Atlantis readied for her trip to the VAB – OPF-1 for transition

by Chris Bergin

Atlantis is closing in on the end of her Transition and Retirement (T&R) processing, following the installation of her three Replica Shuttle Main Engines (RSMEs). Atlantis is scheduled to roll to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on Friday, in preparation for going on display just down the road at the Visitor Center, allowing for her Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) to be handed over to a commercial company.


Although Atlantis is not yet fully prepared for her retirement, the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) teams are looking to turn over OPF-1 to an unnamed commercial company, who – like Boeing and their CST-100 spacecraft taking up residency in OPF-3 – will breath new life into the facility now the Shuttle fleet has fallen silent.

Bart Pannullo, NASA Vehicle Manager for Space Shuttle Transition and Retirement processing, noted that the original plan was for Atlantis to be towed in mid-November out of the OPF and down Kennedy Parkway to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where work is in progress to prepare the new facility where the orbiter will be displayed from early 2013.

However, Mr Pannullo added that there remained the possibility that Atlantis would have to vacate OPF-1 and go back to the VAB again, in order to make way for a commercial customer.

“If we turn the OPF over to another customer, we’d put Atlantis in the VAB until Endeavour rolls to the MDD (Mate Demate Device),” he noted in an interview with in April, with that plan now initiated.

No commercial companies have stepped forward with their claim on OPF-1, likely under an embargo agreement, as was seen ahead of Boeing’s deal with NASA and Space Florida for taking over OPF-3’s facilities for their CST-100 capsule that is one of the contenders to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in the second half of this decade.

Planning documents (L2), under the 21st Century Spaceport concept, have shown various commercial vehicles using KSC facilities, including a fleet of Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) Dream Chasers – another commercial crew contender – being processed inside a clean floor OPF.

Official responses to the slides have noted such representations should be classed as notional only.

Pending acceptable weather, Atlantis will be rolled to High Bay 4 (HB-4) of the VAB, where she will remain protected by the giant building.

There she will become the new neighbor for Crawler Transporter 2 (CT-2), which is located inside High Bay 2 (HB-2), where it is undergoing modifications into a “Super Crawler”, capable of transporting the Space Launch System (SLS) to Pad 39B – (L2 Link to SLS Super Crawler Section).

Atlantis herself has contributed toward the SLS Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV), via the donation of large elements of her orbiter Main Propulsion System (MPS) and Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs – RS-25Ds).

In the end, Atlantis and Endeavour provided the majority of the components that will be used by the SLS test program, whereas Discovery remained mainly intact as the “Vehicle Of Record”.

Sporting three RSMEs – as opposed to SSMEs, following the Program Requirements Control Board (PRCB) decision to protect all flight-able SSMEs for the SLS program – Atlantis will have a similar appearance to how the public saw her when she returned home from her highly successful STS-135 mission, the flight that closed out the 30 year career of the Shuttles.

Although the SLS had not been selected at the time, the PRCB Change Request presentation (available on L2 – LINK) noted direction from the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) to roadmap the ability to keep the engines, and replace them with replicas for when the retired vehicles go on display at their exhibitions.

The RSMEs simply consist of a scrap – but cosmetically repaired – nozzle, with an adaptor to install it into the aft of the retired orbiter were produced by SSME manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR).

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“Directed by SSP to prepare an integrated approach for an alternative to using flight Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) on post SSP orbiter displays. To obtain authorization and funding to design, build, deliver, and install nine (9) Replica Shuttle Main Engines (RSMEs) to replace flight SSMEs on orbiters,” noted the presentation.

“To preserve the SSME flight engines for future use, NASA MSFC (Marshall Space Flight Center) / KSC (Kennedy Space Center) / JSC (Johnson Space Center) recommends a replica engine be provided utilizing existing inoperable nozzle assets and an adapter to simulate the SSME for display purposes.”

With the Shuttle Derived (SD) Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) utilizing four RS-25 engines on its core stage, the available stock of SSMEs (RS-25Ds) – now located at the Stennis Space Center (SSC) – will be used during the testing and the initial launches of the SLS, prior to the switch to the expendable RS-25E version of the engine in the 2020s.

With the legacy of Shuttle living on with the HLV, Atlantis will be able to feel the rumble of the SLS launching from Pad 39B, from her new home that is already under construction at the Visitor Center.

To read about the orbiters –  from birth, processing, every single mission, through to retirement, click here for the links:

(Images: Via L2, NASA, and Boeing.)

(L2 and NSF are continuing to follow the orbiters through to their final resting places. To join L2, click here:

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