orbiter processing facility

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X-37B returns from fourth orbital flight, makes first KSC landing.

Concluding a record-breaking stay in space, the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane returned to Earth this morning. The vehicle spent more than 718 in orbit after launching atop an Atlas V rocket on May 20th, 2015. 

Although the X-37′s operations in orbit are classified, at least two of its payloads were confirmed to be an experimental electric propulsion engine and a materials exposure pallet.

The spaceplane performed a completely autonomous landing at Kennedy Space Center’s runway 15 shortly before 8am EDT, the same runway used by the Space Shuttle program. It marked the first time one of the Orbital Test Vehicle spaceplanes landed at Kennedy Space Center.

Following brief servicing on the runway, the vehicle will be towed to one of the former Orbiter Processing Facilities next to the Vehicle Assembly building. The Air Force has converted one of the old shuttle hangars for use by the OTV program to house their spaceplanes.

P/C: USAF

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     When people hear the phrase “most magical place on earth”, their thoughts instantly drift to The Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I may be a sucker for “Disney magic”, but when I hear that phrase, I think of a location about an hour east of Orlando; a place where my dreams come true called NASA Kennedy Space Center. This photoset displays key infrastructure used to support iconic Apollo and Space Shuttle programs that operated from this location.      Photos One, Two & Three: The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is the largest single story building in the world. The building consists of four “high bays”, each with its own hangar door, which are the largest doors in the world. In the first photo, High Bay Three is open. The area inside is so large that it often creates fog near the top of the high bays. If the air conditioning quits, it actually rains inside the building. The VAB was constructed in 1966 for the purpose of assembling Saturn V rockets and was later used to assemble Space Shuttle components until 2011. Now, this building will be used to assemble the new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, along with multiple launch vehicles for different private and commercial space companies. The first photo shows Launch Control in the foreground, attached to the VAB. You can see inside of Firing Room 4 at Launch Control in my previous article (click here to view).      Photo Four: Space shuttle orbiters are essentially a pickup truck. If you have a big pickup, it’s nice to have a big garage. This is where the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) comes in. After flight, the shuttle orbiters were transported to one of three OPF buildings. There, they would be inspected and refurbished with no nut or bolt untouched. After every mission, the Main Engines and Orbiter Maneuvering System Pods were replaced. Any hardware needed for the next mission was installed and the orbiter would be rolled to the VAB, where it would be mated to the entire shuttle stack. OPF buildings 1 and 2 now house the Air Force operated Boeing X-37B space planes. OPF 3 contains Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft, which will be used as a taxi to the International Space Station.      Photo Five: The Crawler-Transporters, a pair of 6,000,000 lb tractors, were constructed to move the Saturn V rocket from the VAB to their launch pads. These vehicles have also transported every space shuttle. To move a rocket, the crawler positions itself under a mobile launch platform on which the launch vehicle rests. The platform is lifted atop the crawler, then transported to the pad where the crawler sets it down. The crawler then moves out from under the mobile launch platform, retreating to a safe distance away from the launch. After launch, the crawler must retrieve the mobile launch platform, bringing it back to the VAB for the next launch cycle. Since 1977, these crawlers have covered over 2,500 miles back and forth on this 3.5 mile stretch of roadway.      Photos Six & Seven: Prior to the construction of the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF), the space shuttle orbiter landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. This required a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft to transport the orbiter back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which was expensive. On March 18, 1974, the SLF idea was announced. After a groundbreaking ceremony, construction began on one of the largest runways in the world. Shuttles could then land at Kennedy Space Center, the port from which they would launch, making the operation of a reusable spacecraft drastically more efficient. Major efforts are conducted to control local birds and reptiles. Alligators tend to bask in the sun on this landing strip. A few hours prior to a shuttle landing, a brave individual would drive the length of the runway and remove alligators by hand.
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OTV-4 mission concludes as X-37 returns to Earth.

After nearly two years in space, the U.S. Air Force’s classified space shuttle, the Orbital Test Vehicle X-37B, returned to Earth, landing on Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility runway shortly before 8am EDT. 

Officially known as the AFSPC-5 mission, OTV-4 launched on May 20, 2015, atop an Atlas V rocket. That same rocket also lifted the Planetary Society’s solar sailing cubesat, LightSail-1 into orbit on its own groundbreaking mission. Spending over 717 days in space, the OTV-4 mission is the longest mission thus far of the program’s four flights.

Measuring 29 feet long with a wingspan of 15 feet, the X-37B is a robotic spaceplane with a payload bay ideal for small payloads. While the specific milestones for this flight were classified, at least two of the experiments included the testing of an electric engine and materials exposure pallets.

