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Here is what preparations to launch NASA'S most powerful rocket look like

by Arushi Chaudhary

NASA is one space agency that is always working to push the envelope with its pursuits of discovering the outer space. Its next big mission that’ll have space enthusiasts around the world gasping is the launch of the Orion capsule, which is scheduled to be sent out on an elaborate 25-day trajectory in 2019.

The mission will witness the launch of Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever, followed by the capsule traveling 245,131 miles from Earth and looping around the moon, before making an entry into the Earth’s atmosphere at blinding 24,500 miles per hour. The space agency then plans to re-launch the mission in 2020 with a human crew on board. The mission is part of a decades-old strategy to send astronauts farther into space, with a view to explore Mars as well as asteroids floating about in space, among other things.

Predictably, the success on such ambitious space missions rests on a lot of preparation, planning, and a relentless build-and-test approach. Even as NASA gears up for the sending out the unprecedentedly humungous Space Launch System and a human-carrying capsule into space, there is a lot building, testing, and testing some more going on at its different facilities. The premier space agency let Wired photographer Vincent Fournier in on the preparations. He spent 20 days at five different facilities to give the world a glimpse of how NASA does its homework.

From building teeny tine models of the rocket and pushing them through wind tunnels to testing fuel tanks using hydraulic cylinders capable of applying millions of pounds of crushing forces to recreate launch and flight dynamics, here is all that goes on behind the scenes before the big launch:

  • The hydrogen fuel tank at Michoud Assembly Facility.

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This hydrogen fuel tank, towering a whopping 130 foot, is so delicate that it takes two GPS-enabled cranes three days to move it from vertical to horizontal position and vice-versa.

  • The launch vehicle stage adapter at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

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It’ll take a pair of specially trained NASA technicians three months to hand spray an even insulation layer on this 28-foot-tall adapter that links the core stage to the capsule.

  • The dome weld tool at Michoud Assembly Facility.

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It takes a six-member crew six days to clamp on all the hardware in the right places on this Circumferential Dome Weld Tool.

  • RS-25 engines at the Stennis Space Center, Mississippi.

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It’ll take four such engines to make the Space Launch System go.

  • The Intertank stationed at Michoud Assembly Facility.

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Two of the most powerful boosters of the Space Launch System will be attached to this intertank, which is the sturdiest part of the core stage. The material of this structure is too thick to be welded, and so it is held together by 7,500 bolts and eight panels aligned using extreme precision.

  • Systems Integration Test Facility at Marshall Space Flight Center.

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The complex wiring that measures five miles in length links 46 avionics boxes that control everything, right from the engines to navigation.

  • A similar Systems Integration Test Facility at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

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The avionics racks here host a string of computers on their outer surface that control the rocket’s operations, right from liftoff to booster separation.

  • The Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel at the Langley Research Center in Virginia.

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NASA engineers test every portion of the trajectory in these wind tunnels to ensure that the resultant rocket can withstand the pressure of supersonic winds during liftoff and flight.

  • The Orion test capsule at Johnson Space Center in Texas.

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This test capsule helps the Navy practice the drill of retrieving astronauts from the ocean after the Orion makes a splash down.

  • The Engine test fire at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

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A test model of RS-25 engine, minus the rocket, is bolted into a test stand and then blasted for 500 seconds before it is approved for flight.

The Wired report quotes Andy Schorr, a rocket’s payload integration manager at NASA, as saying, “You know ‘measure twice, cut once’? We take that to a whole new level.” And that sums it up perfectly.

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