NASA awards contract for construction of second mobile launcher to accommodate large SLS rocket

NASA has decided that they will instead opt to award a contract for the construction of a second mobile launcher that will transport the colossal Space Launch System mega rockets.

The mobile launcher has a total height above ground of 380 feet where its tower is a 40-feet square giant that stands at 356 feet and approximately weighs 10.5 million pounds. It is the ground structure that will be used to assemble, process and launch NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft from Launch Pad 39B at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for missions to deep space destinations, such as the Moon, Mars and beyond.

During preparations for launch, the crawler-transporter will pick up and move the mobile launcher into High Bay 3 in the Vehicle Assembly Building. The launcher will be secured atop support posts and the crawler will move out. The Orion spacecraft will be stacked atop the SLS rocket and processed on the mobile launcher.

The mobile launcher consists of a two-story base that is the platform for the rocket and a tower equipped with a number of connection lines, called umbilicals, and launch accessories that will provide SLS and Orion with power, communications, coolant, fuel, and stabilization prior to launch. The tower also contains a walkway for personnel and equipment entering the crew module during launch preparations.

The launcher will roll out to the pad for launch on top of the crawler-transporter, carrying SLS and Orion. After the crawler-transporter makes its eight-hour trek to the pad just over four miles away, engineers will lower the launcher onto the pad and remove the crawler-transporter. During launch, each umbilical and launch accessory will release from its connection point, allowing the rocket and spacecraft to lift off safely from the launch pad.

NASA’s existing mobile launcher, as seen on Aug. 31, 2018.
Source: NASA | Cory Huston

In a 2017 advisory report, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel recommended building a second mobile launch platform, stating that having a second platform would save an estimated 33 months between launches and prevent safety problems arising from a “deterioration in both the number and skill of the ground launch work force.” 

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel is a group that operates independently and is tasked with “evaluating NASA’s safety performance and advising the Agency on ways to improve that performance.”

However, in 2018, NASA told that they will not be pushing through with the construction of a second mobile launcher due to constraints that the 2019 budget initially posed. Instead, NASA planned to modify the existing mobile launcher. 

Now, in a move turning away from what NASA initially stated, it has announced that Bechtel National, Inc., of Reston, Virginia, will design and build a second mobile launcher, known as Mobile Launcher 2, or ML2.

NASA said that having a second launcher is reasonable and will be of importance as it will cut the amount of time between two versions of the Space Launch System. Notably, without this second mobile launcher, the space agency would have had to launch SLS Block 1 rocket, then modify the platform to accommodate the taller SLS Block 1B before the second variety could launch.

Bechtel National is expected to complete the design, build, testing and commissioning of the mobile launcher within 44 months in Kennedy Space Center beginning on July 1, according to NASA. 

The SLS is part of NASA’s three-part Artemis program where it aims to send the first woman and man back on the lunar surface. It involves a next-generation space capsule to host astronauts while en route to the moon called Orion and an orbing lunar space station that will serve as a mid way point for lunar landings and further deep space exploration called the Gateway. Meanwhile, the SLS will serve as the rocket booster that will carry Orion to the Gateway and deep space.

“This time, when we go to the Moon, we will stay,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “And then we will use what we learn on the Moon to take the next giant leap — sending astronauts to Mars.”

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