Discovery’s VAB stay part of a commercial transition for the OPFs

by Chris Bergin

With Discovery now enjoying a month-long vacation inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), following her rollover on Wednesday, the long-term future for the Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs) will be heavily focused on attracting the new fleet of commercial vehicles, as the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) transitions into a multi-purpose spaceport.

Discovery in the VAB:

Following the conclusion to her highly successful swansong STS-133 mission, Discovery arrived in OPF-2 for nominal post-flight safing and processing. However, this time, the flow would not process her for another mission into space.

With months of pre-planning put into action, Discovery would have her wings clipped, as her propulsive elements were stripped from her body, and her toxic lifeblood purged from her veins – via plans known as Transition and Retirement (T&R) operations.

While Endeavour and Atlantis remain under a protection order from NASA HQ – based on secretive, albeit unlikely, commercial plan to continue flying the two sisters, as confirmed by Space Shuttle Manager (SSP) John Shannon, before Mission Management Team (MMT) chair LeRoy Cain noted he expects a retraction of the order – Discovery’s fate has already been sealed.

With her Orbital Manuevering System (OMS) pods, Forward Reaction Control System (FRCS) and Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) all removed – the latter of which have been put into protective storage, due to their likely role with the Space Launch System (SLS) – Discovery has undergone the first phase of her preparations to go on display at the Smithsonian.

These propulsive elements, namely “FRC3, LP01, and RP03” have been decommissioned inside KSC’s Hypergolic Maintenance Facility (HMF), prior to their shipping to the NASA facility at White Sands in New Mexico on June 24.

Discovery was towed out on her wheels – as opposed to riding on the Orbiter Transporter System (OTS), given her tires aren’t being protected for a post-mission landing – and entered the VAB looking rather sorry for herself, where she will be cared for by her team, who are utilizing a PPU (Portable Purge Unit).

She will spend around a month in the VAB, before a game of musical chairs takes place with the fleet, as each orbiter is put through the initial phase of deservicing, sharing OPF’s 1 and 2, following a processing path led by Discovery. Her departure from OPF-2 clears the way for Atlantis to take up residency once she returns from the ongoing STS-135 mission next week.

Next year, Discovery will make one final journey, this time on top of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), taking the place of Enterprise – which is moving to a new home in New York.

While Discovery will have no trouble mating with the SCA via the Shuttle Landing Facility’s Mate-Demate Device (MDD), work has taken place on how to help her egress the modified 747, once the duo arrive at the world-famous Smithsonian.

“747 Sling build-up for offloading the orbiters at the museums was completed and heavy equipment transported the sling and Fly Away Kit Conex to the staging area at the MDD,” noted Discovery’s T&R notes (L2). “The conex will be removed from the transport trailer and work will begin on crane build up to support of the Sling assembly and SIM Run.”

This planning is being conducted under the guidance of the Management Integration & Planning T&R Readiness Reviews, which is utilizing onsite procedures with all the museums set to receive an orbiter – the first of which has already been held at the Smithsonian.

“The fly away kit is a wind restraint system for use with portable cranes and the 743 sling when demating the Orbiter from the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft at a location that does not have a Mate Demate Device (MDD),” added the T&R notes.

“This is the setup that will be used when the Orbiters are ferried for delivery to the museum locations. No flight hardware, SCA, or mockups were involved in this test. The Fly away kit demonstration was completed with two successful lift cycles.”

Commercial Use of the OPFs:

Back at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), the eventual departure of its three main tenants – as much as Atlantis will only be moving down the road to the Visitor Center – won’t signal an end to Shuttle facilities, as the Florida base aims to become a dual use commercial and government spaceport.

Numerous presentations (L2) have been drawn up and modified – the latest of which was written in June – showing KSC as the home port for a new family of vehicles, ranging from Orion/MPCV, through to commercial vehicles, and the SLS.

While all the vehicles depicted may not wish to take up KSC as their new location, the Florida spaceport has made no secret about its desire to open up the use of its assets, such as the SLF, VAB, Pad 39B – which has almost completed its transition to a clean pad – and indeed the OPFs.

Interestingly, while rumors of the USAF’s X-37B’s setting up shop inside an OPF can’t be confirmed due to the secretive nature of the military space plane, the new NASA documentation overviews plans for what is known as the 21st Century Space Launch Complex, provided hints to at least one vehicle which may soon be seen inside the former home hanger of the Space Shuttle orbiters.

“Dedicate OPF’s to government and commercial users: Allocate OPF-1 to potential commercial user. Allocate OPF-2 to potential commercial user. Allocate OPF-3 to potential commercial user,” noted the 21st Century Space Launch Complex Architectures Refinement Cycle (ARC) 5.0 presentation (L2).

NASA managers have already discussed the early release of OPF-3, which is the main reason the current orbiters are moving around just OPF 1 and 2.

Presentation slides, while notional, show a herd of Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) Dream Chasers being processed inside an OPF, portraying as many as four of the spacecraft taking up residency in just one OPF, under the title of “Clean Floor Processing”.

SNC class themselves as the complete system provider and claim to have demonstrated significant progress maturing design and development of the Dream Chaser (DC) Space System (DCSS), and were one of the winners of the four Space Act Agreements in the second round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev-2).

With an appearance of a baby shuttle orbiter, the Dream Chaser would launch atop of an Atlas V – building on studies which range back several years – as first revealed via’s article on the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) in 2007.

The Dream Chaser is a reusable lifting body vehicle based on the form of NASA Langley’s HL-20 spaceplane concept from the 1980s, which can land on a conventional runway.

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Thus, this vehicle may be a perfect match for KSC, potentially utilizing an OPF for processing, prior to heading out to either Pad 39B, or more probably the current Atlas V facilities at Cape Canaveral, before landing at the SLF and returning – just like the orbiters have over their lifetimes – to the OPF.

Interestingly, another slide in the presentation places the Human Rated launches of the Atlas V – both in the capsule and Dream Chaser configuration – as launching from Pad Complex 39, advertising a viable option of hosting the vehicle.

The Falcon Heavy (FH) is also shown as being able to launch from the former Shuttle Pad, along with the SLS (likely to be 39A initially) – and even the “black sheep” of future launch vehicles, the Liberty LV, which failed to win a CCDev-2 award.

For reference, the Cape’s SLC-40 shows Falcon 9’s as the mainstay vehicle for that complex – as much as SpaceX have noted they are planning a second integration facility for a dual use with Falcon Heavy, placed next to the current Falcon 9 facility at SLC-40. SpaceX have already announced the ground-breaking at the USAF Vandenberg site for the Falcon Heavy.

The Cape’s SLC-41 is shown as hosting unmanned Atlas Vs, while SLC-37 is shown to be the continued home of Delta IVs and IV-Hs. A vast array of smaller vehicles are also shown for the Cape’s SLC-36 and 46, while the SLF is shown – as expected – to be able to host the landing of Dream Chaser and horizontal landing jets, such as XCOR’s Lynx.

A future article will cover the use of other KSC facilities, such as the VAB, based on the expansive 21st Century ARC presentations.

(Further articles will follow, as we follow Discovery all the way to the exhibition. L2 members refer to L2’s ongoing coverage sections for internal coverage, presentations, images and and updates from engineers and managers. Images used: NASA and via L2 presentations).

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