Spaceport Goals Take Shape in Revamped Firing Room
The firing room of the future isn’t confined to the future anymore. An extensive renovation of everything from the consoles in the Young-Crippen Firing Room to the computer servers in the Launch Control Center and Launch Pad 39B and all the cables and networks connecting them will produce a nerve center for rockets and spacecraft befitting a national spaceport.
The room will be as plugged-in to the status and preparations of vehicles in facilities of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida as it was for space shuttles, but the infrastructure making the connections is decades more advanced.
"We're building upon what was there for shuttle and taking it to the next level," said Stephen Cox, the element operations manager for command and control.
The renovations in the firing room that are part of the Spaceport Command and Control System, or SCCS, are proceeding at the same time the Ground Systems Development and Operations Program makes similarly grand upgrades at Launch Pad 39B and in the Vehicle Assembly Building.
The goal is to install the devices and infrastructure for a launch center that can host several kinds of rockets at the same time. That is a revolutionary undertaking since previously all processing and launch systems were custom-fit to a specific vehicle such as the space shuttle fleet.
Officials leading the efforts opened the doors on the new facilities recently to center employees. The feedback was very positive, said Greg Clements, chief of Kennedy’s Control and Data Systems Division.
"For many people, they had not seen the new Firing Room 1 equipment and command and control capabilities for several years," Clements said. "For others, it had been a year or two. Many of the comments centered on the fact that the attendees and stakeholders better understand that we are working on a capability that is different from Constellation, and they are looking forward to seeing additional progress over the next several months."
One of the good things is that all of the facilities needed to process and launch already are in place. So it's a matter of retrofitting networks and support equipment, not building whole new structures.
With small-screen monitors inside blue metal boxes replaced by contemporary cabinets and modern computers and monitors, the firing room bears little resemblance to the original control room that oversaw launch processing and liftoff operations for shuttles.
The changes go far beyond cosmetic appearances. The additions have at their heart the goal of providing options for the control center. Instead of a given seat being suited for only one task, whoever sits down at the computer will be able to call up the appropriate data set for the work they are doing. On launch day, that could mean every available console is staffed with people dedicated to the liftoff. But afterward, when another vehicle or two is being processed for launch, the same consoles can be split to oversee the different operations.
"The new concept that we are working on is that all services are at that console, they can use that glass real estate the best way they see fit," said Michael Van Houten, SCCS deputy project manager.
The workstations are off-the-shelf machines similar to the computers people have at home. The servers are the same ones found in many banks and commercial data centers.
"We very much take advantage of the prevailing commercial markets in our computer usage," Clements said.
Cables and other elements of the antiquated infrastructure have been pulled and replaced with new materials that, in many cases, provide substantially improved performance.
The improvements include pulling a bundle of wiring that transmitted images from a single camera to make way for a tiny fiber-optic cable that carries the signals of more than 570 cameras from the launch pad to the control room.
Similar innovations can be found throughout the upgrade, including at the facilities at Launch Pad 39B, where rooms built about 45 years ago look brand-new.
At this point, there are a number of new rocket designs in different stages of development that could call the revamped Kennedy facilities home. The point of the renovations is to be ready to process and launch any of them.
Steven Siceloff, Kennedy Space Center