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The John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is the U.S. government installation that manages and operates America's astronaut launch facilities. Currently serving as the base for the country's three space shuttles, the NASAmarker field center also conducts unmanned civilian launches from adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Stationmarker (operated by the 45th Space Wing). KSC has been the launch site for every U.S. human space flight since 1968. Its iconic Vehicle Assembly Buildingmarker (VAB) is the fourth-largest structure in the world by volume.

Located on Merritt Island, Floridamarker, the center is north-northwest of Cape Canaveralmarker on the Atlantic Oceanmarker, midway between Miamimarker and Jacksonvillemarker. It is 34 miles (55 km) long and roughly 6 miles (10 km) wide, covering . A total of 13,500 people worked at the center as of 2008.

All launch operations are conducted at Launch Complex 39marker (LC-39), where the shuttle's major components (orbiter, external fuel tank and booster rockets) arrive, are stacked (mated) and checked out inside the VAB; then moved to Pad 39A for launch. Shuttles were also launched from adjoining Pad 39B until 2007, when it was modified for the Ares I program. Both pads are on the ocean, 3 miles (5 km) east of the VAB. LC-39 also includes the Launch Control Centermarker, the Orbiter Processing Facilitymarker and a Press Sitemarker. The Shuttle Landing Facilitymarker, among the longest runways in the world, is just to the north. From 1969–1972, LC-39 was the departure point for all six Apollo manned moon landing missions using the Saturn V, the largest and most powerful operational launch vehicle in history.

The KSC Industrial Area, where many of the center's support facilities are located, is south of LC-39. It includes the Headquarters Buildingmarker, the Operations and Checkout Buildingmarker and the Central Instrumentation Facilitymarker. KSC is also home to the Merritt Island Spaceflight Tracking and Data Network station (MILA), a key radio communications and spacecraft tracking complex. The center operates its own short-line railroad.

There is a visitor center and public tours, as KSC is a major tourist destination. Because much of the installation is a restricted area and only nine percent of the land is developed, the site also serves as an important wildlife sanctuary; Mosquito Lagoonmarker, Indian River, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refugemarker and Canaveral National Seashoremarker are other features of the area. Center workers can encounter bald eagles, alligators, wild boars, rattlesnakes, panthers and manatees. KSC is one of ten major NASA field centers, and has several facilities listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Kennedy Space Center was created and has evolved to meet the changing needs of America's manned space program, initially in competition with the Soviet Union. What is today KSC was authorized in 1958 during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The facility was originally known as the Launch Operations Directorate (LOD), reporting to the Marshall Space Flight Centermarker in Alabama.


President John F. Kennedy's 1961 goal of a lunar landing within nine years led to an expansion of NASA operations from a few buildings in the Industrial Area of Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex (later Air Force Station), notably Hanger S, to Merritt Island. NASA began land acquisition in 1962, buying title to and negotiating with the state of Florida for an additional . The major buildings in the Industrial Are were designed by architect Charles Luckman.

On July 1, 1962, the site was renamed the Launch Operations Center, achieving equal status with other NASA centers; and on November 19, 1963, the facility received its current name by Executive Order following Kennedy's deathmarker, made official on December 20, 1963.

Mercury and Gemini

The U.S. lunar landing was accomplished in three stages–Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. The objectives of the Mercury program were to place a manned spacecraft in earth orbit, investigate human performance and the ability to function in space, and safely recover the astronaut and spacecraft. Although Mercury was directed by NASA, launches were from the U.S. Air Force's Cape Canaveral Annex. The first two manned tests used the Redstone booster from LC-5marker for the 1961 suborbital flights of Alan Shepard on May 5 (the first American in space) and Gus Grissom on July 21. The first American in orbit, and the first carried by the larger Atlas D rocket, was John Glenn, launched from LC-14marker on February 20, 1962. Three more orbital flights followed.

The more complex two-man Gemini spacecraft, and its Titan II booster, based on the military ICBM, helped carry out rendezvous and docking and extra-vehicular activity missions critical for Apollo. Twelve Gemini missions were launched from Cape Canaveral's LC-19marker, the last ten of which were manned. The first manned flight, Gemini 3, took place on March 23, 1965. The final flight, Gemini 12, launched on November 11, 1966.


The Apollo program required larger launchers–the Saturn family of boosters. The two-stage Saturn I and 1B rockets were erected and launched at the Cape's Launch Complexes 34marker and 37marker. The first Saturn launch, SA-1, came on October 27, 1961 from LC-34. On January 27, 1967, the crew for the first planned manned Apollo mission, AS-204 (later designated Apollo 1), Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died by fire on the same pad atop a Saturn 1B; the first spacecraft-related astronaut deaths. After significant changes to the spacecraft, Apollo 7 was launched from LC-37 into earth orbit using a Saturn IB on October 11, 1968.

