Building a Spaceship in a Bottle

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Building a Spaceship in a Bottle

Summer 2013

NASA uses design-build to expand its test capability.

The John H. Glenn Research Center in Sandusky, Ohio, is one place the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) prepares for space missions. There the Vibro-Acoustic Test Capability (VTC) project is a major component of the Space Environment Test project, which supports current and future NASA research and testing. The data from tests conducted at the Glenn Center eventually support exploration missions to the moon, Mars and other destinations in the solar system.

The VTC specifically helps NASA astronauts prepare for launch, re-entry and abort scenarios. The facility replicates the vibrations and sounds they will experience during any of these scenarios.

Designing and constructing the VTC facility, which is the largest and most unique of NASA’s research facilities, ultimately proved to be an immense — and immensely complex — project. However, SAIC Constructors, LLC was up for the daunting task, working closely with NASA to create a bigger, more robust structure that exceeded NASA’s expectations.

The VTC was a massive enterprise. It was essentially four projects rolled into one: the mechanical vibration facility (MVF), reverberant acoustic test facility (RATF), high-speed data acquisition system (HSDAS) and common infrastructure systems (Common). The MVF is the largest and highest vibratory-powered spacecraft test capability ever built. It can vibrate up to 75,000 pounds in three axes from 5 hz to 150 hz and from 1.0 g to 1.25 g. The RATF provides the largest high-intensity acoustic capability in the world, generating acoustic and high-impulse vibration energy. The RATF can achieve an overall acoustic sound pressure level of up to 163 decibels (dB). An increase of 3 decibels doubles the sound power level — the 163 dB level is 128 times louder than a jet engine or shotgun blast.

NASA initially expected the design-builder to gather the agency’s requirements at the beginning of the project and, with minimal owner input or review, deliver a completed facility. It quickly became clear that the end users wanted greater input and that the technical requirements would increase significantly as a result. NASA engineers required regular updates about the details of the design and construction throughout the project. Early on NASA told the design-build team, “In God we trust. All others bring data.”

For SAIC to provide NASA with what it really wanted — and needed — presented not only a challenge, but also a significant risk. The size and complexity of the project, both in terms of the interrelation of the four systems and the technological complexity of each individual system, could have resulted in significant schedule and budget overages. And with no management reserve or contingency funding available, neither was acceptable. SAIC dealt with this challenge with a major realignment of its internal processes. Engineers from NASA and SAIC worked together to define the technical requirements and objectives.

The resetting of the program was accomplished in only eight weeks. The NASA and SAIC engineering teams developed a new and highly revised program that addressed technical capabilities and performance, overall project schedule, and budget to meet and exceed the new requirements. Ultimately SAIC designed and built a larger, stronger, more powerful facility than NASA’s original scope of work had called for.

Site Constraints

The construction site was in an existing facility that had to remain in operation with little or no disturbance for the duration of the project. The materials used included 11 million pounds of concrete, 60-inch diameter high-density polyethylene ductwork and 58-foot acoustical access doors. A project of this size would be a significant undertaking under any circumstances, but construction was complicated because SAIC had to build the VTC within an existing space with a single 18-foot-by-14-foot door. All materials, personnel and equipment entered and left through that door. The owner compared the construction process to “building a ship in a bottle.”

Safety: Before, DURING and After

Because the results of the tests conducted at the VTC would literally be a life-and-death matter, safety was an important consideration in developing the project’s requirements and solutions. As the SAIC team found a technical solution for each requirement, NASA insisted each be increased in size and/or capacity to provide an acceptable margin of safety. As the team completed detailed plans for components, it provided NASA with real-world documentation that verified how each would meet or exceed the technical and safety requirements.

The SAIC team developed a safety program on the construction site. Due to the complexity and possible unforeseen conditions associated with this unique construction endeavor, SAIC and NASA determined the best method would require a very stringent yet flexible safety plan that would be constantly under review. During the construction phase of the project, SAIC and NASA made 13 amendments to the plan.

The project included safety mentoring, a new concept for the majority of the subcontractors. When new employees joined the project, they were paired with experienced employees until the new employees became familiar with the surroundings and work practices. All supervisory and craft labor attended a mandatory documented site-specific safety orientation prior to entering the job site.

As a result SAIC’s team members and employees worked more than 240,000 hours without a single lost-time injury.


A significant factor in the project’s successful completion was teamwork. From the initial design stages through project completion, SAIC and NASA worked together. They devoted a significant amount of time to planning. SAIC focused on getting the design right so it would meet NASA’s needs. Then it scheduled the construction and designed and implemented the safety plan. Communication began early and continued throughout. SAIC supplemented weekly meetings with NASA with daily calls for the most critical portions. Teamwork led to the development of solutions to NASA’s requirements, even when those needs altered.

SAIC’s own team selection and alignment were critical success factors. Choosing the most qualified technical partners and specialty contractors was paramount to the success of this one-of-a-kind, multifaceted project. Both the technical partners and subcontractors were intimately involved in developing the technical solutions, schedule and cost for the proposal and remained on board until project turnover.

The VTC took four years to complete and cost almost $112 million. NASA has been more than happy with the final project, and the VTC is now an integral part of its training program. The VTC has been so successful that other groups have also inquired about using the facility for their own training purposes.

Honors and Awards

DBIA honored the project with a 2012 National Design-Build Award in the Industrial/Process/Research Facilities category. NASA has awarded the SAIC team its Space Flight Awareness Team Award, formerly reserved for astronauts, and the Group Achievement Award – Space Environmental Test (SET) Re-Planning Team. SAIC’s program manager received the Orion MPCV Program Manager’s Commendation for outstanding leadership. NASA and SAIC shared the 2010 Slag Cement Association Project Award from the American Concrete Institute Committee 233. In addition, both NASA and SAIC were nominated for the NASA Honor Award for their outstanding safety record.


Project Name: Vibro-Acoustic Test Capability Facility
Owner: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Design-Builder and A/E: SAIC Constructors, LLC
General Contractor: CCC
Mechanical Contractor: John E. Green
Electrical Contractor: Triangle Electric
Technology Partners: Team Corp., Zin Technology and Aiolos