Reaching for the Stars

The eternal mystery of outer space loomed especially large in the early years of the U.S. space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. There were concerns over the amount of money invested in the program, and fear of what the Russians were achieving.

Since then, the program has flourished and become an important part of U.S. history. Men have walked on the moon, and through space stations and other advancements, astronauts are staying in space for longer periods of time.

In 1959, NASA made the decision to use liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel. Since the mid ’60s, Air Products and Chemicals Inc. of Allentown, Pa., has delivered the liquid hydrogen used in NASA’s space program. Larry Belnoski of Allentown is Air Products’ director of aerospace and defense. He’s worked with NASA for 25 years.

“The relationship is very rewarding,” he says.

Air Products has two contracts with NASA, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. On the East Coast, Air Products delivers fuel to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The company also delivers fuel to Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

“More of our fuel is used for engine testing than for shuttle launches,” Belnoski says. “They test the new shuttle engines and recertify each engine after it’s flown. It’s the same fuel but simulated. The engine is put inside a vessel, locked in place and run on liquid hydrogen.”

Air Products also delivers to Pratt & Whitney in West Palm Beach, Fla., and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Air Products drivers deliver to the Kennedy Space Center from facilities in New Orleans and Pensacola, Fla.

Preparing to launch
At Kennedy, Air Products refills two 850,000-gallon tanks that are located in two storage spheres on the space shuttle launch pads. The tanks hold enough hydrogen for three launch attempts. If the first attempt is successful, the remaining hydrogen is stored and replenished until the next launch, says Herman Everett, NASA fluids manager for liquid propellants and gases.

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United Space Alliance Technicians Bill Cairns, Eric Miner and Craig Garrison and Air Products drivers George Jenkins and John Foster prepare to offload the fuel.

There are five offloading stations and a sphere at each site to alternate shuttle launches so that fuel can be offloaded simultaneously. Liquid oxygen is supplied by Praxair in Mims, Fla., and is stored in the top portion of the shuttle’s large external fuel tank. The oxygen is combined with the hydrogen (stored in the bottom portion of the external tank) in the space shuttle’s main engines to provide the thrust for liftoff.

“We begin replenishing at Kennedy after a launch in anticipation of the next one,” Belnoski says. “We say [tankers] are big thermos bottles on wheels. We deliver our tankers in waves. There are two waves of five each on alternate days for a total of 10 tankers.”

Delivering the fuel
When the drivers arrive at the New Orleans plant, their tankers are loaded with liquid hydrogen from spheres in the plant. Each sphere holds 500 million gallons. There is additional storage at the Pace facility near Pensacola. The plant uses 30 tons of liquid hydrogen a day. When the product is delivered, the drivers offload the product at the launch pad under the supervision of the pad system engineer.

According to Fred Jarrell, Air Products terminal manger in New Orleans, the terminal provides team drivers for the trip, and often the Pace terminal joins their deliveries with single and team drivers.

The drivers are given a special access badge to the NASA facility, which must be renewed every six months. Belnoski says the company takes great pride in being part of the space program and thinks its drivers feel the same way.

“The amount of pride [the drivers] and their families have in being part of the space program is evident,” Belnoski says. “There is a high degree of pride and patriotism across the whole organization. We have the best class of drivers and are proud of them as well.”

Since 1975, Air Products has logged more than 16 million miles to NASA facilities without an accident, including 9 million safe miles to Kennedy.

Each new driver goes through one week of classroom training. They are released with a qualified senior driver who teaches them the unloading process. This consists of three to six months of on-the-job training. When the senior driver recommends that the new driver is ready, the driver performs the proper unloading procedure in front of a safety supervisor who determines if the driver is ready to deliver the product. Air Products drivers receive recertification once every three years.

Walter Riley of Enon, La., has delivered liquid hydrogen for 13 years. He says his responsibilities include making sure his equipment is safe to operate and getting to the space center safely and on time. When he stops along his route people ask about the tankers and what they hold. Most tell him they wouldn’t want to haul the product, but Riley is grateful to be part of the space program.

“There is a sense of pride in being part of the program. We’re a small part of it, but a part all the same,” he says.

Everett says safety, quality and on-time deliveries are important to the space program, and the drivers are also considered an important element of the space program.

“NASA appreciates the professionalism of the drivers and their enthusiasm as team members,” he says.

If an accident happens while en route, the drivers call the central logistics center in New Orleans. Local authorities would also be called in to help. Each driver receives a handbook containing the proper procedure.

Belnoski says if handled properly, liquid hydrogen is safer to haul than propane and other chemicals. Air Products uses the buddy system so that drivers can back each other up. All drivers are trained on how to properly handle the product.

“Never to my knowledge have we had an incident where hydrogen was spent into the atmosphere,” Belnoski says. “We’ve had a few accidents, but they were unavoidable and not related to NASA’s product.”

There are 50 drivers at the New Orleans terminal and 45 drivers at the Pace terminal. Each terminal has received awards for safe driving, and although this is extremely important, Jarrell says it takes more than the drivers to deliver NASA’s product.

“It takes a total team effort