Launch Complex 39
Missions to the moon required the three-stage Saturn V (111 m high and 10 m in diameter); and at KSC, an $800 million facility was built on Merritt Island to accommodate the new rocket–Launch Complex 39. It included a hangar capable of holding four Saturn Vs, the VAB (130 million ft³); a transporter capable of carrying 5,440 tons along a crawlerwaymarker to either of two launch pads; a mobile service structure; and a control center. Construction began in November 1962. Pads A and B were completed by October 1965, the VAB was completed in June 1965, and the infrastructure by late 1966. Three Mobile Launch Platforms, each with a fixed launch umbilical tower, were also built. A planned Pad C was canceled.

From 1967–1973, there were 13 Saturn V lift-offs, including the ten remaining Apollo missions after Apollo 7. The first of three unmanned flights, Apollo 4 (Apollo-Saturn 501) on November 9, 1967, was also the first rocket launch from KSC itself. The Saturn V's first manned launch on December 21, 1968 was Apollo 8's lunar orbiting mission. The next two missions tested the Lunar ModuleApollo 9 (earth orbit) and Apollo 10 (lunar orbit). Apollo 11, launched from Pad A on July 16, 1969, made the first moon landing on July 20. Apollo 12 followed four month later.


From 1970–1972, the Apollo program concluded at KSC with the launches of missions 13 through 17. On May 14, 1973, the last Saturn V launch put the Skylab space station in orbit from Pad 39A. Pad B, modified for Saturn IBs, was used to launch three manned missions to Skylab that year, as well as the final Apollo spacecraft for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

In 1976, the VAB's south parking area was the site of Third Century America, a science and technology display commemorating the U.S. Bicentennial, also when the U.S. flag was painted on the building. During the late 1970s, LC-39 was reconfigured to support the Space Shuttle.

1980s–2000s: the Space Shuttle

KSC became the launch site for the Space Shuttle program beginning in 1981. The initial launch, Columbia on April 12, 1981, was the first of a vehicle with astronauts aboard which had no prior unmanned launch.

KSC's 2.9 mile (4.6 km) Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) is the orbiters' primary end-of-mission landing site, although the first KSC landing did not take place until the tenth flight, when Challenger completed STS-41-B on February 11, 1984; the primary landing site had until then been Edwards Air Force Basemarker, Californiamarker, subsequently used as a backup. The SLF also provided a return-to-launch-site abort option, which was never required.

After 24 successful shuttle flights, Challenger was torn apart 73 seconds after the launch of STS-51-L on January 28, 1986; the first shuttle launch from Pad 39B and the first U.S. manned launch failure, killing the seven crew members. An O-ring seal in the right booster rocket failed at liftoff, leading to subsequent structural failures. Flights resumed on September 29, 1988 with STS-26 after extensive modifications to many aspects of the shuttle program.

On February 1, 2003, Columbia and its crew of seven were lost during re-entry over Texas during the STS-107 mission; later shown to have been the result of damage sustained during launch from Pad 39A on January 16 when a piece of foam insulation from its external fuel tank struck the orbiter wing structure. This created a hole allowing hot gases to melt the wing structure upon reentry. The resulting investigation and modifications again interrupted shuttle flight operations at KSC for more than two years until the STS-114 launch on July 26, 2005.

The shuttle program has also experienced five main engine shutdowns, all within four seconds or less before launch; and one abort to orbit, STS-51F on July 29, 1985. Shuttle missions during nearly 30 years of operations have included deploying satellites and interplanetary probes, conducting space science and technology experiments, visits to the Russian MIR space station, construction and servicing of the International Space Station, deployment and servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope and serving as a space laboratory. The shuttle is scheduled to be retired from service in 2010 after 134 launches.

On October 28, 2009, the Ares I-X launch from Pad 39B was the first unmanned launch from KSC since the Skylab workshop in 1973.


The planned end of the space shuttle program in 2010 is expected to produce a significant downsizing of the KSC workforce similar to that experienced at the end of the Apollo program in 1972. LC-39 would be the launch site for the Ares I and Ares V rockets, which could carry the manned Orion spacecraft by mid-decade if NASA's Constellation program is fully implemented; although funding is uncertain.

Unmanned NASA launches at Cape Canaveral

NASA's first launch, Pioneer 1, came on October 11, 1958 from LC-17Amarker using a Thor-Able booster. The civilian agency has used launch pads at Cape Canaveral AFS ever since for many unmanned launches ranging from satellites to lunar probes, including the Ranger, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter series during the 1960s.

NASA has also launched communications and weather satellites from Launch Complexes 40marker and 41marker, built at the north end of the Cape in 1964 by the Air Force for its Titan IIIC and Titan IV rockets. From 1974–1977 the powerful Titan IIIE served as the heavy-lift vehicle for NASA, launching the Viking and Voyager series of planetary spacecraft and the Cassini–Huygens Saturn probe from LC-41. The Titan IV's final KSC launch was April 29, 2005.

NASA currently uses two Cape Canaveral pads: SLC-41 for the Atlas V and SLC-37B for the Delta IV, both for heavy payloads.


