Construction Out of This World

As a teenage apprentice carpenter in 1962, Buddy Clark helped build a test stand for NASA’s Saturn V launch vehicle at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. The stand his team built allowed NASA to test the rockets used in the Apollo program that eventually put men like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. 

Now, more than half a century later, 72-year-old Clark is back at Marshall, leading a Brasfield & Gorrie team to build two test stands that will allow NASA to perform structural tests on the largest-ever cryogenic fuel tanks for the most powerful rocket in history, the NASA Space Launch System (SLS). These testing platforms will serve to expand the U.S. space program and help boost NASA’s journey to Mars. 

As senior superintendent, Clark oversees the team responsible for building the new test stands, which are located about a quarter mile from his first NASA project. “Back in 1962, I didn’t fully understand the significance of the work, ” Clark says. “Then, like now, the work was complex and important; however, coming full circle, I can honestly say it is a great honor to work on a job with this kind of historical significance.”

The Brasfield & Gorrie team, which is also overseen by Senior Project Manager Michael Tuggle, started the project at Marshall in April 2014. The test stands should be completed in November 2016. 

Constructing the Future

Some people may think that building a rocket test stand does not sound like a highly complex construction project, but they would be wrong. The two SLS test stands include more than 7, 200 cubic yards of concrete and more than 4, 500 tons of structural steel. The first tower, standing 215 feet tall, is known as Test Stand 4693 and will test the 185-foot SLS liquid hydrogen tank. The second structure, Test Stand 4697, is 85 feet tall and will be used to test the liquid oxygen tank. 

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Brasfield & Gorrie team members appreciate the opportunity that this project has given them to play a part in the future of space exploration, Tuggle says. NASA’s SLS, which will be the most powerful rocket ever built, will use components from the former space shuttle program, such as solid rocket boosters and shuttle main engines, as well as new components, including liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel tanks and a new crew vehicle. 

“The test stand project is important because it allows NASA to perform structural tests on the new fuel tanks to ensure these elements of the SLS rocket can withstand the stresses of ascent, ” Tuggle says. “The structural tests not only push the actual test article to its limits, but it also allows NASA to verify the models they have created to predict the loads on the test article and how it will react to those loads.”

Overcoming Challenges

Buddy Clark, senior superintendent on the SLS project, addresses the troops in a morning roundup.


Just as the SLS rocket builds on the history of former space launch vehicles, such as the shuttles, one of the new test stands is literally built on top of a historic test stand used to test the F-1 engines of the 1960s-era Saturn V. For the Brasfield & Gorrie team, being part of the legacy of the American space program is momentous — but building directly on that history has presented challenges. 

For instance, to build Test Stand 4693 on the former Saturn V test stand, the team had to excavate 17 feet of the existing concrete foundation and expose some of the existing rebar underneath. Next, they had to install a new foundation for Test Stand 4693, which included extensive amounts of reinforcing steel, large sections of embedded structural steel, and installing and aligning 924 anchor rods, which are each 14 feet tall.

Another challenge was the installation of the new Test Stand 4697 foundation on 263 pipe piles, each of which is 12 inches in diameter, Tuggle says. That stand also included extensive amounts of reinforcing steel, large sections of embedded structural steel and the installation and alignment of 1, 681 anchor rods, each six feet tall. Finally, the team had to adjust to multiple structural steel design changes during fabrication and installation of the structural steel.

However, Tuggle, Clark and their team have worked hard to overcome the challenges each step of the way with dedicated teamwork. “We started at the beginning of the project working with our team of contractors and suppliers through several internal pre-construction coordination and planning meetings, and then repeating these meetings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NASA, ” Tuggle says. “That effort continues weekly through the coordination, planning and progress meetings on site with the Brasfield & Gorrie team, Corps of Engineers and NASA.”

As the team nears the completion of this formidable project, its members are not just proud of the work they’ve done. They also feel honored to have played an important role in helping to expand the U.S. space program into new horizons. After testing begins, NASA will be able to refine the design of the SLS so that it can take astronauts farther into space than humans have ever ventured. The first SLS mission is scheduled for fall 2018.

“The Brasfield & Gorrie team feels like this project is a once-in-a-lifetime type of project by being a part of a larger team that is returning the United States of America to space exploration, ” Tuggle says. “And our superintendent, Buddy Clark, is getting to work on one of these once-in-a-lifetime projects twice.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She is based in Huntsville.

Text by Nancy Mann Jackson

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