The VAB

I threatened that I would have more on this topic, and I don’t issue empty threats. Herewith, a little trivia about a curious structure: the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida.

With the race to the moon came, naturally enough, a significant infrastructure to support the endeavor, and the most visibly prominent part of this in this area of Florida is the building used for final assembly of the impressive Saturn V booster that carried Apollo on its way. Standing 110 meters (363 feet) tall, the Saturn V needed a very big building to be stacked together within, especially since it was built atop the Mobile Launch Platform and driven, upright, to the launch pad, and needed a launch gantry that stood even taller. So, 122 meters (400 feet) for the gantry and another 14 meters (45 feet) for the launch platform and crawler means you need one hell of a garage door. At that time called the Vertical Assembly Building, this big plain block structure is visible for kilometers from across Florida but is deceptive in appearance, because it stands alone and has absolutely no features that provide any scale at all.

Shown here getting ready to receive an external tank for the space shuttle orbiters, you can’t really get much of an idea of the size, and in fact even the external tank is tricky, but if you look at the yellow brace near the top end of the tank to the right, at the base of that brace is someone in blue standing right alongside the tank. Clicking on this image will open the full-resolution image in another window, by the way, if you would like to see the detail (photo courtesy of NASA.) And at the base of the VAB, that open door is wide enough for the external tank soon to pass through. The forced perspective is tricky, isn’t it?

But that’s not really enough either, so look at the crossbar throwing a shadow on the face of the building, about 3/4 of the way up in the center. Have a nice close look:

Those little pixels just barely visible now provide an impression of what they really are: a couple of men on a scaffolding on the side of the building (doing what, I’m not really sure, but better them than me.) Now do you get an idea of the scale? The blue starfield portion of the American flag painted on the side of the building is the size of a basketball court; each stripe is the width of an average road lane. The VAB stands 160 meters (526 feet) tall, not quite half the height of the Empire State Building, but four times the volume. Even more interesting, it is 55 meters (180 feet) higher than the highest ground elevation in Florida – yes, the state is very flat; swamps don’t tend to pile up very high.

Inside it’s just one big open space, with several powerful cranes to assemble the various launch vehicles – the Saturn V initially, but now switched to the shuttle orbiters, an era that ends in a couple of months with the last space shuttle launch. It is highly likely that it will continue duty with the new line of space vehicle, whatever that turns out to be (the lack of contingency in the program is appalling, but I’m one of those who refuse to put the blame on NASA – Congress is the body that approves all plans and funding.) In the right conditions, clouds form inside the building due to the humidity and temperature differential, something that would probably not happen anyplace other than Florida, the nation’s sauna. Outside, you can see the square shape from quite a distance away, a child’s toy block in the middle of an empty carpet.

The northern part of the island that holds the Cape is Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, which I’ve mentioned before, and on more than one occasion I’ve had to change my shooting angle when photographing wildlife there to prevent the building from being in the frame (or, in this case, I simply decided to use it as a distinctive setting.)

When watching the night launch of Mission STS-113, I missed an opportunity I really didn’t know I’d have. Both the shuttle launch pad and the VAB are floodlit for night launches, and my viewing angle placed them only a short distance apart, easily able to be seen together with even a moderate-angle lens. Rockets heading into orbit always seem to be falling back towards Earth as they transition gradually from vertical to horizontal and start following the curve of the planet, but that evening the orbital path lay almost directly away from me. As the shuttle dwindled to a point of light and discarded the Solid Rocket Boosters, only the main engines remained to be seen, and the arc was very tight, almost a straight up/straight down affair. It disappeared from view only a little above the horizon, and directly above the VAB. Had I known and been prepared, I could have had a spare camera set up with a wide angle lens, capturing the entire arc from launch to vanishing, pad to VAB. Nuts.

But I have to give James Vernatocola credit for composing this great shot of the arc with the foreground details.

2 comments to The VAB

  • Rayl

    The link seems to be broken.

    • Al Denelsbeck

      Hmmm, I checked them all, and recruited help from others, they all seem to be okay. Anyone else having the same issue?

      The picture link is big – might take a minute depending on the server.