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Ground control: Inside story of shipping a 3-ton satellite

‘Eagle container’ has landed after stratospheric transportation effort

An 18-wheeler unloads the GOES-T satellite from a military plane at Kennedy Space Center. (Photo: NASA)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s latest weather satellite is roughly the size of a small school bus, weighs more than 6,000 pounds and requires careful handling and a special container while being moved.

Thus, as one might imagine, shipping the satellite is no small feat.

GOES-T departs Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado, on Nov. 9 encased in its special shipping container on an 18-wheeler.

Earlier this month, that satellite — named GOES-T — made a successful trip from Colorado to Florida, where it will undergo final preparations for launch. While the focus of satellites primarily concerns their accomplishments in orbit, the logistics required at ground level to get this huge, delicate piece of machinery from one place to another is just as impressive.

“The extensive day-to-day planning with the transportation team started in July,” AJ Sandora, Lockheed Martin’s GOES-T assembly, test and launch operations manager, told FreightWaves.

GOES-T is the third in the GOES-R Series of advanced weather observing and environmental monitoring satellites. GOES stands for geostationary operational environmental satellite.

The spacecraft team at Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado, where GOES-T was built, carefully packed the satellite in a special shipping container that protected its sensitive instruments and functioned as a miniature clean room during transport.

Sandora said the satellite was lifted into a big steel shell he called the “eagle container.” The shell is an aluminum frame that holds a giant protective bag around the satellite, preventing it from sagging and making contact with the satellite while in the container. The bag is made of a special, high-tech clear plastic used for super clean environments.

“The six instruments are sensitive to particulates and moisture. To separate the humid air from the dry air, we purge to keep it [the satellite] dry inside,” Sandora said.

Those instruments are the geostationary lightning mapper; magnetometer (MAG); advanced baseline imager; extreme ultraviolet and X-ray irradiance sensors; solar ultraviolet imager; and space environment in-situ suite.

The purging was done with nitrogen, as well as clean, dry air after the edges of the bag were sealed. The special packaging also maintained the proper temperature between 65 and 75 degrees, which protected all the components of the satellite. The special packaging also helped protect the MAG from the effects of the Earth’s magnetic field.

Once the hard cover was bolted down over the top of the clean enclosure, it was attached to a tractor-trailer for the first leg of its trip.

The container housing the satellite becomes the trailer, in a sense, with the bogie and the gooseneck of the trailer separate from each other.

“The bogie of the trailer will hook up to the backside of the container,” Sandora explained. “After that’s in place, the tractor will drive in the gooseneck and hook to the front side of it [the container], and it’s all hydraulic connections between the two. Then we raise the container, and it acts like the trailer.”

Sandora said the hooks are like big guide pins and, compared to other Lockheed programs, the loading method is unique to the satellite program.

Lockheed owns the truck and the driver is one of several heavy load haulers directly hired by  Lockheed. No additional training is required.

“The driver needs a class A license, and the manager completes on-the-job training with the driver,” Sandora added. “Once the manager is comfortable with the driver’s ability, he or she assigns the driver to specific ops or projects.”

GOES-T was then driven about 20 miles away in the middle of the night to Buckley Space Force Base in Aurora, Colorado, where it hitched a ride aboard a C-5 Super Galaxy aircraft to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The driver stayed in low gear, never exceeding 50 mph. Having to slow down around curves and on secondary roads once off the interstate, the trip took a little more than an hour.

“The one advantage of being in this container is that the height is normal, with a standard height of 14 feet. So we didn’t have to worry about any overpasses,” Sandora said.

No special straps were necessary to secure the load. This was accomplished by the cargo’s own weight, as well as a clasp that goes over the top of the container to make sure the load doesn’t slip out of its seat.

Once GOES-T arrived at Kennedy Space Center, it was trucked to a clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations spacecraft processing facility in nearby Titusville, Florida, where it was carefully unpacked. 

The satellite will continue to undergo final preparations for its March 2022 launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. GOES-T will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket from Space Launch Complex-41.

“We’re down here now. The transport was exciting,” Sandora added. “It was definitely rewarding.”

Upon reaching geostationary orbit after launch, GOES-T will be renamed GOES-18. After it completes an inspection of its instruments and systems, the new satellite will go into operation as GOES West, replacing the current GOES-17.

In the GOES West position, GOES-18 will monitor the U.S. West Coast, Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, Central America and the Pacific Ocean extending to Guam. The satellite will be ideally located to detect and monitor weather systems and environmental hazards that most affect this region of the Western Hemisphere, including wildfires, atmospheric rivers, coastal fog, dust storms and volcanic eruptions. GOES-18 will also monitor the sun for solar eruptions and detect space weather hazards that can disrupt communications, navigation systems and power utilities on Earth.

About 60 to 70 people at Lockheed were involved in the operation, including drivers and the transportation coordinator.

“We’re extremely excited to get launched and get NOAA’s next weather satellite in orbit,” Sandora said.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.