It was the second test of a rocket-launched hypersonic glider, designed to reach anywhere in the world in about an hour. But a few seconds after liftoff on Aug. 25, 2014, the rocket failed and the resulting explosion rocked the Kodiak-based launch facility where the rocket originated, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage.
No one was hurt in the blast. But the Kodiak Launch Complex, renamed the Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska, or PSCA, has not launched a rocket since, awaiting a long list of repairs to the complex to be completed.
In September 2015, Alaska Aerospace Corp. selected Davis Constructors & Engineers Inc. to do the $23 million renovation project.
Davis finished the job in August, and Alaska Aerospace held a Reconstruction, Dedication and Return to Flight Ceremony at PSCA, co-hosted with the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce. Alaska Aerospace president and chief executive officer Craig Campbell said the ceremony “mark(ed) the date that our facilities were once again ready to support customer launches.”
Now the company is gearing up for a busy slate of launch activity beginning in 2017.
The Alaska Aerospace Corp., or AAC, is a state-owned company that operates the PSCA. AAC headquarters are in Anchorage. The PSCA was built in the late 1990s and, since that time, Campbell said, it has seen 17 launches.
“Our 17th launch was on Aug. 25, 2014, for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC). That launch supported the test and evaluation phase of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon system. This launch was a test that did not include any weapon system on board,” Campbell wrote by email. “Unfortunately, that was our last launch, as the rocket failure severely damaged our Launch Support Structure (LSS), the Integration and Processing Facility (IPF), and the Spacecraft Assembly and Transfer (SCAT) facility.”
Because AAC is a state-owned corporation, it’s part of the state’s insurance pool, Campbell said, and therefore it pays annual premiums to be covered against property damage. The reconstruction project, which Campbell estimates will end up costing about $33.5 million, was paid for by state insurers and managed by the state Division of Risk Management.
When Davis Constructors arrived at the PSCA in September 2015, another contractor had already removed damaged insulation and exterior building panels, as well as debris at the site, said Luke Blomfield, senior project manager and principal at Davis.
“Our scope was to demo out and repair any and all structural issues,” Blomfield said.
A site analysis had already been done to determine which structural pieces needed to be replaced, Blomfield said, but Davis brought its own structural engineer, Derek Hopewell, to re-evaluate the site.
Blomfield said that Davis workers took down damaged structural steel, completely took down the SCAT building, then began the rebuilding.
The LSS is where the multi-story rockets are launched. It’s 18 stories tall and splits into two sections, both sides rotating on rails, with Hillman rollers, around a protective, fixed service structure, into a completely open position that exposes the rocket for takeoff.
“We completely redid the exterior envelope, installed the 20-foot by 40-foot megadoor and added all new mechanical and explosion-proof electrical systems throughout,” Blomfield said.
The crew worked through the winter, which proved difficult when it came to the 170-foot launch facility.
“We were able to start paneling the exterior in January, in Kodiak, which is extremely difficult, weather-wise and light-wise,” Blomfield said. “We were working in up to 35-mile-an-hour winds.”
The crew got the LSS enclosed in late April, roughed in the interior space and applied an industrial coating, then wrapped up the interior in August.
Meanwhile, work on the other buildings on site continued. The Integration and Processing Facility had suffered significant damage, Blomfield said. Davis replaced new man doors and four new 20-foot-wide by 40-foot-high coiling doors and the entire mechanical and electrical systems.
Davis replaced or reworked structural steel, insulated siding, enormous coiling and megadoors and man doors throughout the complex, and rebuilt all the mechanical and electrical systems that were in the partially buried heart of the facility. The company also corrected or replaced the underground lines that connect the mechanical and electrical equipment to the other buildings on the complex.
The structural demands of the facility and heavy wind loads inherent to Kodiak Island meant some of the components had to be heavily reinforced, like the numerous 20-foot by 40-foot megadoors on several buildings.
Senior project manager David Sterling said that four of the coiling doors at the IPF structure required huge bolts in the door jamb — two rows of 1¾-inch diameter by 5½-inch long — to be placed in 1-foot increments along each side of the door. That’s 96 bolts on each side or 192 bolts in each door, he said, to support for the intense wind loads and expected seismic activity.
“When we get the big earthquake, we’re all going to go under those doors,” Sterling joked.
Another challenging piece was dealing with the movement of the LSS building.
“It’s like opening one of these high-rises here in Anchorage,” Sterling said. “It’s on a rail and as it moves, it kind of wiggles and jiggles.”
The motion sometimes caused pieces to loosen or move, he said. A 75-ton crane near the top of the building adds a significant amount of weight to the moving structure.
“Every time you open it up and close it, something’s not aligned perfectly,” he said.
But the job was remarkable in other ways, he said. Working on Kodiak Island, 50 miles from downtown Kodiak, was at times breathtaking. Sterling said that each day’s commute to the site included deer, eagle, grizzly bear and other wildlife sightings and sometimes delays due to open-range cattle or bison from a nearby bison ranch.
“Sometimes you drive by and don’t see any buffalo, and sometimes you drive by and there’s 100 buffalo in the middle of the road,” he said.
Other times the crew would leave the site and see whales going back and forth across the North Pacific Ocean, occasionally breaching, he said.
Sterling said an unexpected challenge of the project was difficulty getting local workers to join the project. Many didn’t want to make the drive every day, he said, although several did join the Davis Constructors crew, along with numerous subcontractor crews.
At its peak, Sterling estimated that about 60 workers were on the project.
Campbell said that Davis did good work.
“The rebuild of the damaged facilities at the Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska was a very challenging project. Davis Constructors served as our general contractor for this project and did an outstanding job working with us to ensure the rebuilt facility met the unique engineering and construction requirements for aerospace facilities that support rocket launches from Alaska. I am exceptionally pleased with the professional workmanship Davis provided to this project,” Campbell said by email.
Campbell said that the PSCA is gearing up for a busy launch season ahead. In 2016, AAC signed a multi-year, multi-launch contract with the Missile Defense Agency, valued at $80.4 million, to support the MDA’s Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense, or THAAD, program. The contract requires some facility improvements, which PSCA is making in advance of the first THAAD launch, planned for summer 2017.
Campbell said that AAC also negotiated a launch support contract with Rocket Lab USA for development and testing of their Electron rocket. The first test launches will be next year, he said, and AAC will provide range safety, telemetry and flight safety support from the company’s New Zealand launch facility on the Mahia peninsula.
“We have deployed one of our Range Safety and Telemetry Systems to New Zealand and will use this equipment to support Rocket Lab launches throughout 2017. We are in the process of negotiating for commercial launches of the Electron rocket from PSCA starting in 2018,” he wrote.
AAC is also working with Vector Space, another U.S. commercial launch vehicle company interested in launching from Alaska. The company worked with PSCA on non-launch activities in 2015 and is negotiating with AAC for a first test launch from PSCA in early 2017, with more launches expected later in the year, Campbell said. Vector Space is planned as the first launch from PSCA since the facilities were damaged, Campbell said.
Rindi White is a freelance writer who lives in Palmer.