Starship: Banquet Tent

It’s funny the stuff you learn if you go poking your nose into big, unmarked tents at Kennedy Space Center.

For our official Touristy Moment during a little camping trip over to the Space Coast, we decided to pay a visit to KSC yesterday. The weather was horrible, but it would be our last chance ever to see a Space Shuttle sitting on the launch pad. So off we went.

Florida summer squalls never last very long, right? Or so we figured. I dropped the family off at the entrance in a thundering downpour, parked the truck, snugged into my big poncho and waded off across the flooded parking lot.

It rained pretty much all day, although the downpour slackened to a drizzle after 30 minutes or so.

Truthfully, the gray skies and morose drizzle sort of seemed to fit the occasion. Nine days until the end of the space shuttle program. Nine days until the end of America’s manned space program, with nothing much else on the horizon. For a space geek like me, that’s pretty depressing.

We rode a tour bus out to Launch Complex 39 and climbed the observation gantry. A few miles away, on Pad 39B, sat Endeavour — the “full stack” as they call it. Ready for STS-135, the mission being billed as “The Grand Finale.” Later, in the Space Shop, I eyed a couple of different t-shirts with “The Grand Finale” logo on them, but the idea of celebrating the end of the manned space flight progam just seemed too depressing to me. Instead, I bought a more defiant shirt with “I NEED MY SPACE!” splashed across the back.

“I hope we’re not about to enter another run like we had in the late 70s, after Apollo ended,” I said to my wife. We were sitting under cover at the Visitor Center playground, while Junior Crazy Boy bounced around and whooped it up.

“What’s that?” the Missus asked.

“You know, where we stick our heads up our butts because we’re feeling sorry for ourselves. We stop exploring. Stop wondering. Science goes into neutral.”

“No,” she pointed past my shoulder. “What’s THAT?”

I turned around. There, just behind the playground, sat a big tent. It was one of those extra-large tents with fancy windows, like caterers put up at outdoor wedding receptions and charity auctions.

“I dunno,” I said. “Looks like there’s something in there, though. A truck or something.”

“Go see what it is,” came my orders from HQ.

So I walked over and stuck my head in. Inside stood a couple of “prime contractor” engineering-types, wearing “prime contractor” polo shirts. They were standing beside a large-ish cradle truck that supported a big damned space capsule. It looked something like the recently scuttled Orion capsule, but a bit different. More angular.

“Come on in,” one of them said.

As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see that the capsule was accompanied by a bunch of stand-up banners — you know, the type of promotional stuff Prime Contractors like to put up at trade shows. It was a prototype MPCV. If you haven’t been keeping up with current events, that’s this thing:

The MPCV. (NASA image)

The MPCV. (NASA image)

This particular capsule had one of the hull sections replaced with plexiglass. Inside, the thing was packed with gadgets — computers, sensors, wires, connectors.

“It’s actually flown,” one of the engineers informed me. “We used this one for the first live test of the new launch abort system last month.”

OK. That would be this test:


“I was lucky enough to be in the control room for the test,” the engineer continued. “We’re a little late getting the capsule here because we recovered it in good enough shape that we thought about re-using it.”

I told him that I thought it was too bad they didn’t have a new booster lined up for the system.

“Well, we’ve got a full test flight scheduled next year on a Delta IV Heavy,” he replied. “The new booster we’re developing for it is scheduled to fly in 2013. It’s a lot more powerful than Ares, which could only reach low earth orbit. We want to go a lot higher than that.”

“The program is funded?” I asked, more than a little surprised.

“That’s what they tell me,” he said. “The new flight schedule for the MPCV is being announced July 8, after we launch Endeavour.”

So there it was after all, sitting in an unmarked banquet tent behind the playground. The future of manned spaceflight.

And, no. They don’t have t-shirts for it yet. But they do have little paper cut-out models, thoughtfully produced by Lockheed Martin. My kid snagged three of them.

All I can say is that I hope the real MPCV goes together easier than the paper model.

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