Cape Canaveral, FL (Florida Today) -- With a honk of its horn Monday morning, a flatbed truck rolled off aship onto a Cape Canaveral Air Force Station wharf carrying the boosterthat will blast NASA's next Mars-bound orbiter into space.
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket's Centaur upper stage, wrapped in a protective cover, followed close behind.
"It'sprecious cargo," observed Capt. Bob Martus of Foss Maritime Co., whosafely piloted the two stages aboard ULA's "Delta Mariner" on a morethan 2,000-mile, week-long trip from Decatur, Ala.
The rocket will now be prepared for a planned Nov. 18 launch of NASA's $671 million MAVEN mission.
Short for "Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN," the mission is the first dedicated to studying Mars' upper atmosphere.
Morethan a year, the spacecraft will perform a series of dives through theMartian atmosphere to study its composition and how the Red Planet'sclimate has changed over time.
Themission officially has a 20-day launch window, but NASA officials saidanother 15 days are available if necessary, making it possible to launchthrough Dec. 23.
"Thespacecraft is doing really well," said Chuck Tatro, MAVEN missionmanager with Kennedy Space Center's Launch Services Program. "They'reright on schedule."
TheLockheed Martin Corp.-built spacecraft arrived at KSC by plane fromColorado on Aug. 2, and this week is performing solar arrays tests.
Thelaunch vehicle took a more circuitous route, winding down three riversto the mouth of the Mississippi River before cruising across the Gulf ofMexico, around the Florida Keys and up the east coast to reach the docknear Port Canaveral.
"It'sa pretty tough piece of hardware, if you think about the environmentsthat it's designed to withstand on launch day," said Vernon Thorp, ULA'sprogram manager for NASA and commercial missions. "However, we treat itlike it's a crate of eggs."
The 107-foot long, bronze-colored booster and 42-foot Centaur rolled in to the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center.
Afteranother Atlas V launches an Air Force satellite, planned formid-September, they'll be stacked inside a vertical processing tower atLaunch Complex 41 and await MAVEN's arrival from KSC in early November.