Upgrades to Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39B happening for Artemis II mission

Emergency zipline, new hydrogen tank must be finished in 5 months

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – Just weeks after the resounding success of the Artemis I mission, NASA is already moving ahead with Artemis II — even though it won’t launch until 2024.

All of the work must be finished within the next five months, according to Jose Morales, NASA Exploration Ground Systems senior project manager. Morales is responsible for all upgrades and modifications in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the Launch Pad 39B.

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“Because you got to remember the (upgrade) work itself will be finished in five months, but then we got to go into testing with the Mobile Launcher for four to five months more,” Morales said. “And we got to go start processing the vehicle (Artemis II). The Mobile Launcher will go to the VAB and start stacking the vehicle.”

The most noticeable upgrade to Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center after Artemis I is the new liquid hydrogen tank.

The old liquid hydrogen tank holds around 800,000 gallons, enough for one Space Launch System (SLS) launch. When there was a scrub during the countdown of Artemis I, NASA needed a couple days to bring in fuel trucks just to refill the tank before it could attempt to launch again.

Now, with a second tank almost twice as large in the shadow of the launchpad, a lack of liquid hydrogen will never again limit launch attempt turnaround time. That’s important when astronauts are waiting to go to space on Artemis II and beyond.

Morales must also improve the cooling system that provides air to the rocket on the launchpad.

“The rocket requires very specific temperatures and humidities,” Morales said.

One of the cooling towers’ plastic fan blades melted during the Artemis I launch and must also be repaired.

And the emergency egress system — essentially a zipline for astronauts to evacuate in a hurry if necessary — must also be upgraded.

During Space Shuttle days, astronauts could climb into a steel basket attached to a thick cable and soar to the ground, where they’d get into a waiting armored car and drive to safety.

The cables had to be attached and tensioned precisely — but only once.

“The baskets were always at the top of the tower, and the cables were always in place,” Morales said. “Now, it’s a process we’ll have to perform every time the Mobile Launcher comes to the pad.”

The Mobile Launch Tower from which the SLS lifts off, rolls back and forth to the pad, carries the mega-moon rocket. The old launch tower never moved.

“There’s going to be time that they’ll have to add to the whole process, the launch processing system, in order to connect those cables and, after the launch, disconnect the cables and take back the Mobile Launcher,” Morales said.

Connecting and tensioning the cables will take as long as a week, according to Morales, which will be built into the pre-launch countdown, once the Mobile Launcher rolls out to 39B with the rocket. But it’s a necessity for Artemis II and beyond, Morales said, because of course astronauts will be on board.

Once the reels and tensioning systems are put in place at the bottom of the egress area, the empty Mobile Launcher will be rolled back out to the launchpad to connect the cables and to test them to make sure the emergency egress system works.

Then, the Mobile Launcher will have to roll back into the Vehicle Assembly Building to start stacking the Artemis II rocket — the reason for a strict five-month deadline.

The Orion capsule is currently on its way back to the Kennedy Space Center from the West Coast, not for reuse (Artemis II and III will use new capsules), but to remove certain avionics components and carefully examine the capsule to see how it fared during its trip to the Moon.

NASA is monitoring the major snowstorm moving across the country to make sure Orion arrives safely. The capsule is expected to arrive by New Year’s Day.

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About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.