TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Airmen from the 21st Airlift Squadron and the 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, California, loaded and transported the NASA InSight Spacecraft Feb. 28, from Lockheed Martin Space, Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., aboard the C-17 Globemaster III.
“We can get into really small and diverse airfields, especially out of places like Florida and the West Coast, and the C-17 can get in there a lot easier than other jets,” said Capt. Todd O’Brien, 21st AS C-17 pilot. “The cargo compartment and the loadmasters we have are extremely well trained to load really odd types of cargo, so that also makes it useful.”
The team loaded a large, white crate carrying a spacecraft weighing 1,380 pounds, according to a Lockheed Martin report.
“We have the whole spacecraft that is going to Mars, which is the lander in its cruise stage and the heat shield that goes around the whole thing, inside the box,” said Bruce Banerdt, Insight mission principal investigator. “When we get to Vandenberg, we will do some tests on it. Then, pretty much, all we do is put some fuel in it, bolt it to the rocket and off (it goes) to Mars.”
The upload took approximately three hours to complete and the loadmasters knew there was no room for errors.
“The real challenge of loading the lander was being patient,” said Staff Sgt. Kagan Weatherly, 21st AS loadmaster. “Overall, it wasn’t difficult in terms of size or weight, but because of how valuable the asset was we made sure to take things carefully. It would have been easy to winch it in a bit faster, but my mother raised me with ‘you break it, you bought it’ and it’s a bit out of my price range.”
The spacecraft is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg AFB May 2018 as part of the NASA InSight mission to look beneath the surface of Mars and study the planet’s interior. It will be the first planetary spacecraft to launch from the West Coast launch facility as well as the first to study more than the planet’s exterior.
“This is the first mission that is actually going to look beneath the surface of Mars,” said Banerdt. “We are sending some instruments with this mission that will actually probe down thousands of miles beneath the surface to understand the structure of the planet, the size of the core, what the core is made out of, the rocks that make up the mantle, what their temperature is, (and) the thickness of the crust that surrounds the planet.”
Launching from the West Coast aboard the United Launch Alliance Atlas V-401 rocket provides a new launching pattern for the spacecraft.
“Most of the time if you are launching to Mars, you want all of the energy that you can get, so you launch from Florida and you use the rotation of the Earth to help slingshot you into orbit,” said Banerdt. “This spacecraft was designed for a Delta II rocket, which is a fairly small rocket, that’s not available anymore. The only rocket that (NASA) had in their arsenal to send to Mars is an Atlas, which has about twice as much capability as we need. So, we can go to Vandenberg and we can launch into a polar orbit, which means we launch south, and we do not need the rotation of the Earth to help us out.”
With such an important mission, the C-17 Globemaster III’s size, reliability and performance make it the right choice to deliver the celestial cargo for NASA and Lockheed Martin.
“The C-17 allows us to get the spacecraft from here in Denver to Vandenberg in two hours instead of having a need to put it on a truck for a week,” said Banerdt. “It’s safe, fast and we don’t have to worry about (car accidents).”
With a maximum payload capacity of 170,900 pounds and an interior cargo space that is 88 feet in length, 18 feet wide, and 12 feet high, the C-17 is more than capable of transporting many different types of cargo, even space equipment.
“I joined this airplane personally because of the unique missions and options we have to do things like this,” said O’Brien. “I was like a kid talking to the scientists about what the mission was going to do, how it was going to get there and how long they’ve been working on it. Just to be an integral part of the entire mission, even if only for a day, was a really cool experience.”