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Air Force museum to reassemble 20-story Titan rocket

A Titan 4B space launch vehicle sits in the restoration hangar in August 2014 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

At the height of a 20-story building, the Titan 4B space rocket will be the biggest aerospace artifact technicians ever put together at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

Sitting next to a wingless Iraqi MiG-25 dug up in the desert, the former U.S. Air Force rocket sits in a World War II-era restoration hangar at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, waiting to be reassembled for millions to see when a $35.4 million hangar gallery expansion opens by 2016.

The 204-foot-tall rocket, parts of it now in crates, will test the mettle of the restorers to reassemble the space metal on a huge scale.

“The thing is so big that that we’ll have to assemble it over at the (new gallery) after it’s built, because it would be incredibly difficult for us to transport,” said Greg Hassler, restoration hangar supervisor. “It’s going to make sense to take those pieces over there and then assemble it.”

The Cold War-era relic weighs 192,000 pounds empty or 2.2 million pounds loaded. It will be longer than the wingspan of a B-52 — and about twice that of the wingspan of the delta-winged XB-70 supersonic bomber — and almost twice the height of the largest intercontinental ballistic missiles standing inside the museum.

Just one of the twin solid rocket motors weighs 75,000 pounds and spans 10-and-a-half feet wide.

“It’s very big and heavy,” said Chad VanHook, a museum restoration technician who will be working on a rocket for the first time. “It’s going to be a big challenge mostly because it’s just so heavy. Right now, we don’t have anything to lift the pieces.”

Workers expect to use cranes and forklifts to place the Titan horizontally on 10-feet tall pylons for visitors to view the entire length, which would be too tall to stand vertically because of the 87-foot ceiling height of the new gallery.

“You’ll be able to walk the entire length of (the rocket), and you’ll be able to walk the entire width of it,” said Melissa Shaw, a museum curator.

The Air Force blasted satellites atop the two-stage rockets into orbit until the service branch ended the Titan 4B program in 2005. The towering Titans launched out of Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The earliest versions of the Titan I were nuclear-tipped ICBMs in the early 1960s, followed by the even larger Titan II that once contained the nation’s most powerful warheads. The Titan 4B had the capacity to haul a more than six-ton payload to geosynchronous orbit thousands of miles above earth, according to Hassler.

“It’s an important part of our space history,” he said.

The Titan 4B rocket, one of the last Lockheed Martin built, headed into storage at the museum in 2005. The pieces were brought out of a Quonset hut to the restoration hangar this summer, Hassler said.

Technicians have stepped into the unknown. More accustomed to working on old planes, museum employees said they don’t know how long it will take to bolt the Titan together.

The museum has reached out to people who worked on the Titan program for help to reassemble the pieces. Several people responded, but museum curators are looking for more experts.

“It will be amazing when it goes into our building,” Shaw said. “We’ll be able to tell the story of the Air Force contribution to space.”

©2014 the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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