NASA ISS Resupply Mission Tour Shows Swamp Works Tech, A Roaring Crawler Demo And Nighttime Fireworks Launch

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HotHardware had the incredible opportunity to be invited down to Cape Canaveral to witness a rocket launch that is carrying both supplies and science experiments to the International Space Station (ISS). In our initial write-up, we talked a bit about the experiments carried aboard Cygnus, took a look inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and got an up close and personal look at the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Crew Access Arm that will eventually be installed at Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC 41).

Swamp Works

But as we would soon find out, our first day was just a small primer, because day two was even more action packed (including the actual launch of CRS-6). We started Tuesday off with a tour of NASA’s Swamp Works, which is an incubator of sorts for testing next generation tools and devices that could be used in future space missions.


Although we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the main lab, we can tell you that Swamp Works researchers are working on a myriad of drones and robots that are meant to roam the surface of the Moon and Mars. There were a number of prototype wheeled robots that are designed to scoop up regolith for processing into building materials. One idea is to heat the regolith and form tiles to create landing pads on the moon for space vehicles.

Why do we need landing pads, you might ask? After all, the landers used in the Apollo missions simply touched down on the lunar surface without issue, right? Well, the exhaust from the landing (and ascending) spacecraft will blow lunar dust around, which can get into nooks and crannies of equipment, causing wear and tear. By constructing landing pads on the moon using hardened tiles with interlocking patterns, spacecraft would have a flat, stable surface to land on without the added mess. And what better material to use for the tiles than regolith that has been recovered and processed by NASA robot rovers.

We couldn't take pictures inside the lab but here's a NASA-provided image of a regolith excavator

Swamp Works is also working on drones that will explore craters and canyons found on the moon. Your garden variety, propeller-driven drones used on Earth would be useless on the Moon, so the team has developed drones that use thrusters to maneuver in microgravity.

One lab that were able to take pictures of within Swamp Labs was dedicated to “dust mitigation.” As we previously mentioned, lunar dust can be very detrimental to space equipment, including the spacesuits that keep astronauts alive in the harshness of space. Apollo astronauts quickly learned that lunar dust was actually wearing holes around the joints in their spacesuits and scratched their visors when wiped with a gloved hand, which is a serious problem.

That’s why the researchers at Swamp Works are using electrodynamic dust shields to effectively “sweep away” dust that accumulates on surfaces, or simply to prevent the dust from attaching in the first place. The dust shields use transparent indium tin oxide electrodes on a transparent substrate to disperse the dust. In its current form, the dust shields would be suitable for optical systems, solar panels, and even the aforementioned sun visors.

Solid Rocket Booster Processing Facility

We next moved on to Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) processing facility, which was designed to accommodate the SRBs on the Space Shuttle. Since the Space Launch System (SLS) has been designed to reuse as many parts as possible from the now defunct Space Shuttle Program, this facility can still be used — with minimal modifications — for future manned space missions. 

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Don't worry, it's only a mockup!

When we arrived, crane operators were being trained on how to maneuver the bulky boosters. They must lift the boosters off the train cars that bring them in, hoist them up, rotate them 90 degrees, and then position them upright within access platforms. The booster you see in the image above is not a functional unit, but a full-size mockup that is being used to support modifications to help the facility better accommodate the SLS SRBs.

The Crawler

We later visited the Crawler, which had been rolled out from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) just for us to peruse. The Crawlers were originally built in the 1960s by the Ohio-based Marion Power Shovel Company to support the Apollo space program and were also used throughout the life of the Space Shuttle program. But as the Crawlers celebrate their 50th birthday, they’re receiving various overhauls to support the SLS. These includes upgrades to the structure and two new Cummins diesel engine/generators. The hydraulics system in particular has been upgraded to support an additional 6 million pounds of weight (18 million pounds versus 12 million pounds).


What we didn’t expect was for the entire Crawler team (roughly two dozen people) to hop aboard and actually fire up it up for us. After a few minutes of warming up and checking critical systems, the Crawler took off down its pebbled path at between 1 mph and 1.5 mph (top speed is 2 mph). As you can see in the video below, a water trucks travels ahead of the Crawler to spray water on the pebble path. This helps to prevent an overabundance of dust from wafting through the air after the pebbles are pummeled by millions of pounds of force.

And in case you were wondering, the Crawler consumes 165 gallons of diesel fuel per mile of travel.

ULA Tour And A [Somewhat] Close Look at Atlas V

I was actually surprised to learn that on the very day of the launch, we could actually get relatively close to the Atlas V launch vehicle, fully dressed and prepped for launch (minus fuel, which is added shortly before launch). The only thing that was stopping us was this pesky, motion-detecting fence.


The next stop on the trip was a short trip down the street to ULA's on-site facilities. If you recall, ULA is the company responsible for the Atlas V boosted used in this particular launch. Unfortunately, for security reasons we were unable to take our cameras or our phones inside the ULA facility due to the proprietary nature of the equipment we witnessed (including an Atlas V first stage rocket laying on its side on a big rig trailer platform).

We were made abreast of ULA’s current tussle with the U.S. Government about the use of Russian RD-180 rocket engines, which basically comes down to a political fight that ULA has been dragged into. As a result, ULA is pursuing deals with two American firms — Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne — to power its next generation Vulcan launch vehicle. The downside to the politicking is that neither American-supported engine option is as powerful as the RD-180.

We viewed ULA’s own “mission control” – which they point out was briefly featured in the film Transformers 3 – from which it conducts launch operations.  We should probably also mention that during the tour ULA reps were quick to both praise and chide competitor SpaceX. While ULA commended SpaceX’s achievements and advancements in rocket design, it also criticized the Dragon 9 reusable rocket. In ULA’s eyes, carrying aboard thousands of pounds of extra fuel just to safely land the booster on Earth (hopefully intact), means thousands of pounds that can’t be used to put payloads into orbit. To ULA, it’s a fruitless, although interesting, endeavor.

The Actual Launch

But of course highlight of day (err, night) was the actual launch. We arrived at the press accreditation office at 9PM in order to board the bus to reach our viewing site, but were held up by security (the dog that was required to sniff through our baggage was running behind). After a roughly 30-minute delay, we were on our way to the viewing area, which was three miles from the launchpad. We eagerly waited as the minutes and seconds ticked down to 11:05pm, and as this was my first launch, I was literally shaking with excitement.

Once the engine fired, the rocket lifted off with a loud roar and the night sky turned a bright yellowish-orange as it quickly ascended – and just a few minutes later, it vanished from sight. 21 minutes after launch, the OA-6 Cygnus separated from the Centaur upper stage to begin its journey to the ISS carrying along 7,745 pounds of cargo. Cygnus will rendezvous with the ISS on Saturday, March 26th.

We’d like to take this time to thank NASA for inviting us to Cape Canaveral for the launch, and for being such kind, courteous (and positively hilarious) tour guides during our two-day launch experience. And we’d also like to thank the various suppliers, contractors, and sub-contractors that took the time to answer our questions and give us tours of their facilities. Everyone that we came in contact with was truly excited to be working in the space industry (especially ULA Steve, as we called him) and you could tell by the enthusiasm in their voices and their willingness to describe nearly every aspect of their jobs and the projects they’re working on.

Needless to say, we’re looking forward to visiting NASA again; perhaps for the maiden launch of the SLS sometime in 2018