Thursday, March 11, 2010

Marshall Space Flight Center: 50 years of Rocketry

The author stands below space shuttle Pathfinder recently.

Springtime vacations in the southeastern United States are always a fun and exciting time for families.

Whether it's taking in some sun on the beach; visiting scenic attractions and national parks; or the NASA space centers spread across four states -- there is always something cool to do.

One great destination is the site where the first rocket engine tests were performed and the space shuttle began to take shape -- The Redstone Arsenal and the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.

Located in beautiful Huntsville, this NASA space center sits in the foothills of the Appalachians, surrounded by the picturesque scenery of the north Alabama region.

Mark your calendar today and make a point to spend a few days in Huntsville as the center begins it's celebration of Marshall's fiftieth anniversary.

Officially dedicated in July 1960, MSFC began to grow following President Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the moon prior to 1970. The region was used by the Army in the early days of rocket construction and testing on the Redstone site.

The space center's first director, Wernher von Braun, is credited as the Father of NASA's first rockets. A German rocket scientist and engineer, von Braun and his team left wartime Europe for America to begin work on America's rocket plans in the mid-1940's.

Marshall is one of NASA's lead centers as it supports experiments, water recovery and data systems aboard the International Space Center; and also "developed and manages NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, which probes the mysteries of space with unprecedented X-ray images that help to reveal the structure and evolution of the universe", according to Marshall.

Apollo 16 module which orbited the Moon. (photos: C Atkeison)

Prior to the launch of the Skylab missions, Marshall developed the orbital workshop and the four Saturn launch vehicles which carried the space station in 1973 and the subsequent three Apollo crews to orbit during '73 and '74.

The center has also managed several parts which make up the space shuttle system: the external fuel tank; the orbiter's main engines and solid rocket boosters since the mid-1970's.

This aerospace reporter visited Marshall recently, and reflected back on the center's Golden Age as I spoke to several of it's employees as they face the shuttle program's conclusion later this year.

As one visits the center's grounds, one can easily find themselves taking several gigabytes of images and video of the region around them.

Located at the visitor's center is a space shuttle mock-up resting a top a full scale external fuel tank and a pair of solid rocket boosters attached on either side of the tank.

The exact scale space shuttle stack features the space shuttle Pathfinder, including a cluster of real main engines. Two of the three engines actually flew on the very first shuttle mission, STS-1, in 1981.

Constructed here at Marshall in 1977, the orbiter simulator (later named Pathfinder, above) was used as a test model to check a specific hoisting system later to be used by the space shuttle Enterprise.

During the summer of 1978, Pathfinder was used as a structural test article in dress rehearsals at the Kennedy Space Center to check clearances in the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, and at the Mate-Demate device at the shuttle runway.

In the 1980's, Pathfinder was given the honor of an orbiter vehicle number: OV-098. Shuttle Challenger was OV-099, Columbia was OV-102 and Discovery is OV-103, for example.

According to a Marshall document, the bright rust-colored external tank - known as MPTA098 - was also built in 1977 to help begin main engine cluster testing in Mississippi later that year.

The twin rocket boosters were built after 1987, however were never used in flight or in ground tests.

As one takes in the majestic Marshall skyline, a towering Saturn 5 scale mock-up stands vertically near the Davidson Center.

The 363-foot Apollo-era stack replica is the only one to stand erect. The Saturn 5 flight hardware at both Kennedy and the Johnson Space Center near Houston are showcased horizontal, and Marshall also has a third Saturn 5 which lays horizontal inside the Davidson Center, too.

To see this Saturn 5 standing up right as it did during the moon program of Apollo makes the sight truly unique.

The indoors Saturn 5 lies in an exploded configuration, exposing the second stage engines and that of the upper stage's single engine. All three NASA centers have an actual flight hardware vehicle which was to have been destined for the Nixon-canceled moon flights of Apollo's 18, 19 or 20.

Von Braun and his team were the chief architects of the Saturn 5.

Adjacent to the mighty Saturn rocket is it's predecessor, the Saturn 1B rocket. The smaller 1B is recognized by its checker board center collar and sits at the entrance to the Rocket Garden behind the visitor center's main building.

Other exhibits you can view feature the latest in military technology; actual space crafts which flew including Apollo 16; a rock climbing wall for children and adults; and Space Camp, which is held nearly all year long. Watch my 2010 movie of the sights at MSFC.

Children ages 9 and above can attend Space Camp for a day to up to a week, and can even bring an adult for some of the camps they support.

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