GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 8)

As part of the GRAIL Tweetup activities, Doug, armed with our trusty digital camera, toured Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where United Space Alliance launches the Atlas V, the descendent of the earlier versions of Atlas rockets of the 1960s. Before the Atlas V came along, Titan rockets, with payloads like the Viking probes to Mars and the Voyager probes off to even farther away, burst into the air from this complex. Even before that, the first launch at LC-41 was in late 1965. But the complex has long since been overhauled to accommodate this century’s bigger Atlas V rocket launch needs.

Atlas VIF, LC-41

In addition to the launch pad itself at LC-41, the complex includes numerous buildings. The Vertical Integration Building (VIF), which stands 292 feet tall, was completed in 2000 and serves as the site where Atlas V rockets can be stacked on the Mobile Launch Platform with a huge crane. Recent practice, as also demonstrated by Launch Complex 39 used by the space shuttle program, allows for one rocket to be on the pad ready for launch while another is in the VIF getting ready for the big dance. This process, instead of assembling the whole contraption on the pad, allows launches to occur more often.


The Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) brings together various operations that had previously been spread around in different facilities. Sitting just over four miles from the launch pad, the control center manages the countdown. This building can also house rocket stages for storage or testing. Multiple rockets can be processed there simultaneously, thereby allowing for efficient scheduling of launches.

Atlas rockets have a rich history. Originally designed to carry nuclear warheads, the Atlas was adapted for manned spaceflight. On November 29, 1961, Enos, a chimpanzee, rode into space on mission Mercury-Atlas 5. The first four American astronauts to orbit Earth—John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordo Cooper—lifted off atop Atlas rockets.

GRAIL enclosed in service structure, Launch Pad 17B

Something that we enjoy about being on the Space Coast is the palpable sense of history even as we feel thoroughly in the now that surrounds a launch date. It’s one thing to watch a space shuttle launch. It’s another thing to walk where the country’s first space travelers strode and flew into the sky. Each might be merely small anecdotes, but they are not snippets of history without connections to each other and to us. Instead, in part because the physical places of assembly buildings and launch pads is there to be seen and felt, these experiences are all part of the same larger story. Some artifacts on the Cape exist on display, but many of the artifacts, some of which have been transformed, remain in use. Below, we include two videos (not our own), one of Mercury-Atlas 6, launched from LC-41 on February 20, 1962, and the other of GRAIL, launched on September 10 of this year.

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