The central Florida area receives more lightning strikes than any other place in the U.S., causing NASA to spend millions of dollars to avoid strikes during launches. On November 14, 1969, Apollo 12 was struck by lightning just after lift-off from Pad 39A, but the flight continued safely. The most powerful lightning strike recorded at KSC occurred at LC-39B on August 25, 2006 while shuttle Atlantis was being prepared for STS-115. NASA managers were initially concerned that the lightning strike caused damage to Atlantis, but none was found.

In September 2004, areas of KSC were damaged by Hurricane Frances. The Vehicle Assembly Building lost 1,000 exterior panels, each 3.9 x 9.8 ft (approx. 1.2 x 3.0 m) in size. This exposed of the building to the elements. Damage occurred to the south and east sides of the VAB. The shuttle's Thermal Protection System Facility suffered extensive damage. The roof was partially torn off and the interior suffered water damage. Further damage to KSC was caused by Hurricane Wilma in October 2005.

KSC directors

Since KSC's formation, ten NASA officials have served as directors, including three former astronauts:

Name Start End Reference
Dr. Kurt H. Debus July 1962 November 1974
Lee R. Scherer January 19, 1975 September 2, 1979
Richard G. Smith September 26, 1979 August 2, 1986
Forrest S. McCartney August 31, 1987 December 31, 1991
Robert L. Crippen January 1992 January 1995
Jay F. Honeycutt January 1995 March 2, 1997
Roy D. Bridges, Jr. March 2, 1997 August 9, 2003
James W. Kennedy August 9, 2003 January 2007
William W. Parsons January 2007 October 2008
Robert D. Cabana October 2008 Present

Visitor Complex

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (formerly known as Spaceport USA), operated by Delaware North Companies, is home to a number of exhibits and displays; the Shuttle Launch Experience; a simulation ride into space; two IMAX theaters; and a range of bus tours allowing visitors a closer look at various restricted areas that would otherwise not be possible. Base admission for people over age 12 is $38 USD. Included in the base admission is tour-bus transportation to the Apollo-Saturn V Centermarker and an observation platform at Launch Complex 39, which provides unobstructed views of both launch pads and the surrounding KSC property.

The Apollo-Saturn V Center, located several miles to the north, is a large museum built around its centerpiece exhibit, a restored Saturn V launch vehicle, and features other space related exhibits, including an Apollo capsule. Two theaters allow the visitor to relive parts of the Apollo program. One simulates the environment inside an Apollo firing room during an Apollo launch, and another simulates the Apollo 11 moon landing. The tour also includes the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) where modules for the International Space Station are tested.

The Visitor Complex includes two facilities run by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation. The most visible of these is the Space Mirror Memorialmarker, also known as the Astronaut Memorial, a huge black granite mirror through-engraved with the names of all astronauts who died in the line of duty. These names are constantly illuminated from behind, with natural light when possible, and artificial light when necessary. The glowing names seem to float in a reflection of the sky. Supplemental displays nearby give the details of the lives and deaths of the astronauts memorialized. Elsewhere on the Visitor Complex grounds is the Foundation's Center for Space Education, which includes a resource center for teachers, among other facilities; and the Dr. Kurt Debus Conference Center.

Several flight-used or flight-ready spacecraft are on display at KSC:
  • Gemini 9A capsule, at the Visitor Complex
  • CM-119, an Apollo command module configured for a potential Skylab rescue mission, at the Visitor Complex
  • LM-9, an Apollo Lunar Module originally meant for Apollo 15, at the Saturn V Center
  • 500F, the restored Saturn V test article displayed for many years near the VAB, at the Saturn V Center

Mercury-Atlas 8 capsule Sigma 7 and Apollo 14 Command Module Kitty Hawk are located at the nearby, privately-operated Astronaut Hall of Famemarker.

KSC facilities on the National Register of Historic Places

  • Central Instrumentation Facility
  • Crawlerway
  • Headquarters Building
  • Launch Complex 39
  • Launch Complex 39–Pad A
  • Launch Complex 39–Pad B
  • Launch Control Center
  • Missile Crawler Transporter Facilities
  • Operations and Checkout Building
  • Press Site–Clock and Flag Pole
  • Vehicle Assembly Building–High Bay and Low Bay

See also


  1. "Our view: Still spaced out". Florida Today, January 23, 2008.
  4. KSC - Lightning and the Space Programretrieved May 28, 2008
  5. NASA - Biography of Dr. Kurt H. Debus
  6. NASA - Biography of Lee R. Scherer
  7. NASA - Biography of Richard G. Smith
  8. NASA - Biography of Forrest S. McCartney
  9. NASA - Biography of Robert L. Crippen
  10. NASA - Biography of Jay F. Honeycutt
  11. NASA - Biography of Roy Bridges
  12. NASA - NASA KSC Director Announces Retirement
  13. NASA - Biography of William W. (Bill) Parsons


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