The first three flights of the OTV program landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, though OTV-4 became the first to land in Florida. By landing at the same spaceport which it left from, OTV operations are expected to streamline and potentially allow for faster times in between missions. One of Kennedy’s three Orbiter Processing Facilities is used by the Air Force to house the two X-37 spaceplanes in between missions.

As seen in the gifs above - taken from video of the vehicle’s landing - the spaceplane glides past a model of another famous space plane, the Space Shuttle. The Inspiration, which once sat outside the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, was moved to the SLF for restoration ahead of a nationwide tour promoting aerospace science and STEM fields.

See our coverage of the AFSPC-5 mission here.

P/C: USAF.

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Boeing unveils Starliner as official name of CST-100 spacecraft.

In a ceremony Friday at Kennedy Space Center’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (formerly Orbiter Processing Facility 3), Boeing announced the official name of their crew-capable spacecraft formerly known as the CST-100.

Dubbed Starliner, the name builds on Boeing’s previous vehicle naming heritage, which includes Stratoliner and Dreamliner. Starliner will transport crews of four astronauts to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program.

Additionally, Boeing also dubbed the C3PF’s renovations complete at the ceremony, which now officially ready to build Starliner spacecrafts.

Technicians are currently building the CST-100 Starliner’s Structural Test Article within the facility. Flight articles will begin to be assembled in 2016 ahead of their inaugural flights in 2017.

The company will perform final assembly and testing of Starliner at the C3PF in a similar way to Orion’s processing flow at the Operations and Checkout building. Following checkout, the spacecraft and attached service trunk will be transported to SLC-41 for integration atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 521 rocket.

This aerial view of STS-1 shows the space vehicle for the first Space Shuttle mission shortly after it was moved out of the Vehicle Assembly Builidng’s High Bay 3 for the 3.5-mile journey to Pad A at Launch Complex 39. In the center background is the Launch Control Center from which countdowns for Space Shuttle missions will be conducted. The rollout to the pad took place little more than a month after the Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia was rolled from the Orbiter Processing Facility to the VAB for mating on a Mobile Launcher Platform with the STS-1 external tank and solid rocket boosters.

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X-37B spaceplane mated with Atlas V rocket ahead of mission.

With a just under two weeks to go, the X-37B space plane was mated to its Atlas V booster last Thursday, May 7. The Orbital Test Vehicle is scheduled to launch from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:45 AM EDT Wednesday, May 20.

The 196-foot Atlas V rocket will be flying in the 501 configuration, denoting a 5-meter payload fairing, no strap-on solid rocket motors, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

The X-37B is an unmanned top-secret Air Force space plane used for orbital operations. Between the two vehicles of the fleet, three previous flights have been made, with no details of experiments or purpose.

For this fourth flight, at least two experiments have been disclosed as payloads, a NASA materials exposure pallet and a Hall-thruster technology demonstrator. A type of electric engine, the Hall thruster will give the Air Force knowledge on long-duration impulse technologies for future space operations. 

In October, 2014, the U.S. Air Force announced that two former Orbiter Processing Facilities would be used to house the space plans during their time on Earth. Currently, the X-37B lands at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California before being shipped back to Cape Canaveral, but it is hoped that the program can be based and self contained from Florida, utilizing the three-mile long Shuttle Landing Facility.

Click here for our coverage on previous flights of the X-37B OTV, including the landing of the most recent mission in October, 2014.

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Some shots from today’s Second annual (and last) RocketMan Triathlon. The bike portion of the three-leg race took place on the secured grounds of the Kennedy Space Center, riding around the Vehicle Assembly Building, Mobile Launch Platforms, LC-39A, and other sites at the Center. 

The run portion took us on a different course this year; we ran past the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum and its historic collection of aircraft.

This is the second year KSC hosted the triathlon (for coverage of last year's inaugural event, click here), although the course was modified significantly. Entrance was via the NASA Causeway, and we did not get to ride our bikes to Pad B, around the Launch Umbilical Tower or former Orbiter Processing Facilities, nor by the Mate-Demate device. Regardless, it was an incredible experience that combines my two favourite passions - cycling and space. Unfortunately, I was not able to capture the experience on my GoPro as I had last year. 

This is likely the last year the race will take place; it’s extremely difficult to ‘open the gates’ and allow the general public in to KSC for a sporting event such as this. Additionally, wildlife impact was greater than originally projected, and increased fees made it harder for the organizers to justify a third year. It was an incredible honor to ride the race the last two years. It gave me a new perspective on a special and favourite place, and I met some incredible people along the way. Something about riding your bike on the seemingly-endless miles of undisturbed, traffic-free NASA roadways, surrounded by launch pads and technological marvels, really clears your mind and reminds you just what it is you live for in life.

And of course, what race wouldn’t be complete without a celebratory lunch with George Diller?