After a two-week "fit check," the mobile launcher for NASA's next exploration rocket began rolling off launch pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center this morning.
The roughly 400-foot mobile launch tower and platform made its first trip to the pad Nov. 16, rolling atop the same type of crawler-transporter that carried space shuttles. More background here.
Engineers wanted to see how much the tower wiggled during the 4.2-mile journey at speeds up to 1.1 mph, data that will be useful in designing the new heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket expected to launch on a test flight in 2017. (Less than two inches of movement was anticipated.)
At the pad, the structure was hooked up to power, water and other systems for what NASA project manaager Larry Shultz described as fit checks.
The mobile launcher was designed for the cancelled Ares I rocket, but NASA plans to modify it for the SLS. NASA has spent $238 million so far.
A contract to redesign the base, strengthening it and widening an exhaust hole, is expected to be awarded soon. The modification may cost around $100 million.
Then the structure will need to be outfitted with systems needed to launch the new rocket, an an unspecified cost.
The 6.8-million pound mobile launcher today will return to a park site northeast of the Vehicle Assembly Building. The move began at 10:27 a.m. EST.
IMAGE: At Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 28, the mobile launcher, or ML, stands at launch pad 39B. Data on the ML will be collected from structural and functional engineering tests and used for the next phases of construction overseen by NASA's 21st Century Ground Systems Program. The 355-foot-tall ML structure, which took about two years to construct, is being modified to support NASA's Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett