unique capabilities are a critical part of the shuttle system. Repairing and maintaining it has long challenged the space agency and its contractors.

At the time, it was built in the best and strongest way they knew how in order to stand up to the local weather. It stands 160 meters tall and could accommodate four 110-meter Saturn 5 rockets at the same time. It is one of NASA’s most awesome assets and certainly no US heavy-lift space launcher is going to be able to operate without it or something like it.

Instead of trying to fix the VAB, it should be either torn down or preserved as a historic monument to the US space effort.

In 2002 the Walker Commission on the Future of the US Aerospace Industry noted that “The Vehicle Assembly Building has sustained siding and bolt failures due to hurricanes and seasonal high winds. Its 35-year-old roof requires frequent external patching, and platforms and nets have been installed below the roof deck to catch falling debris. Overall the structure is badly deteriorated and severely corroded.” In the 1990s it was a notorious fact that funds appropriated for infrastructure repair and maintenance were often diverted to cover cost overruns on various major programs.

Avoiding these persistent problems should be one of NASA’s principal goals. This may mean that instead of trying to fix the VAB, it should be either torn down or preserved as a historic monument to the US space effort. A brand new VAB should be built, one designed to take the worst of the Florida climate and to be able to continue operations even in extreme weather conditions. In the long run this will save money by eliminating many of the predictably costly delays caused annually by hurricanes. Hardening the facilities at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is the sort of unglamorous expense that could pay dividends for many years or even decades to come.

A new VAB could be designed to take advantage of state-of-the-art communications and data processing technology. It would be possible to make the whole thing a state-of-the-art wireless, paperless facility. It would also be a good idea to design the building in such a way as to make future upgrades much easier than at the old VAB.

Building the in-line SDLV (let’s call it the “Big Stick”) is going to be pretty difficult: the aerodynamics of the system might seem easier than the shuttle “stack” with the side-mounted orbiter. Until some serious wind tunnel work and some very complex computer modeling and simulations are done, however, the nature of the challenge will still be a mystery. Even after this part of the development process is over there could still be a few nasty surprises lurking out there. It cannot be stressed too much that making the right investments now and over the next four or five years will save billions of dollars and maybe even the lives of future astronauts, who will depend on the SDLV to deliver vital supplies and equipment to the Moon and beyond.

Since NASA will be using the SDLV for perhaps forty or fifty years it makes sense to build the support structures with that timeframe in mind.

The SDLV system is going to need a new infrastructure, and while refurbishing the VAB may seem like a cost-effective solution, the alternative of a new building built expressly for the SDLV with all-new internal cutting-edge mating and manipulation machinery would help prevent costly delays and mistakes. One idea for a Mars mission requires launching six SDLVs over a six-week period; such tight scheduling leaving little room for error. Using the old and unreliable ground handling systems that NASA now has at KSC makes such a mission architecture difficult to imagine.

Since NASA will be using the SDLV for perhaps forty or fifty years it makes sense to build the support structures with that timeframe in mind. The current VAB is a valuable piece of property. The Florida Space Authority as well as some of this nation’s imaginative real estate investors will be able to find a suitable use for it after the final shuttle mission has returned to Earth. NASA should begin planning for the next generation of infrastructure now, and it should be upfront with Congress and the American people about both the short-term costs and the long-term benefits.