Unemployed Ares I Mobile Launcher set for Crawler trip in August

by Chris Bergin

The massive Ares I Mobile Launcher (ML), which recently completed its construction phase, is set for a ride on the Crawler Transporter (CT-1) in August, marking its first move since rising into the sky next door to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The ML will be moved to the east refurbish site, to allow for the connection of utilities.

Ares I ML History:

Currently in limbo due to the current path to confirm the cancellation of the Ares I vehicle – which it was designed to launch – in President Obama’s FY2011 budget proposal, the ML was constructed by Hensel Phelps of Orlando, Florida, following a $263,735,000 contract award in May 2008, which included options including a second ML.

The ML was designed to specifically support Ares I and the vehicle’s associated Ground Support Equipment (GSE) from stacking in the VAB to launch out at Pad 39B.

Working via the Ares I “clean pad” design, the ML would depart from the VAB, following the stacking and integration of Ares I, enroute for Pad 39B, where it would link up with the Roller coaster Emergency Egress System (EES) – an impressive project that has also been placed on hold following the President’s proposal.

The ML, designed by RS&H (base and structure), along with ASRC Aerospace Corporation (prop systems etc.) – who laid off 155 workers in July as fallout of NASA’s “new direction” – consists of the main support structure that comprises the base, tower and facility ground support systems, which include power, communications, conditioned air, water for cooling, wash-down, and was designed with ignition over-pressure protection in mind.

Hensel Phelps engineers worked on the structure at the mobile launcher park site area just north of the VAB, with trestles and girders arriving by barge in February of 2009, beginning the opening phase of work to create a base platform – one which is lighter than the current Mobile Launch Platforms (MLPs) which host the Space Shuttle.

With the giant Launch Umbilical Tower (LUT), the total weight of the structure is around 9.5 million pounds, compared to the 8.2 million pounds for just the Shuttle’s MLP.

Fabrication of the 345-foot LUT begin in May of 2009, in preparation for being placed on top of the ML’s platform as the LUT’s base, prior to the addition of nine additional sections via a giant crane at the build site.

The Installation of the first section was conducted on September 24, followed by a second section on October 15, a third on October 27, a fourth and fifth section in November, a sixth and seventh in December, followed by the final three sections, resulting all 10 sections being installed by January 28.

This was followed by the installation of the launch mounts – again, highly specific for only the Ares I vehicle – on the platform during the Spring.

Ares I ML Relocation:

The next milestone for the structure will involve the ML being weighed by the Crawler Transporter (CT-1) at its current location at the Mobile Launcher Platform (MLP) refurbishment site, while CT-2 frees up the new location by moving MLP-1 to the VAB.

Using both of the Crawler-Transporters for the operation, CT-2 will then move the Ares I ML the relatively short distance to its new home at the east refurb site, where it will be lowered down on to mounts.

“Tentative dates for moving the new Mobile Launcher (ML) to the east Mobile Launcher Platform (MLP) refurbishment site are set for the end of August with the weeks of 08/16/10 or 08/23/10 being the most probable,” noted a memo acquired by L2.

“The operation will take at least five days. The ML is being moved so that it can be connected to the utilities that are only available at the east refurb site.

“Plans are to use Crawler Transporter No. 2 (CT-2) to move MLP-1 out of the east refurb site and take it towards the Vehicle Assembly Building. Then, CT-1 will be used to weigh the ML. The ML will be picked up, weighed, and set down, and this operation will be repeated a second time.

“The ML will then be lifted a third time, weighed again, and moved to the east refurb site and set down on the mounts. CT-2 will then move MLP-1 to the west refurb site. Both crawlers will then be returned to the crawler yard. Plans to install instrumentation on the crawler and ML for the move are still in work.”

As far as any potential role with a vehicle other than Ares I, the ML’s future appears to be bleak. Engineering sources close to the project note that the ML is pretty much useless for any other vehicle, because it would cost more to rebuild the base than it would cost to scrap it and build a purpose built ML for any proposed the new vehicle.

It was also claimed that all the load paths are completely unacceptable for any of the current HLV (Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles), such as the Inline SD (Shuttle Derived) HLV with Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), or a HLV alternative with liquid boosters.

For the SD HLV, the combined weight of two SRB’s and the LUT would be too much weight for the existing transporters, and possibly the crawlerway itself – a potential problem that had already been raised with regards to Constellation’s Ares V.

The only potential get-well would be drastic, and likely too expensive compared to starting over again, with suggestions to remove the LUT off the new ML, using it instead as the new Fixed Service Structure (FSS) at Pad 39B as a permanent fixture, for use with an inline SD HLV.

However, the Ares I ML base would still be useless, instead requiring the conversion of one of the remaining shuttle MLPs. The bottom line being, sadly, finds the ML as designed out of a job and in line for scrapping, or cannibalization, unless Ares I survives the ongoing political debates – which is highly unlikely.

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