HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – The giant rocket fuel tank NASA unloaded Thursday from one of the world’s legendary airplanes at Marshall Space Flight Center is a high-stakes bet on the future of space exploration.
“When you build fast and test fast, you can fail fast,” admitted John Vickers, NASA project manager for the Composite Cryotank Technology Demonstration to be performed at Marshall this summer. But, Vickers said, “We have very high confidence we’re not going to fail the test.”
The 18-foot-diameter tank flew to Alabama aboard NASA’s legendary Super Guppy, a puffed-up cargo transport that has hauled major pieces of space hardware across the country for decades in various models. This time, the hardware wasn’t metal, but a composite-material cylinder 20 feet tall and some 30 percent lighter than an aluminum tank of the same size.
At Marshall, where some of America’s unique space assets are located, smaller versions of the tank have already been successfully tested. This one will be lifted into a test stand sometime this summer, filled with 28,000 gallons of dangerous liquid hydrogen rocket fuel and put under pressure to simulate launch pressures.
If the structure holds, America’s deep space exploration program has taken a significant step. “You’d better being using composites,” Vickers said, “because that’s where the aerospace is going.” Composite structures are already flying, in fact. Boeing used them for 50 percent of the structure of its new 787 Dreamliner, and Boeing built this tank, too.
If something goes wrong, that’s why the test is at Marshall. The center has safe underground control rooms and big test areas first used to fire Army and Saturn rocket engines.
But before this tank can be tested, it had to be unloaded from the Super Guppy Thursday morning. Marshall’s crews have a good reputation for handling rare and expensive space hardware – the mirrors for the James Webb Space Telescope were tested here, for example – but Thursday’s crew had its hands full with the gusty wind blowing across the Redstone Arsenal Airfield.
A few knots more wind and the giant cranes wouldn’t have been able to work, but the job went off in perfect sequence: slide the tank out of the Guppy’s cargo hold on a motorized pallet, use two cranes to lift it above the pallet, drive the pallet away, move a 96-wheel K-Mag tractor capable of hauling 800,000 pounds under the hanging tank, lower the tank and secure it, and drive the tank to a safe and secure location.
So far, so good. Stand by for testing.
Updated at 4:10 p.m. to clarify that Boeing built the tank to be tested