Riding a plume of flame, a Space Shuttle rumbles through Florida skies and heads for Earth orbit. This scene has become a common occurrence at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, America's premier spaceport.
As NASA's designated Center of Excellence in launch and cargo processing systems, Kennedy Space Center has a mission area of space launch...and for good reason. This NASA center has long been a historic departure point for both expendable rockets and human space travelers.
The Kennedy Space Center is situated on Florida's central Atlantic coast, carved out of savanna and marsh in the early 1960s. Determined as ideal for launchings and landings, Kennedy's "space coast" real estate evolved from a sandy strip 34 miles long and five to 10 miles wide on Florida's east cost, midway between Jacksonville and Miami.
This center occupies 140,000 acres of land and water on Merritt Island. Thanks to Kennedy's large area and surrounding water, ample safety is provided to the surrounding communities during launches, landings and other hazardous operations. Only a small portion of Kennedy is used for space operations; the balance is managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a wildlife refuge and national seashore.
Early piloted missions in the Mercury and Gemini series took off from the Eastern Test Range, also known as Cape Canaveral, adjacent to where the Kennedy Space Center is now located. Prompted by an American commitment in the 1960s to conquer the new ocean of space, NASA began acquiring land across the Banana River from Cape Canaveral in 1962.
By January 1963, work was in full swing on an all -NASA "Moonport" on Merritt Island. These were heady times for the newly-built Kennedy Space Center. The drama of the so-called "Space Race," Cold War competition between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, manifested itself with the Moon becoming an undeclared finish line.
Everything about developing the Kennedy Space Center was done in large scale--similar in stature to the daunting challenge at the time: placing Apollo astronauts on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth by the close of the 1960s.
|Looming over the landscape like a sleeping giant, the Vehicle Assembly Building towers 525 feet above the terrain at Kennedy Space Center. Built for the Apollo program in the 1960s, it is now the final assembly point for the Space Shuttle.|
Three-and-a-half miles distant from Launch Complex 39, engineered to handle the awesome power of Saturn liftoffs, a 525-foot high structure was built to assemble the mammoth boosters. This structure, now tagged the Vehicle Assembly Building, towered above the Florida landscape. It was capable of erecting four of the monstrous Saturn V boosters simultaneously. To move a fully stacked Saturn V to its launch pad, a giant diesel-powered crawler transporter would lumber across a specially-built roadway. A Launch Control Center served as the brains of the Moonport, directing mission support, fuel loading, and launch of the powerful Saturn launch vehicles.
Construction activities lead to an operational Launch Complex 39 by 1967. Twelve piloted and unpiloted Saturn V/Apollo missions rocketed away from Kennedy Space Center between 1967 and 1972.
In May 1973, the Skylab space station was tossed into orbit by a Saturn V from the Kennedy Space Center, later to be followed by a trio of separate launchings of three-member crews using the smaller Saturn IB rockets. The Saturn/Apollo era ended in 1975 with the liftoff of an Apollo crew on a Saturn IB toward a joint docking with cosmonauts aboard a Soyuz spacecraft launched by the former Soviet Union.
As the Apollo program concluded, Kennedy began its transformation for sustained Space Shuttle operations. The 1970s saw modifications to existing facilities to inaugurate the Shuttle era. For example, in 1979, a three-mile long Shuttle Landing Facility and an Orbiter Processing Facility were built. New checkout and launch procedures were developed. Entirely new sets of computers, called the Launch Processing System, were installed in the Launch Control Center. The huge Vehicle Assembly Building was converted to handle Shuttle components, while crawler transporters were changed to suit Space Shuttle configurations.
At Launch Complex 39, the spot where rockets once lifted off bound for the Moon, engineers altered facilities to handle the business end of launching Space Shuttles. No longer would a vehicle be prepared for a single flight. The same vehicles would return again and again to the Kennedy Space Center, to be processed and made ready for flight once more.
The Kennedy Space Center conversion from Apollo to the Space Shuttle effort reached a major milestone with the start of an Orbital Flight Test Program, marked by the maiden flight of the first Space Shuttle mission on April 12, 1981.
Today, and over 80 Shuttle missions later, the Kennedy Space Center continues as the locale for Shuttle integration and rollout, payload processing, prelaunch checkout, launch pad operations, launch, recovery, and ground turnaround operations.
Kennedy Space Center's responsibility also extends to the facilities and ground operations at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and designated contingency landing sites. Furthermore, Kennedy is NASA's prime center for payload testing and checkout and provides oversight of space agency missions launched on expend able rockets from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida. These cargoes could be a scientific satellite headed for Earth orbit, or bound for interplanetary targets such as the ringed Saturn.
Over the brisk pace of NASA's early beginnings, Kennedy has advanced launch procedures, facilities and equipment and cultivated special skills to put the United States into space. Now that the space frontier has been crossed by humans, from Earth orbit to the Moon, there is no turning back. Human curiosity is demanding, as is the response in science and technological development.
Technology inexorably prods the U.S. space program forward, in search of new horizons. Yet another foothold on the future is the International Space Station (ISS). This permanently crewed orbiting facility can enable the U.S. and its partners in Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia to use the space environment to the fullest for the benefit of humankind.
The ISS demands a magnitude of effort and commitment comparable to Apollo/Saturn and Space Shuttle. Once again, new initiatives are required to process and store large, complex space structures and prepare them for flight. The Space Shuttle is integral to the success of the ISS as it will ferry into space the people and materials necessary to piece together and eventually operate the immense orbiting facility. Logistical integration of station elements with on-going Space Shuttle operations at the Kennedy Space Center pose formidable technical and managerial challenges.
Moreover, as the Shuttle fleet nears the end of its design life, shortly after the turn the of the century, a new generation of lower-cost space transportation for passenger and cargo is to come on line. Drawing from its historic roots, the Kennedy Space Center will bring to this new venture decades of hard won experience to streamline space vehicle checkout, turnaround and safe launch operations.
|An electrical connector, developed by Kennedy Space Center engineers, is dwarfed in size by a dime. The connector was developed for use by the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, California, for the treatment of paralyzed muscles in 1973.|
The outlook for space is indeed exciting and challenging.
As the 21st Century approaches, such grand achievements as orbital industries, Moon bases and human treks to Mars and beyond may be realized.
Whatever paths are taken in the tomorrows yet to come, they are to be founded in large part on the unique experience and resources of the Kennedy Space Center--America's Spaceport to the future.