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Insider Tour of Marshall Space Flight Center

Marshall Space Flight Center is a space nerd’s dream! How can you go wrong with rocket engines, gigantic test stands, and amazing testing facilities that all help the NASA Space Launch System (SLS) rocket make it into deep space? You can’t! Not with Huntsville being one of the World’s Smartest Cities and this tour proves it.

I was able to be fortunate to be on a pre-BEX tour to the Marshall Space Flight Center at Redstone Arsenal while at the TBEX Conference. This tour is the same gold star treatment that they give Senators when visiting this facility. They test large-scale structures to make sure they can handle the loads that are seen in space. Currently, they are performing the testing for the Space Launch System rocket. Understanding the magnitude of this project, look at the person that is to scale at the bottom left of the rocket photo below. Can you find him?

Display of the SLS Rocket

Marshall Space Flight Center

Our first stop is the George C. Marshall Marshall Space Flight Center building where we get an excellent introduction from Todd May. NASA’s mission is the scientific research in and exploration of space for peaceful purposes. This facility is named after George C. Marshall who was a 5star general in WWII and a Secretary of State. He initiated the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after the war and won the Noble Peace Prize. It seems fitting for a man that was dedicated to peace has this agency named for him. Todd May giving the introduction to the tour of Marshall Space Flight Center Tim Flores telling us about the SLS rocket

Space Launch System

We then get an introduction to the Space Launch System (also known as SLS) by Tim Flores. This rocket is powered by four RS-25 engines firing simultaneously and will provide 2 million pounds of thrust while working in conjunction with a pair of solid rocket boosters. This mission to deep space is named EM-1 (Exploration Mission-1).

RS-25 engine

This is all needed to get this rocket, which is larger than the Statue of Liberty, into deep space. The SLS consists of Orion at the top where the cargo (Secondary Payloads) and eventually astronauts will be. There are modified solid rocket boosters from the shuttle program, RS-25 engines, and the 1st cylinder section is the liquid oxygen tank being tested (inner tank).SLS rocket configurationSLS Architecture Reference ConfigurationSpace Launch System

Outside of the George C. Marshall building, are three engines. Massive engineering feats of scientific ingenuity. Even with my degree in Mechanical Engineering, I was astounded by the scale of these engines. When they tested the Saturn V rocket F1 engine (seen in the center below) in the past, they did it dynamically. They fired five F1 engines at once, and it blew out windows in downtown Huntsville and registered on the Richter scale hundreds of miles away. Because of this test, they only test the engines statically now. NASA does not reuse the SLS engines like the space shuttle program, so, there will be many more tests in the future.Pre-BEX tour for Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama

Advanced Manufacturing Center

Lunar module in the Advance Manufacturing Building at Marshall Space Flight CenterThe next stop is the Advanced Manufacturing Building #407 which houses the Composites Technology Center and 3-d Printing. Walking through the building my head kept swiveling back and forth to catch everything. A lunar module here, SLS components over there. So much to look at in here. In the Composites Technology Center, we were entertained with a dancing 6-axis robot that costs up to $4.5 million dollars. Robot creating carbon fiber at Composites Technology CenterThis is how they make the carbon fiber for the barrels that are used on the rockets. The carbon fiber is threaded through the machine and in simple terms, out comes a piece of carbon fiber. These barrels can be quite large and take several people to help move them.6-axis, $4.5 million robot creating carbon fibercarbon fiber materialCarbon fiber barrel

Kim Henry, public relations, is our fabulous tour guide for the afternoon making sure we get from one building to another. Love her enthusiasm for her job!
Kim Henry, PR for Marshall Space Flight Center and our tour guide
Steve Burlingame was our host in this building and was quite knowledgeable of the history. Some good and some not so good. One, in particular, he mentioned while we were checking out the Autoclave. The Autoclave is where they pressurize the parts to simulate the loads that the components will experience in space. It is basically an easy bake oven for the composites. A long time ago in an Autoclave similar to this but 3x larger, where you couldn’t see the back, a worker hopped in to take a nap during lunch. Without anyone knowing he was in there the test began, and the door closed with him in it.  Obviously, this had a somber ending.Steve Burlingame giving us a tour of the Autoclave in the Advance Manufacturing building at Marshall Space Flight CenterPre-BEX tour group in front of Autoclave in Advanced Manufacturing Center

The 3-d printing area was neat to see. Every part the engineers are making is for the SLS rocket. I even got to see a 3-d printing in development. It is fascinating to watch as a layer is added then burned and then the process repeats. They even have larger printers for the bigger rocket components.3-d printing demonstration parts3-d printing in process

