HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – NASA’s next-generation rocket will one day make an epic journey to Mars, but first it will have to pass trials at giant test stands now under construction in Alabama.
Birmingham-based Brasfield & Gorrie has been awarded a $45.3 million contract to build two test stands that will ensure the Space Launch System (SLS) can withstand launch stresses when the space agency is ready to launch an unmanned flight in 2017.
SLS, which is largely being designed in Huntsville at the Marshall Space Flight Center, will be the most powerful rocket in history. Plans for SLS include taking astronauts on missions beyond low-Earth orbit into the solar system and to an asteroid. Later launches would eventually take man to Mars.
Juan Carlos Ospina, a vice president and division manager for Brasfield & Gorrie, said the company has in the past worked on similar steel tower projects for moveable bridges. It’s also completed mass concrete projects in Texas and Tennessee. In addition, B&G has already completed work on separate projects at the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal, where the stands are being built.
“This job is a dream come true,” he said. “You don’t get a chance to work on projects every day that give you national pride and that has a distinct purpose for NASA and the country.”
The 12-month project, which will be completed by May 2015, includes building two stands that will test the largest cryogenic fuel tanks ever used on a rocket. Cryogenic propellants are gasses chilled to subfreezing temperatures and condensed into highly combustible liquids used for past and future long-term human space missions.
“Right now, these test stands are critical for us meeting our mission of launching that vehicle,” said Byron Williams, a NASA facilities engineer who is an associate project manager for the project. “These test stands give us a high level of confidence that the cryogenic tanks will be able to withstand the forces that will be exerted on them during launch. The test stands will help validate the computer models”
As one might imagine, the project will be incredibly complex. The first stand, a 215-foot stand with a twin-tower configuration, will test the liquid hydrogen tank. The second, measuring about 85 feet, will test the liquid oxygen tank and forward skirt. The taller stand will require 2,150 tons of structural steel, while the second will require 692. About 1.75 miles of embedded anchor rods for the second stand’s foundation will ensure the stability needed to test such high-level force parts.
“These stands have been designed to be robust so they can handle future needs of the space program,” Williams said.
NASA is contracting construction through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which worked on a joint venture team with Montgomery-based Goodwyn Mills and Cawood and Greenwood, Colorado-based Merrick & Company. The project could have as many as 500 people working on construction when the test stand project is at full speed, according to Roger Collier of the U.S. Corps of Engineers.
“Thanks to the teamwork mentality process with NASA and the Corps of Engineers, we are all working together to work through the work plan and get a price plan of how we’re going to do the work,” Ospina said. “It wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have the cooperation that we have.”
The stands – which are being designed to be adaptable for future tests beyond just SLS – will also have symbolic significance, just like those for the Saturn V moon-rocket that still exist at the Marshall Space Flight Center.
“They will again become a symbol of the American pride in the space agency like the ones already existing,” NASA said.