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Solid Rocket Boosters

By Marty McDowell/NASA

The two SRBs (Solid Rocket Boosters) provide the main thrust to lift the space shuttle off the pad and up to an altitude of about 150,000 feet, or 24 nautical miles (28 statute miles). In addition, the two SRBs carry the entire weight of the external tank and orbiter and transmit the weight load through their structure to the mobile launcher platform. Each booster has a thrust (sea level) of approximately 3,300,000 pounds at launch. They are ignited after the three space shuttle main engines' thrust level is verified. The two SRBs provide 71.4 percent of the thrust at lift- off and during first-stage ascent. Seventy- five seconds after SRB separation, SRB apogee occurs at an altitude of approximately 220,000 feet, or 35 nautical miles (41 statute miles). SRB impact occurs in the ocean approximately 122 nautical miles (141 statute miles) downrange.

The SRBs are the largest solid-propellant motors ever flown and the first designed for reuse. Each is 149.16 feet long and 12.17 feet in diameter.

Each SRB weighs approximately 1,300,000 pounds at launch. The propellant for each solid rocket motor weighs approximately 1,100,000 pounds. The inert weight of each SRB is approximately 192,000 pounds.

Primary elements of each booster are the motor (including case, propellant, igniter and nozzle), structure, separation systems, operational flight instrumentation, recovery avionics, pyrotechnics, deceleration system, thrust vector control system and range safety destruct system.

Each booster is attached to the external tank at the SRB's aft frame by two lateral sway braces and a diagonal attachment. The forward end of each SRB is attached to the external tank at the forward end of the SRB's forward skirt. On the launch pad, each booster also is attached to the mobile launcher platform at the aft skirt by four bolts and nuts that are severed by small explosives at lift-off.

During the downtime following the Challenger accident, detailed structural analyses were performed on critical structural elements of the SRB. Analyses were primarily focused in areas where anomalies had been noted during postflight inspection of recovered hardware.

One of the areas was the attach ring where the SRBs are connected to the external tank. Areas of distress were noted in some of the fasteners where the ring attaches to the SRB motor case. This situation was attributed to the high loads encountered during water impact. To correct the situation and ensure higher strength margins during ascent, the attach ring was redesigned to encircle the motor case completely (360 degrees). Previously, the attach ring formed a C and encircled the motor case 270 degrees.

Additionally, special structural tests were performed on the aft skirt. During this test program, an anomaly occurred in a critical weld between the hold-down post and skin of the skirt. A redesign was implemented to add reinforcement brackets and fittings in the aft ring of the skirt.

These two modifications added approximately 450 pounds to the weight of each SRB.

The propellant mixture in each SRB motor consists of an ammonium perchlorate (oxidizer, 69.6 percent by weight), aluminum (fuel, 16 percent), iron oxide (a catalyst, 0.4 percent), a polymer (a binder that holds the mixture together, 12.04 percent), and an epoxy curing agent (1.96 percent). The propellant is an 11-point star- shaped perforation in the forward motor segment and a double- truncated- cone perforation in each of the aft segments and aft closure. This configuration provides high thrust at ignition and then reduces the thrust by approximately a third 50 seconds after lift-off to prevent overstressing the vehicle during maximum dynamic pressure.

The SRBs are used as matched pairs and each is made up of four solid rocket motor segments. The pairs are matched by loading each of the four motor segments in pairs from the same batches of propellant ingredients to minimize any thrust imbalance. The segmented-casing design assures maximum flexibility in fabrication and ease of transportation and handling. Each segment is shipped to the launch site on a heavy- duty rail car with a specially built cover.

The nozzle expansion ratio of each booster beginning with the STS-8 mission is 7-to-79. The nozzle is gimbaled for thrust vector (direction) control. Each SRB has its own redundant auxiliary power units and hydraulic pumps. The all-axis gimbaling capability is 8 degrees. Each nozzle has a carbon cloth liner that erodes and chars during firing. The nozzle is a convergent- divergent, movable design in which an aft pivot- point flexible bearing is the gimbal mechanism.

The cone-shaped aft skirt reacts the aft loads between the SRB and the mobile launcher platform. The four aft separation motors are mounted on the skirt. The aft section contains avionics, a thrust vector control system that consists of two auxiliary power units and hydraulic pumps, hydraulic systems and a nozzle extension jettison system.

The forward section of each booster contains avionics, a sequencer, forward separation motors, a nose cone separation system, drogue and main parachutes, a recovery beacon, a recovery light, a parachute camera on selected flights and a range safety system.

Each SRB has two integrated electronic assemblies, one forward and one aft. After burnout, the forward assembly initiates the release of the nose cap and frustum and turns on the recovery aids. The aft assembly, mounted in the external tank/SRB attach ring, connects with the forward assembly and the orbiter avionics systems for SRB ignition commands and nozzle thrust vector control. Each integrated electronic assembly has a multiplexer/ demultiplexer, which sends or receives more than one message, signal or unit of information on a single communication channel.

Eight booster separation motors (four in the nose frustum and four in the aft skirt) of each SRB thrust for 1.02 seconds at SRB separation from the external tank. Each solid rocket separation motor is 31.1 inches long and 12.8 inches in diameter.

Location aids are provided for each SRB, frustum/ drogue chutes and main parachutes. These include a transmitter, antenna, strobe/ converter, battery and salt water switch electronics. The location aids are designed for a minimum operating life of 72 hours and when refurbished are considered usable up to 20 times. The flashing light is an exception. It has an operating life of 280 hours. The battery is used only once.

The SRB nose caps and nozzle extensions are not recovered.

The recovery crew retrieves the SRBs, frustum/ drogue chutes, and main parachutes. The nozzles are plugged, the solid rocket motors are dewatered, and the SRBs are towed back to the launch site. Each booster is removed from the water, and its components are disassembled and washed with fresh and deionized water to limit salt water corrosion. The motor segments, igniter and nozzle are shipped back to Thiokol for refurbishment.

Each SRB incorporates a range safety system that includes a battery power source, receiver/decoder, antennas and ordnance.

Source: NASA.

Space References (Books):
Dickinson, Terence. Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe. Firefly Books, 1998.
Greene, Brian. Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Vintage, 2000.
Hawking, Stephen. Illustrated Brief History of Time, Updated and Expanded Edition. Bantam, 1996.
Hawking, Stephen. Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. New Millenium, 2002.
Hawking, Stephen. The Universe in a Nutshell. Bantam, 2001.
Kaku, Michio. Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the Tenth Dimension.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Berkley Pub Group, 2001.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann. Comet, Revised Edition. Ballantine, 1997
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos, Reissue Edition. Ballantine, 1993
Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Ballantine, 1997

Space References (Videos):
Cosmos. PBS, 2000.
Stephen Hawking's Universe. PBS, 1997.
Hyperspace. BBC, 2002.
Life Beyond Earth PBS, 1999.
The Planets
. BBC, 1999.
Understanding The Universe. A&E, 1996.



Distinctive white SRBs can be seen to either side of the shuttle Discovery in this July 15, 1988 photo.

Courtesy of NASA

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