Secondary Payloads

10" scale MSA w/ Secondary PayloadsSecondary Payloads, self-contained cube satellites, are released at certain times during the flight to deep space. These points along the trajectory of the SLS flight are bus stops. Bill Bookout explained Secondary Payloads to us. Each secondary payload is approximately 14kg. The cubes are so lightweight; they can hitch a ride out to deep space on the SLS instead of using their own rockets. These eleven satellites can either orbit the moon, crash into it, or orbit past the moon depending on their scientific experiments. Map showing the bus stops for the secondary payloads on the SLS rocketBill Bookout, secondary payload integration manager, telling us about secondary payloads on the SLS rocket

 EM-1 Mission Profile

After the explanation of what Secondary Payloads are, we donned our NASA gear (we dubbed it the NASA raincoat since it was raining out). The ring that houses these eleven cubes just came in so; we got to see the actual SLS part. I can’t believe I am seeing a part of the Space Launch System that will be launching in 2019 and will be traveling to deep space and be orbiting the moon.

Heather Raulerson wearing protective clothing to see the MSA for the SLS rocket

actual SLS MSA part where secondary payloads will betour stop to see actual MSA that will go in the SLS rocketPayload Operations Center

Payload Operations Center at Marshal Space Flight CenterThe Payload Operations Center is where they are in constant communication (24-hours a day) with the International Space Station. This is NASA’s primary space station science command post. I am pleasantly surprised with a number of women working in the center. I am so proud! This is incredible to see considering the history of women working for NASA.

The people who work at the Payload Operations Center manage all the operations for the science and research experiments aboard the Space Station. They direct the communications between the Space Station and the researchers around the world. They also coordinate the payload activities of NASA’s International Partners. Each flag on the ceiling of the Center are countries that work with the International Space Station. Scott David tour guide in the Payload Operations Center at Marshall Space Flight CenterScott David was our host in the Payload Operations Center. I had an interesting conversation with Scott when he mentioned needing Human Factors Engineers to work here. Especially ones that knew how to set up layouts for controls in the most intuitive way. Amazing how knowledge can transfer across different fields. 

What I enjoyed was the time to get to know some fellow TBEX travel bloggers before the conference began. My new friend, Leslie Gibbs, and I connected right off the bat. Didn’t matter that her family lives in Atlanta and I’m from Michigan. Our shared passion for travel is what brought all of us here to Huntsville in the first place.

Heather Raulerson and Leslie Gibbs in front of International Space Station Payload Operations Center building

Test Stands

We finished our tour, riding the bus to view the test stands. First stop is the National Historic Landmark of the Redstone first test stand. The second test stand is the S1C test stand that was used for the Saturn V engines (mentioned earlier). The third is the 65-foot tall Space Launch System Structural Load Test Stand. The last and the biggest is the SLS Test Stand 4693 which will be used for structural loads testing on the liquid hydrogen tank for the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System. Test Stand 4693 is 21 stories tall and consists of 7 million pounds of steel. You can see these test stands on the Redstone Arsenal Space Rocket Center bus tour.

Redstone first test standthe S-IC static test stand was designed and constructed to develop and test the first stage of the Saturn V launch vehicle that used five F-1 engines.65-foot tall Space launch System Structural Load Test StandTest Stand 4693 will be used for structural loads testing on the liquid hydrogen tank for the core stage of NASA's Space Launch System.

All of the components of the Space Launch System have been made. The next step is to start installing all the parts and test them. They are being transported here on barges, trucks, and planes. This is an incredible tour to see everything that goes into launching the world’s most powerful rocket that will be launching into deep space in 2019. If you would like more information or keep up to date with the progress on SLS, click on the link to on Marshall Space Flight Center. 

If you would like to see more things to do in Huntsville, read “Top 6 Interesting Things to Do in Huntsville.” What an amazing city to visit that wasn’t on my radar but, definitely is now!

8 thoughts on “Insider Tour of Marshall Space Flight Center

  1. Cat

    This is such a fascinating place to learn about space shuttles! It goes into such great details for those who are interested to know more about manufacturing of the rocket!

  2. knycx

    A place for knowledge and how awesome it is to have seen all those space shuttles!! Amazing and I would love to visit there myself! Thanks for sharing with us! @ knycx.journeying

  3. Sol Solntze

    Gosh how very cool! What a great behind the scenes tour of a fascinating facility. I’ve been to the space museum near where we are but it’s not the same as a space centre with the lunar module casually shoved to one side! Thank you for all the pictures.

    1. HeatherHeather Post author

      I know right! Sol, it was amazing to see all the gadgets and parts but, the cool thing is that most of those are going into the new SLS rocket!

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