Here’s what it takes to transport a NOAA satellite from Colorado to Florida

‘It takes an army to pull this off,’ manager says

Credit: United Launch Alliance

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The unmistakable roar of four jet engines broke the dead-of-night silence at Kennedy Space Center earlier this month, marking the arrival of a massive Air Force transport at the landing facility once used for space shuttles.

But this red-eye flight from Buckley Space Force Base near Denver, Colorado, had more than just a few dozen passengers onboard. Deep in the belly of the C-5M Super Galaxy was a full-blown semitruck ready to roll out with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather satellite in an attached container, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.

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The 247-foot-long aircraft with a nearly identical wingspan is actually longer than the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will launch the satellite — named GOES-T — no earlier than March 1, 2022. Set to a powerful configuration with four add-on solid rocket boosters, Atlas V will reach about 191 feet in height at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The sheer size of the California-based C-5 meant Lockheed Martin, builder of the satellite, could simply roll the satellite out of its factory near Denver, transport it to Buckley SFB, and back up the semitruck into the aircraft before doing the opposite after landing. As with most things space-related, however, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

About two hours after the 4:15 a.m. touchdown at the Launch and Landing Facility, semitruck driver Corey Spears – mentioned as one of the best drivers Lockheed has on its payroll – began inching the truck out, a delicate task that seemed imperceptibly slow. At least a half dozen other Lockheed employees and Air Force personnel helped guide the satellite container out using a custom container and trailer that can lift and lower itself based on the incline of the Super Galaxy’s payload bay ramp.

Just over three hours after landing, the semitruck and climate-controlled GOES-T container were entirely out of the aircraft and safely on the flight line, ready for the next leg of the trip to Astrotech Space Operations’ processing facility in Titusville. NOAA partners with NASA for launches of its GOES weather satellites.

Several of the dozens of Lockheed employees who arrived on the C-5 will spend the coming months here on the Space Coast, prepping the spacecraft for its launch and subsequent 10-year mission 22,236 miles above Earth.

“This is one of a series of steps that have to happen to get the satellite in orbit and sending back weather data,” Dan Lindsey, a researcher and spokesperson at NOAA. “NASA is very good at public spacecraft development, instrument development, launching assets to space, and getting them on orbit, so that’s the role they play.”

Once up and running, GOES-T will become GOES-18. It will replace GOES-17, which launched from the Cape in 2018 as GOES-S but suffered a cooling system issue. Though it still gets over 90% of the needed data, Lindsey said, GOES-T will move to replace it and the damaged spacecraft will be used as a spare.

GOES-17 currently covers the western half of the U.S.; GOES-16, launched in 2016, is responsible for the eastern side. Both have been responsible for an incredible boost in imagery and data, especially during hurricane season that runs from June to November.

Just like previous GOES satellites, this T variant will use several instruments to gather data on local and national weather, lightning, hurricanes, and more for general forecasting and research. Its findings will also help with understanding the impacts of climate change.

After a brief on-orbit test period, Lockheed will “hand over” the satellite to the NOAA for an expected 10-year lifespan. But before then, company employees that traveled with the satellite will help oversee testing, more transport, encapsulation in its payload fairing, and eventually launch day.

Like most spacecraft that arrive in Florida months before launch, several employees travel with Air Force transports, then briefly live on the Space Coast to help with processing.

AJ Sandora, senior manager of assembly, test, and launch operations at Lockheed Martin, is one of about 27 people who will process GOES-T. Including engineering teams that come and go, he said there will be 45 to 65 people working at Astrotech. That all leads up to 12 days before launch when the satellite is slowly rolled out of the facility and over to Atlas V’s Launch Complex 41.

“I’ll be bringing my wife here and a lot of folks try to bring their families here too,” Sandora said. “With the spacecraft here, we still have to monitor things and make sure everybody stays safe, so we usually keep a local team here just in case but a lot of folks will take some time off and rotate for the holidays.”

But it’s not just people – forklift drivers hauled out package after package stored ahead of the semitruck. Included were crane attachments, tools, supplies, and other equipment specific to GOES-T that must be available at Astrotech.

“The biggest thing I think people don’t realize is how many people this takes,” Sandora said. “It takes an army to pull this off. It’s not just us who are staying here for the whole time, but it’s everybody.”

Just before Thanksgiving, Sandora said teams would conduct several tests to make sure GOES-T handled the shipping process – especially vibrations – without issue. Instrument performance tests should happen before Christmas, then fueling of the 20-foot satellite should come in the second week of January.

The satellite will put on some post-holidays weight, too: Before fueling, it weighs 6,340 pounds. That process will add about 5,000 more for a total clock-in weight of 11,508 pounds.

Post-shipment vibration testing and other checkouts are critical. That was exemplified last week when the multibillion-dollar James Webb Space Telescope, slated to launch from French Guiana on a European Space Agency-purchased Ariane 5 rocket, potentially suffered issues during a processing mishap. NASA said a clamp designed to secure JWST to its launch adapter suddenly released, sending vibrations throughout the processing facility just north of Brazil. The Northrop Grumman-built satellite is now slated to launch no earlier than Dec. 22.

Back at KSC, Sandora said his teams are ready for game day.

“This is a long Super Bowl for us. The team put a lot of hard work and hours in to getting through assembly and test,” Sandora said. “We get very excited and the team’s excited. We’re looking forward to the show.”

Launch Tuesday, March 1, 2022

  • Rocket: United Launch Alliance Atlas V
  • Configuration: 541 (5-meter fairing, 4 solid rocket boosters, 1 Centaur upper stage engine)
  • Mission: GOES-T weather satellite
  • Launch Time: TBD
  • Launch Complex: 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station