Rebuilding the Biggest Building

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Hurricanes are examples of planet-scale storms best seen from orbit
Credit: NOAA

For one of the world’s biggest buildings, before and after images captured the force of the storm. With its footprint the size of Texas, hurricane Frances had pounded Cape Canaveral over the weekend and left a natural scar on one of the world’s manmade wonders.

Originally built for assembly of Apollo/Saturn vehicles and later modified to support Space Shuttle operations, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is often referred to as the only enclosed space big enough for interior clouds to form. But when a hurricane looms off the Florida coast and dark clouds gather to drench the beaches, the novelty of forming interior clouds loses some of its charm.

It is not the tallest, just one of the more spacious. Its high-bay area is 525 feet tall (more than 45 stories high), while its low-bay area is 210 feet tall. The VAB occupies 8 acres of land, making it the largest in volume (129 million cubic feet). The volume is like half the height of the tallest skyscraper, but then with that same tower turned on three axes, with nearly equal height, width and depth. When open, the T-shaped door alone is more than 40 stories tall.

When constructed in the 1960’s to stack the Saturn rockets–each about the size of an aircraft carrier if stood up vertically–the VAB came to symbolize big-scale thinking. In addition to sheltering the Apollo rockets, it could accomodate rollbacks of a shuttle during the predictable fall hurricane season. In total, six skyscrapers could fit inside what is the landmark against an otherwise flat Florida marsh lacking an urban skyline. But from its outset, if NASA needed a building to shelter a moon rocket, then a group of construction engineers would conceive hoisting the biggest one of its kind.

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Vehicle Assembly Building spacious interior.
Credit: NASA

Max Urbahn, who headed the design team of architects and engineers for the Vehicle Assembly Building stated the design challenge well when he said: "The VAB is not so much a building to house a moon vehicle as a machine to build a moon craft. The Launch Control Center that monitors and tests every component that goes into an Apollo vehicle is not so much a building as an almost-living brain."

When General Thomas Stafford testified to the Presidential blue-ribbon commission on "Moon to Mars and Beyond", he cited specifically how remarkable the early sixties were for construction on the Florida coast. "In the early 1960’s the Cape was strictly palmettos, rattlesnakes, and palm trees. In 6 years, that was built to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and we launched the first Saturn flag. And most of it was done with a slide rule."

As the VAB tried to weather 100 mile-per-hour gales, the adage that ‘build it and they will come’ took on special significance: those who had to evacuate included nearly the entire 14,000 person Kennedy Space Center (KSC). According to its design specifications, the VAB doors can withstand winds of 125 miles per hour and can be opened and closed in a 63 mile-per-hour wind. The building lived up to its design, but its integrity was questionable earlier in the week when Frances looked like it might make landfall with 140 mph force winds.

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Mercury Redstone rocket toppled during hurricane. A Redstone carried Alan Shepard as the first American into space.
Credit: AP

As NASA Administrator, Sean O’Keefe described in a statement: "Kennedy Space Center suffered significant damage as Hurricane Frances swept across Florida." After the weekend, early assessment of this landmark facility showed about 820 panels were torn off the VAB during the storm. Initial review of the interior, however, indicated no serious damage to equipment, including two Space Shuttle External Tanks.

Preliminary inspections of the center’s two launch pads indicate they appear in good shape. The SWIFT spacecraft for studying Gamma Ray Bursts, which is scheduled for launch early next month, also appears fine, but the building where it rode out the storm did sustain damage. Also, power was restored today to the third and final Orbital Processing Facility, which houses the Space Shuttle Discovery.

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VAB measured in rocket units Credit: NASA

In addition to housing the shuttle rocket stacks, many astrobiology missions have historical ties to critical assets at the Cape. From the Hubble telescope launch to various human missions on space station, the shuttle stack has been mounted in the VAB. In fact the skyline at Cape Canaveral gives a running account of important astrobiology objectives. During a controlled explosion in October 2000, the historical launch pad 41 dating back to 1965 gave way to a new Atlas V tower. That part of the now modified Florida skyline had witnessed the launch of two Viking missions to Mars and Voyager’s planetary probe, both of which had led the way for modern astrobiology missions to the inner and outer solar system.

O’Keefe spoke to the NASA tradition of recovery, when he concluded that "We have a documented history of overcoming adversity and pulling together." NASA has not assessed yet whether the storm damage will affect the planned spring reflight of the shuttle as it returns to orbit since the Columbia tragedy.


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