The Journey To Mars Begins Here At Launch Complex 39B.

The Journey to Mars begins here at the historical launch complex 39B (LC39B) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In the next few years, NASA will continue to launch rockets and humans into space. NASA is currently working on the Space Launch System (SLS). NASA’s Space Launch System will be the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built. When completed, SLS will enable astronauts to begin their journey to explore destinations far into the solar system.

NASA's Journey To Mars
NASA’s Journey To Mars. Credit: NASA

Construction of Launch Complex 39B

Launch Complex 39B Flame Trench Construction. Credit: NASA
Launch Complex 39B Flame Trench Construction. Credit: NASA

Construction of launch complex 39B began in 1964 and concluded in 1967. It was originally designed and constructed to support the Apollo Program. In 1977 NASA started to remodel the pad for use with the new Space Shuttle Program. After the completion of STS-125, 39B was converted for the single test flight of the Constellation Program Ares I-X from Pad 39B on October 28, 2009.

Artist's rendering of the SLS Block 1 crewed variant launching from Pad 39B
Artist’s rendering of the SLS Block 1 crewed variant launching from Pad 39B. Credit: NASA

Since the Ares I-X flight, NASA Ground Systems Development and Operations Program (GSDO) proceeded with plans to strip Pad 39B of its Flight Service Structure (FSS), returning the location to an Apollo-like “clean pad” design for the first time since 1977. This approach will make the pad available to multiple types of vehicles which arrive at the pad with service structures on the mobile launcher platform as opposed to custom structures on the pad. The LH2, LOX, and water tanks (used for the sound suppression system) are the only structures left from the Space Shuttle era.

As of June 2012, repairs and modifications to selected facility systems at Launch Complex (LC) 39B for Space Launch System (SLS) processing and launch operations are finishing the first phase of a five-phase project. The second phase of this project is currently budgeted at $89.2 million ($6.1 million in FY 2012, $28.5 million in FY 2013, $9.4 million in FY 2014 and $45.2 million in the out years). In March 2015, Pad 39B was undergoing modifications to the Catacomb Roof structure so that it can handle the loads from the SLS Block 1B rocket, increasing the load capacity to support the crawler-transporter and vertical rocket from 21,000,000 to 25,500,000 pounds (9,500,000 to 11,600,000 kg).

In 2014, NASA announced that it would make Pad 39B available to commercial users during times when it is not needed by the Space Launch System. As of May 2017, NASA has one SLS mission scheduled in 2019, and a second one in 2021.

Launches From Launch Complex 39B

Launch Complex 39B
Aerial view of Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

There have been a total of 59 launches from LC39B since construction was completed in 1967. LC39B saw 1 Saturn V, 4 Saturn IB, 53 Space Shuttle and 1 Ares I-X launches in its service history. 

Space Shuttle Modifications

Modifications on LC39B began in 1977 and was completed in 1986. They included the addition of the iconic Rotating Service Structure (RSS) and Fixed Service Structure (FSS).

GSDO Program Upgrades

Final Flame Trench Brick Installation at Launch Pad 39B
A construction worker installs the final brick on the north side of the flame trench May 9, 2017 at Launch Complex 39B. Photo credit: NASA/Leif Heimbold

Modifications began in 2009 with the addition of the Lightning Protection System (LPS) and are continuing to accommodate the SLS vehicle. These modifications returned LC 39B to an Apollo-like “clean” pad by removing the RSS and FSS. Modifications include refurbishment of cryogenic storage vessels, and Environmental Control System, HVAC, Ignition Overpressure and Sound Suppression, crawlerway, power, plumbing and structural systems.

Orion Spacecraft and Space Launch System Vehicle

Orion Space Capsule arrives at Kennedy Space Center. Here you can see media outlets photographing the capsule inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building.
Orion Space Capsule arrives at Kennedy Space Center. Here you can see media outlets photographing the capsule inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building. Credit: Biz360Tours

Orion, America’s next generation spacecraft, will take up to four astronauts to destinations beyond low-earth orbit (LEO). It is designed for both short missions to nearby destinations and deep-space missions, including NASA’s Journey to Mars. The Orion Capsule is being manufactured by Lockheed Martin/Airbus for NASA. Orion is intended to facilitate human exploration of asteroids and of Mars and to retrieve crew or supplies from the International Space Station if needed. If you think the Orion looks familiar you are correct as it takes basic design elements from the Apollo Command Module that took astronauts to the moon. 

Animation depicting NASA’s Space Launch System, the world’s most powerful rocket for a new era of human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit. With its unprecedented capabilities, SLS will launch astronauts in the agency’s Orion spacecraft on missions to explore multiple, deep-space destinations, including Mars. Traveling to deep space requires a large vehicle that can carry huge payloads, and future evolutions of SLS with the exploration upper stage and advanced boosters will increase the rocket’s lift capability and flexibility for multiple types of mission needs. Credit: NASA

The Space Launch System (SLS) is an American Space Shuttle derived heavy expendable vehicle. The SLS will be the biggest rocket ever built ranging from 322 ft to 365 ft tall depending on payload requirements. 

An image showing the proposed evolution of NASA's Space Launch System rocket, in its latest configuration.
An image showing the proposed evolution of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, in its latest configuration. Credit: NASA

Launch Complex 39B Points of Interest

Launch Complex 39B points of interest
Launch Complex 39B points of interest. Credit: NASA
  • Flame Trench and Flame Deflector – 100,000 refractory bricks and a deflector covered in 3 inch thick steel plates to divert the SLS exhaust plume.
  • Pad Terminal Connection Room/Environmental Control Room (PTCR/ECS Room) – Contains all of the electrical and control equipment and the system to provide conditioned air to the SLS and Orion.
  • Lightning Protection System (LPS) – Three 600 foot tall towers with catenary wires to protect the launch vehicle from lightning strikes. 
  • High Pressure Gas Storage Battery – Storage vessel sof nitrogen, helium and breathing air, with a total volume of nearly 4 million cubic feet or 113,000 cubic meters. 
  • Crawlerway – 4.2 mile long pathway used to transport SLS/Orion to the Pad from the Vehicle Assembly Building, can support over 25 million pounds or 11,300 megatons. 
  • Liquid Hydrogen (LH2) Storage Vessel – Holds approximately 850,000 gallons of LH2. 
  • Liquid Oxygen (LO2) Storage Vessel – Holds in excess of 900,000 gallons of LO2. 
  • Camera Site – LC 39B has a total of 6 camera sites around the pad perimeter. 
  • Launch Complex 39C – Launch site for commercial and developmental small class rockets (max thrust up to 200,000 pounds). 
  • Ignition Overpressure and Sound Suppression (IOP/SS) System – A 290 foot high water tank and piping system that delivers 400,000 gallons of water in less than 30 seconds to protect the vehicle from launch-induced acoustic and temperature environment. 



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