Saturday, November 24, 2012
Last Monday I had the opportunity to photograph the Rubber Room underneath launch pad 39A. Here is a photo blog I made up detailing my visit.
Small and circular, this compact room is mounted on massive springs, so anyone inside would feel little disturbance from the gargantuan disaster of a Saturn V exploding right above them.
Back in the days before the space shuttle. the lunch vehicle, Saturn V was huge, and huge rockets – should they blow up accidentally – tend to have proportionately devastating explosions, so engineer calculations had it that, should this occur – an explosion on the launch pad – it would turn into a fireball 1,408 ft wide, burning up to 1,380 degrees Celsius hot for almost 40 seconds.
In order that all crews could be gotten clear of such a blast, NASA had three possible escape systems – the launch escape system pulled the command module free from the rocket during an abort – then there was a slide wire that astronauts could ride down to a safe zone, and thirdly was an amazing an underground blast chamber, below the launch pad
This blast chamber is obviously pre-Apollo, and thoughts of it somehow got buried, but is still there and operational, a blast room that is basically a bomb shelter. Small and circular, this compact room is mounted on massive springs, so anyone inside would feel little disturbance from the gargantuan disaster of a Saturn V exploding right above them.
There are massive chairs lining the room, large enough to accomodate astronauts in full pressure suits when strapped in, plus one fire blanket per man in the middle of the room – in which twenty men could seek refuge in the blast chamber for up to 24 hours.
Equipped with CO2 scrubbers that came with spare filters, the chamber also contained a store of so-called oxygen candles, which were chemically composed, when burning, to produce six and a half man-hours of oxygen per kilogram – these candles lit according to a detailed schedule, which also gave filter changing times.
Fewer than six men inside could all breathe normally for a full day while the air above them cleared, though the more were in there, the shorter this time was, so these extra methods of providing oxygen became imperative for survival.
To gain entrance to this chamber, astronauts and pad crews had to take an elevators from any level on the gantry to the base of the mobile launch platform. On the north face thereof was a square door with rounded edges, which opened to a slide -60 meters long – for sending them 12 metres below the launch pad, where they landed in the rubber room – so dubbed through being padded entirely with bouncy rubber -before a six inch steel door admitted them through into the blast chamber.
Once the Apollo program ended, the rubber rooms and blast chambers were abandoned, but the one under Pad A, is still there, and in good order. Preserved as an historic site – even if off limits to the public – it is definitely something to see, should you ever get the chance to do so.
NASA'S LEAST-CRAZY RUBBER ROOM
The Saturn V was huge, and huge rockets tend to have proportionately devastating explosions. Engineers calculated that a Saturn V exploding on the launch pad would turn into a fireball 1,408 feet (430 meters) wide and burn for nearly 40 seconds reaching a peak temperature of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,380 degrees Celsius).
In the age of Saturn V -- the 60s and 70s -- to get astronauts and launch crews clear of a fatal explosion, NASA had three possible escape plans in place: the launch escape system that would pull the command module free from the rocket during an abort; a slide wire astronauts could ride to a safe point on the ground; and an underground blast chamber.
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The blast chamber is somehow buried in all the Apollo-era history. It's fitting, perhaps, since it's actually directly beneath the launch pad where the theoretical Saturn V explosion would have occurred.
The blast room is basically a bomb shelter. A small, circular room, it's mounted on massive springs like a missile silo. This meant that anyone inside would have felt little disturbance when the Saturn V exploded right overhead.
Lining the room are huge chairs, big enough for an astronaut in a full pressure suit to strap himself in for safety. There's also one fire blanket per man in the center of the room (shown below).
Up to 20 men could seek refuge in the blast chamber for up to 24 hours, though with more men, things became problematic due to the rise in carbon dioxide levels. The room was equipped with carbon dioxide scrubbers that came with spare filters and a store of oxygen candles -- a type of chemical oxygen generator containing a mix of sodium chlorate and iron powder that burns to produce 6.5 man-hours of oxygen per kilogram of the gas mixture.
At the time, on the wall was a detailed schedule outlining exactly when oxygen candles had to be lit and filters had to be changed. With less than six men in the blast room, they could all breathe normally for a full day while the air above them cleared. With up to 10 men in the room, things got a little more complicated. Additional methods of providing oxygen became imperative if everyone inside was going to survive.
As evidence that men could last for a while in the blast room, there was even a toilet. But barely tucked away behind one of the chairs, using it in such a small space wouldn't have been an appealing prospect.
To get into this fortress of safety, the astronauts and pad crews had to take a ride. Elevators would carry them from any level on the gantry to the base of the mobile launch platform where, on the north side, was a square door with rounded edges. It opened to a slide, 200 feet (60 meters) long, that would send astronauts and pad crews on a winding ride to a point 40 feet (12 meters) under the launch pad. They landed in the rubber room, so called because it was padded entirely with bouncy rubber. A six inch steel door admitted them through a short tunnel and into the blast chamber.
Once the air around the launch pad had cleared and it was safe to leave, astronauts and pad crews could take one of two long, narrow, and winding tunnels to the western edge of the launch pad area. There, they could open a door and step outside.
After the Apollo program ended, the rubber rooms and blast chambers were abandoned in place. There were no circumstances under which shuttle astronauts would use this underground shelter; the preferred method beginning in the 1980s were the gondolas on cables that led from the top of the gantry to a safe site on the ground.
The rubber room and blast chamber, at least the one under Pad A, is still there. It's off limits to the public and preserved as a historic site, but if you can finagle your way in (which involves knowing the right people) it's definitely a piece of history worth seeing.
To see NASA's rubber room in all its glory, watch a clip from a BBC documentary on the Apollo emergency escape procedure.
Image: Top: The door to the rubber room. Middle: The rubber room with fire blankets in the center. Credit: NASA