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Early Spaceflights Set Stage for Future
07.13.07
 
The 1970s marked a decade of multitasking and spaceport workers perfected that skill. They juggled the alpha and omega of several programs, were responsible for all aspects of a mission from design through landing, created many programs still supported today, and built a strong foundation for future exploration endeavors.

The agency began the 1970s with the development of the Titan-Centaur (rocket), an unmanned expendable launch vehicle that provided unprecedented strength for missions to the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

A Titan-Centaur rocket launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station These missions are in addition to the dozens of spacecraft launched during the decade by vehicles such as the Delta and Atlas-Centaur, which provided photographs and original scientific data of our solar system.

Image left: On August 20, 1977, the Voyager 2 mission launched from Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard at Titan III-Centaur-7 launch vehicle. Photo credit NASA/KSC
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Exotic regions like the Descartes Highlands, Hadley-Apennine and Fra Mauro may sound like a tourist's dream destinations, but these are lunar surfaces that NASA astronauts explored in the 1970s.

During the decade, NASA launched five Apollo missions including the triumphant Apollo 13 and the program's final mission, Apollo 17. Via these missions, 15 astronauts journeyed into space and eight actually walked on the moon. Also, a small sub-satellite was left in lunar orbit and crews drove the lunar roving vehicle.

Russel Rhodes, a technical management aerospace technologist in the Engineering Directorate, said that before and during this era, NASA disproved preconceived notions about spaceflight and the work force was immersed in all mission phases. This allowed him to perform daunting tasks such as independently fueling a Saturn rocket in 1962.

"We were breaking new ground and many people thought we were crazy for attempting to travel to the moon. I was even taught in high school that humans would never leave Earth," said Rhodes, who was a U.S. Army draftee assigned to the space program in 1959.

Apollo 16 astronauts train at Kennedy Long before the International Space Station's Expedition crews started calling space a second home, NASA proved humans could thrive in space through the Skylab program.

Image right: In preparation for their April 16, 1972 launch, Apollo 16 astronauts Charles Duke and John Young simulate navigating the lunar surface at a training area located at Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit NASA/
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When NASA's first space station was launched into orbit on May 14, 1973, it suffered damage that made its temperatures soar to an uninhabitable 126 degrees Fahrenheit. Once these issues were resolved, three different three-man crews lived on the outpost between May 1973 and February 1974 conducting nearly 300 experiments.

At the decade's midpoint, the U.S. and Russia began their first joint effort, known as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, to test compatibility of the rendezvous and docking systems of two spacecraft.

For two days between July 15 and 24, 1975, the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft were joined while crew members conducted experiments.

During the late 1970s, NASA focused on and embraced the new space shuttle era. Warren Wiley, special assistant for engineering and technical operations, fondly recalled many firsts from the decade.

These included supporting the first space shuttle main engine test, accepting delivery of the original three Columbia engines for NASA, testing new methods to remove engine components and developing new heat shields. Wiley, who joined NASA in 1971 as a systems engineer, sees many parallels between the transition to the shuttle and the current segue to Constellation Program work.

Launch Complex 39 area including the Vehicle Assembly Building Image left: An aerial view shows the developing Launch Complex 39 area, including the Vehicle Assembly Building on May 21, 1976. After President Gerald Ford selected Kennedy as the site of the U.S. Bicentennial Exposition on Science and Technology, the assembly building became a canvas for the largest American flag ever painted. Photo credit NASA/KSC
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"We went to reusable aircraft-like spacecraft from traditional rocket systems and the discontinuance of the launch umbilical tower, and now we’re returning to those systems and rebuilding the umbilical tower," Wiley said. "It feels really good to watch the programs come along.

"From Apollo to Skylab to shuttle, it was very busy, but there was some downtime regarding launches during these transitions. We’re going to see that again, but people will be motivated by the exciting exploration goals and the development and activation of new facilities."

Architecturally, the spaceport prepared for the new and reusable space shuttle fleet by modifying existing facilities and constructing new ones, such as the Orbiter Processing Facility, Operations Support Building and Shuttle Landing Facility. On March 24, 1979, orbiter Columbia arrived at the center and signified the next step in NASA's legacy.

 
 
Jennifer Wolfinger
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center