KSC Continues Transformation to Multi-User Spaceport

Orion Exploration Flight Test launch. (Credit: NASA)
Orion Exploration Flight Test launch. (Credit: NASA)

By Frank Ochoa-Gonzales
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

The year 2014 proved to be of the banner variety for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Kennedy’s diverse new identity on full display as NASA prepares America for its next journey into deep space.

In the quest to transform Kennedy in to the world’s eminent multi-user spaceport, employees have helped prepare, launch and recover Orion; establish, ready and process research and cargo bound for the International Space Station and partner with Boeing and SpaceX to develop human-rated spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS by 2017.

All while the center undergoes a massive facelift. From Vehicle Assembly Building modifications to shoreline restoration projects, there have been no fewer than 38 construction or renovation projects throughout the year.

“We’re transitioning to become a multi-user spaceport, but we still have a ways to go to fully implement our vision,” Kennedy Center Director Bob Cabana said. “We’re solidifying our position as America’s pre-eminent spaceport, supporting both government and commercial launches, to and from low-Earth orbit and beyond. A spaceport worthy of all those who have gone before and of those who will one day take us on a journey to Mars.”

NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-L, or TDRS-L, the 12th spacecraft in the agency’s TDRS Project, launched Jan. 23 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The mission of the TDRS Project, established in 1973, is to provide follow-on and replacement spacecraft to support NASA’s space communications network. TDRS-M, the next spacecraft in this series, is on track to be ready for launch in late 2015.

In March of this year the 21st class of astronauts, Josh Cassada, Victor Glover, Tyler “Nick” Hague, Christina Hammock, Nicole Aunapu Mann, Anne McClain, Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan, came to Kennedy for training for the first time. These eight highly skilled researchers and military aviators will be a part of the agency’s missions beyond low-Earth orbit to destinations in the solar system.

The historic site where American astronauts first launched to the moon was the location of a landmark agreement, part of NASA’s continuing process to transform the Kennedy Space Center into a 21st century spaceport. During ceremonies April 14, agency officials announced they signed a property agreement with SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., for use and operation of Launch Complex 39A for the next 20 years.

Throughout the year NASA’s Project Morpheus continued to test its vertical takeoff and vertical landing vehicle called Morpheus Lander to demonstrate a new nontoxic spacecraft propellant system – methane and oxygen – and an autonomous landing and hazard detection technology. Designed to serve as a vertical test-bed for advanced spacecraft technologies, the vehicle provides a platform for bringing technologies from the laboratory into an integrated flight system at relatively low cost. This allows individual technologies to mature into capabilities that can be incorporated into human exploration missions. There were nine Free Flight tests and a couple Tethered Tests conducted at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy.

NASA’s industry partners continue to complete development milestones under agreements with the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. The work performed by Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX during partnership and contract initiatives are leading a new generation of safe, reliable and cost-effective crew space transportation systems to low-Earth orbit destinations.

The historic Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building, originally constructed as the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building as one of the first buildings at Kennedy, was dedicated as the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building in ceremonies July 21. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Kennedy’s Director Bob Cabana, Apollo 11 crewmates Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin, along with astronaut Jim Lovell and members of the Armstrong family, were on hand for the event.

With a flick of their shovels, the leaders and builders of Kennedy Space Center’s future broke ground Oct. 7 for a new headquarters building that will serve as the centerpiece for the Florida spaceport’s new Central Campus.

The year came to an end as when NASA’s first Orion soared 3,604 miles above Earth and returned safely hours later Dec. 5, having accomplished a flawless flight test as part of NASA’s journey to Mars. It was the first a spacecraft built for humans that left the domain of low-Earth orbit in 42 years.

The cone-shaped Orion held up to all the pressures of launch and ascent into orbit, then made two passes through the high radiation of the Van Allen belts before facing the searing plunge into Earth’s atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near San Diego.

Following the successful Orion Flight Test, Kennedy employees now prepare for a busy early 2015.

SpaceX CRS-5 is targeted to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on Jan. 6. Delivering cargo and crew supplies to the International Space Station, CRS-5 also will carry CATS, a laser instrument to measure clouds and the location and distribution of pollution, dust, smoke, and other particulates in the atmosphere. CRS-6 will launch no earlier than February. NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, is targeted for launch March 12. The mission will study the mystery of how magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect, explosively releasing energy via a process known a magnetic reconnection

“NASA and the Kennedy Space Center continue to make history,” Cabana said. “We are well on our way to establishing a human presence in deep space. Kennedy is center stage on that mission and our team continues to make the impossible seem ordinary. The amount of progress we’ve made this year is remarkable.”