When Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for the final time on 21 July 2011, it brought to a close an important chapter of America’s human space effort and triggered an anticipated hiatus in piloted flights from the Merritt Island site which is expected to endure for at least the next several years. According to present estimates, it will be 2015 or later before any of NASA’s Commercial Crew partners are in a realistic position to send astronauts into orbit. Yet KSC – which celebrated its 50th anniversary on 1 July 2012 – continues to be an important symbol for American space endeavours, in both crewed and uncrewed capacity.As with much of the space programme itself, the site has always lain at the mercy of the prevailing political whims of whichever administration, Democrat or Republican, happened to be in power at any given time. Today’s KSC was authorised by President Eisenhower in 1958 and was originally known as the Launch Operations Directorate, reporting to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. However, its most dramatic expansion began in the wake of President Kennedy’s directive to land a man on the Moon, when NASA began to acquire almost 600 square kilometres of land on Merritt Island for the construction of its new facilities.
At length, on 1 July 1962, the site achieved equal status with other NASA centres, when it was dedicated the Launch Operations Center (LOC). Three months later, it saw the launch of its first astronaut, Wally Schirra, aboard the Sigma 7 Earth-orbital mission. A few weeks thereafter, construction got underway on what would become Complex 39: the place from which our first steps to the Moon would be taken. In 1965, the site’s most enduring landmark – the gigantic Vehicle (originally ‘Vertical’) Assembly Building (VAB) – was finished. Even today, it remains the world’s largest single-story structure and the world’s largest building outside an urban area.
Late in November 1963, only days after President Kennedy’s assassination, the Launch Operations Center was renamed in his honour, under Executive Order 11129. As the ‘Kennedy Space Center’ – which the Executive Order declared “should test the limits of our youth and grace, our strength and wit, our vigour and perseverance: qualities fitting to the memory of John F. Kennedy” – it saw the launches of each two-man Gemini mission, all of the Apollo flights to Earth orbit and the Moon, together with Skylab and her crews, the American half of Apollo-Soyuz and even Shuttle flight.
“In 50 years,” said KSC Director Bob Cabana, the former Shuttle astronaut who commanded the first International Space Station assembly mission from here in December 1998, “less than a lifetime, Americans first pioneered paths into orbit, then made confident strides onto the surface of another world and sent instrument-laden machines into the perilous reaches of space beyond the Solar System. All those voyages began here, made possible in large measure by the professionalism, determination and boldness of the Kennedy team.”
Cabana’s words underpin a popular misunderstanding of the role of KSC and neighbouring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station; for many observers wrongly perceive the site to be associated only with human flights. In reality, the world’s first successful emissaries to the planets – Mariner 4 to fly past Mars, Pioneer 10 to Jupiter, Pioneer 11 to Saturn, Voyager 2 to Uranus and Neptune and New Horizons, presently en-route to the dwarf world Pluto – originated from this alligator-and-rattlesnake-infested corner of Florida. Yet Cabana, who has held the top job at KSC since October 2008, is accurate in his assertion that “we’ve come to realise that there is so much out there for us to discover”.
Barring the negative effects of future political machinations, it can be hoped that Commercial Crew capabilities will be online sometime after 2015, by which time the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle will have completed its first unmanned ‘shakedown’ mission and NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System will be closing in on its first launch. Last week’s arrival of the first space-bound Orion has certainly bolstered hope that this dream will indeed become reality. If the past 50 years have driven Merritt Island from a place of relative obscurity into an exalted centre for space exploration, then the next 50 years should be equally bright and filled with promise.Missions » Apollo »