Thursday, February 4, 2010

History vs. Future


Onward, through the rocket testing stands! Truly, some of the most exciting sites at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (if you can find your way around the winding maze) are in a cheerless state of erosion, but still absolutely worth the pilgrimage.

Here is one of my favorites, built even earlier than the Redstone test stand. This Static Test Tower or "T-Tower" was constructed in 1951 and initially used for Jupiter Missiles. In 1961, the stand was modified to permit static firing of the Saturn I and Saturn IB stages.

Historic Propulsion & Structural Test Facility
(Registered National Landmark)

Saturn I was primarily a research and development vehicle. Saturn IB was used for orbital Apollo missions; it also launched Skylab, and later the Apollo spacecraft into the historic linkup with Russian-Soyuz craft in 1975. These were the first rockets to have multiple engines mounted on a single stage.

MSFC thus developed three launch vehicles in the Saturn program, and built 32 in all. They also designed the Space Shuttle's main engines, solid rocket boosters and external tanks… all of which were tested in this area. In 1984, the PSTF stand was modified to permit structural tests on the Space Shuttle SRB. Since its initial activation, a total of 649 tests have been conducted at this facility!

Another marvelous spectacle is the Dynamic Test Stand, built in 1964 to test the complete Saturn V launch vehicle. In the early 1970s, the tower was also used to qualify the structural soundness of the Skylab workshop.

The facility was modified in 1977 to perform vibration tests on the mated Space Shuttle using the orbiter Enterprise... and if you look closely at the photo on the left, you can see where the older structure ends and the "newer" panels begin, from where it had to be widened to accommodate Shuttles.

Saturn V Dynamic Test Stand
360 feet tall – 15 levels

Department of the Interior officials referred to the Saturn V as "a unique engineering masterpiece that formed the key link in the chain that enabled Americans to travel to the Moon. This made possible the success of the American space program."

The tower was modified again in the 1980s to contain a Drop Tube to provide a low-gravity environment for approximately three seconds. Something about the words "drop tube" made me want to NOT ask any more questions about this one, LOL... but it’s an incredible sight to behold up close.

Note that the picture on the right is a NASA stock photo, showing scale of an orbiter above the the 144-foot high, 71-ton doors. Below, picture what the other rockets look like inside this behemoth! It is scheduled to be used for ground vibration tests (GVTs) of the Ares rockets... at least, that was what I intended to write about when I first visited Marshall. Will such tests come to pass? Time will tell.

NASA Launch Vehicles
Click any photo or the link here to visit my Picasa Galleries to see details of these and other interesting test site hardware...