CAPE CANAVERAL - Officials at Kennedy Space Center on Monday hailed the completed renovation of an Apollo-era facility as a sign that the future of manned spaceflight is taking shape even as NASA prepares to retire the space shuttle.
After a more than $55-million overhaul, the center's Operations and Checkout Building is almost ready to house final assembly and testing of the Orion capsule slated to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, the moon and Mars.
The work is expected to save about 400 jobs within a few years and represents a breakthrough for KSC, which historically has only launched vehicles, not built them.
"This is a first for Kennedy Space Center," said Richard Harris, an Orion deputy program manager for Lockheed Martin Corp.
Inside the building's gleaming white high bay on Monday, mock-ups of the Orion capsule and its heat shield offered the only glimpse of the assembly work to come.
But officials said more evidence of progress was visible across KSC.
The spaceport is preparing for a July test flight of the rocket on which NASA hopes to launch Orion by 2015, with a crew of four to six astronauts.
Pieces of the test rocket are being processed in the Vehicle Assembly Building, and a shuttle launch pad is being modified for the new vehicle.
"This is a real program," KSC Director Bob Cabana told a crowd of assembled elected officials and dignitaries on hand to tour the renovated facility. "We have real hardware here."
The preparations for new launch and exploration vehicles come at an uncertain time for NASA and KSC.
President Barack Obama has not yet nominated a new administrator to replace Mike Griffin, who championed the Ares 1 rocket and Orion spacecraft.
And the nation's economic crisis could scuttle campaign promises to boost NASA funding to limit the projected five-year gap in manned spaceflight and the loss of 3,000 to 4,000 jobs at KSC after the shuttle's retirement in late 2010.
Despite those uncertainties, KSC is pressing ahead with post-shuttle plans.
The 70,000-square-foot high bay in the Operations and Checkout Building, or "O&C," was built in 1964 for integration and testing of Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. In the ensuing decades, it was the site of testing for the Apollo-Soyuz and Spacelab missions and housed surplus equipment.
"It was dark and it was cluttered and it had miles of abandoned electrical cabling, and the basement was wet," Harris, of Lockheed Martin, recalled of the facility before renovations began. "Now it looks more like a spacecraft cleanroom operation."
Lockheed Martin in 2006 won the multibillion-dollar contract to build Orion, and with the help of $45 million in state incentives brought the final assembly and integration work to Cape Canaveral.
Workers recently finished installing a new floor and a 104-foot high ceiling, walls, paint, electrical wiring, air conditioning and wirelessly operated cranes - replacing virtually everything but the essential structural elements.
Orion's major components will be moved around the high bay floor hovering on "air pallets," reducing the need for frequent lifting with cranes that can lead to accidents.
Tools for connecting the spacecraft to its heat shield are expected to be installed this year.
Pieces of the capsule will be shipped to KSC from around the country to be readied for launch, and the crew module will return to the O&C for refurbishment after splashing down off the coast of California.
"The whole lifecycle has its roots here in this building," said Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion Project Manager.
Geyer and Harris said the exploration vehicle and the assembly facility were flexible enough to accommodate any design changes that might arise under new leadership.
In interviews after the O&C tour, U.S. Reps. Suzanne Kosmas and Bill Posey, who represent KSC and its surrounding area, said they want a federal economic stimulus package to help NASA retain shuttle workers and speed up the Constellation program's development.
Packages proposed by the House and Senate include $600 million and $1.5 billion for NASA, respectively, but don't target funds for manned exploration.
"The reopening of this facility shows that we are committed to moving forward into the future," Kosmas said.
- Video - NASA's Constellation Journey Begins: Part 1, Part 2
- End in Sight: Final Space Shuttle Missions Slated
- Scuttling Shuttle: Big Challenges for NASA's New Spaceship
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