Pad, ULA rocket 'very ready' to launch NASA astronauts from U.S. soil again

'You get one chance --it has to be 100 percent right,' ULA crew chief says

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE BASE - When American astronauts begin launching from Cape Canaveral again, they'll blast off from the same pad where decades ago, the Voyager 2 spacecraft left Earth to become the first and only spacecraft to leave our solar system.

That history and the weight of bringing crewed launches back to U.S. soil is not lost on United Launch Alliance, one of the companies participating in NASA's commercial crew program.

NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft both launched from then Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex, now Space Launch Complex 41, making history in planetary science and sending back the infamous photo of Earth known as the "Pale Blue Dot."

As soon as next year, ULA's workhorse Atlas V rocket will launch Boeing Starliner CST-100 spacecraft and crew to the International Space Station from the same historic launchpad. ULA manages SLC- 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just south of NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Left: Voyager project manager John Casani holding a small Dacron flag, above the golden record, both launched with the Voyager 2 spacecraft behind him. Right: NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft launching atop the Titan/Centaur-6 launch vehicle from…

In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing and SpaceX a more than $6 billion contract to develop spacecraft to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station, which will allow the United States to end reliance on the Russian space program for rides to ISS.

NASA pays $81 million per seat on Russia's Soyez spacecraft. Through Boeing and SpaceX, each seat will cost taxpayers less than $60 million, according to NASA.

The first crewed Starliner launches are on track for middle of next year, according to Boeing, with an uncrewed test flights no earlier than late 2018. SpaceX officials said they are targeting later this year for Crew Dragon's first uncrewed test flight from Kennedy Space Center's historic launchpad 39A and early next year for its first launch with astronauts. 

However, a recent Government Accountability Office report indicated those dates may slip, while both companies are undergoing extensive certification processes to fly crew.

While ULA waits for the Boeing spacecraft to pass the certification process, the company has taken every step to ensure its critical role as the launch provider, according to plan. However, if something does go wrong, the astronauts and pad team will be ready for that, too.

Atlas V "has a tremendous heritage and it’s very, very ready” with more than 70 successful launches, said Dane Drefke, ULA's mechanical operations lead engineer. Drefke, who has overseen the preparation of Launch Complex 41 for the return human spaceflight, said his title is a fancy way of saying, "If it moves on the pad," he manages it.

"The Atlas vehicle is what originally flew John Glenn in the early 60s from Cape Canaveral, here," Drefke said.

[Timelapse video below: ULA moves 1.5 million pound mobile launch tower]

The Space Launch Complex 41 pad has been retrofitted for the upcoming crew launches. ULA installed a white room and crew access arm to the crew access tower last year. The rotating arm is how NASA's astronauts will enter the Boeing Starliner spacecraft atop the Atlas V rocket.

On a recent visit to SLC-41, News 6 was at the pad when ULA moved the 1.5 million pound, mobile launch tower from the crew access tower into the ULA hangar known as the VIF, or vertical integration facility. The quarter-mile journey took about 45 minutes as Drefke and ULA crew walked in a procession alongside the 215-foot tower, moving at less than 3 mph on train tracks.

Before launch, the Atlas V will undergo assembly and any additional testing in the hangar before it's wheeled back out to the pad.

Rockets are very unforgiving, said Drefke, who is one of the last people to touch the Atlas V before launch.

"You get one chance," the ULA engineer said. "It has to be 100 percent right."

[WATCH BELOW: ULA crew chief talks pre-launch rituals]

Because of that, rocket men and women are a bit superstitious. Drefke said, noting that he, too, has his pre-launch rituals.

"Once we're done fully assembling the vehicle and I'm pulling away the platforms from the very top of the rocket, I go up to the very top of the nose cone and give it a little rub," Drefke said. "It's kind of odd, because I'm almost 200 feet up in the air doing this."

On Friday, NASA will announce who among the first four commercial crew astronauts will be the first to launch on either the Starliner CST-100 or SpaceX's Crew Dragon from Florida's Space Coast.

Astronauts Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams have been training with Boeing and SpaceX to become the first commercial flight crew. On Friday, they'll learn if they will launch in a "Boeing Blue" spacesuit or SpaceX sleek white flight suit.

“I’m very excited to hear who they select to be the first crew, because I get to work with them on a person-to-person basis," said Drefke, who as the ULA crew chief will teach the astronauts how to use the emergency system at the space complex.

Drefke is also responsible for configuring the launch tower and white room before the astronauts get on the Starliner spacecraft. He thinks whoever he gets the privilege of working with will be a quick study.

"They’ve had so much training, what I tell them is, like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,'" Drefke said with a laugh, adding that astronauts are "just like us, but have two degrees and can fly upside down."

At the end of the day, they have a job to do, just like us.

Click on the icons below to learn about the facilities on Space Launch Complex 41.

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