Rigging Department Delivers Innovative Solutions to NASA
Source: Q3 2015 Inside PAE. Click here for the PDF of the article as it originally appeared in the PAE employee magazine.
At the Johnson Space Center, PAE provides maintenance, operations, engineering and construction services to NASA in support of human spaceflight training, research and flight control missions. Our 11-person Rigging Department specializes in lifting and moving extremely large, heavy and/or delicate items to enable NASA to build, transport and test equipment. Although adept at routine work such as chiller repairs, utility plant support and logistics, the rigging team excels at solving complex material handling challenges for NASA.
“They do excellent work and are very well respected here,” said PAE Program Manager Dave Popham, “because they have a reputation for getting things done quickly and correctly. Their creative problem-solving has led to some pretty interesting projects.
PAE Riggers Support Most Powerful Telescope Ever Built
PAE’s Rigging Department supports testing of the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. When completed, it will be the most powerful space telescope ever built. With the Webb telescope scheduled to launch in October 2018, the PAE Department supports its prelaunch testing requirements.
Although the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland manages development of the telescope, testing on certain parts of the telescope must be conducted at the Johnson Space Center in Texas.
“Johnson Space Center has the world’s largest cryogenic vacuum chamber, which provides a space-like environment for testing,” explained PAE Vice President, Civil Infrastructure Mike Matteson. “NASA originally built the chamber, called Chamber A, to test the Apollo spacecraft, but had to convert it to simulate the much colder conditions the Webb telescope will face.”
Building a Lifting Device
Establishing this extremely cold temperature was a challenge. To drop Chamber A’s temperature down to five degrees Kelvin, NASA needed to support and maneuver a liquid nitrogen and helium system inside the chamber. “NASA required a special lifting device so a helium shroud could be constructed,” said PAE Rigging & Heavy Haul Division/Motor Pool General Foreman Willie Tolleson. “In 2009, we began developing a circular monorail lifting device.” NASA agreed with the rigging team’s approach and selected PAE to design and construct the device, which was completed in 2011.
NASA Webb telescope Project Lead Mary Cerimele views the team’s work with admiration and amazement. In an email she wrote, “I watched the riggers place the lifting fixture and spreader bars into place yesterday. From an observer point of view, it was nerve-wracking and breathtaking. The precision and care and expertise of our rigging crew were abundantly evident. They made what seemed to be an impossible task look easy. I was very impressed.”
Creating a Clean Room to Receive Parts
PAE’s support expanded in 2013 when NASA tasked the Rigging Department with assembly of a bed frame inside Chamber A to support parts of the telescope during testing. NASA also required our riggers to assemble a clean room outside the chamber because a sterile environment was needed to offload and stage parts required to construct the bed frame.
“It is very important that parts of the telescope are tested in a sterile environment,” explained Willie. “Testing materials must be transported inside sterile shipping containers, and those conditions must be maintained when equipment is unloaded.”
The team completed the clean room and bed frame in 2014. Johnson Space Center was ready to receive parts for testing, presenting PAE with yet another opportunity.
Transporting a Delicate and Large Telescope
In February 2015, PAE’s Rigging Department helped transport a Webb telescope test model part from Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to Johnson Space Center in Texas. Willie and Rigging Department colleagues Steve Barnes, Jason Davidson and Julia Raanes first accompanied the part from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to Andrews Air Force Base, traveling at a rate of no more than 10 miles per hour.
The equipment was moved in a large, specially-built container called the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS).
“Moving the part was a very long process. It had to be shipped very carefully, in a way that preserved its cleanliness and did not damage it. It is an extremely fragile piece of equipment,” said Willie.
Willie and his colleagues helped the Goddard rigging team load the STTARS container onto a Galaxy C-5 aircraft. Once in Texas, the entire PAE rigging team led the unloading of the container from the aircraft, and again traveled at no more than 10 miles per hour to deliver it to the clean room at Johnson Space Center.
“During ground transport, traffic lights were our biggest challenge,” said Willie. “Weighing in at 165,000 pounds, the STTARS container is so huge we had to have cranes prop up traffic lights so we could pass underneath them.”
“It was rewarding to assist NASA with the STTARS transport,” said Dave. “This is the type of logistical challenge — a cross-country delivery of enormous, delicate and priceless equipment
— the team loves to solve and execute.”
The PAE Rigging Department’s support of the Webb telescope resulted in a request for PAE to support 20 more flights on the C-5 Galaxy, including the final flight to deliver the telescope to
French Guiana for the launch in 2018.
“Willie and the team have done an excellent job supporting the customer for this project,” said
Mike. “The team’s efforts thus far have contributed to PAE growth by bringing in over $4 million in IDIQ revenue.”
Rigging Department Supports Planetary Lander
The PAE Rigging Department supports other NASA projects including testing of Morpheus.
Capable of vertical takeoffs and landings, Morpheus is a planetary lander prototype that uses “green” fuel (liquid oxygen and liquid methane) rather than traditional rocket fuel.
The prototype measures about 10 feet by 10 feet and requires a rigging support system to ensure it does not damage itself if a tether test fails. In 2012, the PAE Rigging Department designed the rigging that lifts, holds and catches Morpheus. The team also built the large crane that supports the rig. During a tether test, the rig holds the prototype up in the firing position and supports it in the air as it hovers. Should Morpheus lose thrust, the rig will catch it safely.
The PAE Rigging Department collaborated with the Morpheus team for a year before the prototype was tested in full flight without the rigging support. Morpheus successfully flew for the first time on December 10, 2013 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Most recently, NASA built a new Morpheus model based on lessons learned from the older version. PAE will support all seven upcoming test flights.
Riggers Ready to Overcome Future Challenges
“The innovations that are required to solve our customer’s challenges are exciting. The team has a sense of pride in overcoming each one. We love a challenge,” said Willie.
Willie, for example, is currently working on a project to move a piece of the Space Launch System (SLS) upper stage from the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana to Johnson Space Center for vibration testing. “Space launches cause rockets to shake violently,” explained Mike. “Johnson Space Center will test a section of the SLS upper stage, simulating launch vibrations, to identify potential weld or material failures.” To transport the SLS, PAE may need to enlist the help of a local tugboat company.
“Our work is very interesting and requires a lot of effort from the team,” concluded Willie. “We are presented with unique projects and work hard to accomplish them.”