Kennedy Space Center Story

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Chapter 1
1991 Edition


With the notable exception of Dr. Robert H. Goddard's pioneering work with liquid propellant rockets in the 1920s and 1930s, American interest in rocketry and space exploration prior to World War II was restricted to amateur rocket clubs and the fertile outpourings of science fiction writers. With the outbreak of war, military demands led to the development of a host of rocket-powered battlefield weapons for use against tanks, armored vehicles and submarines and also for barrages in support of troop landings and advancements. Space science, a loose term at the time, was limited primarily to weather and upper atmospheric studies using balloons and small sounding rockets. Although the idea of putting artificial satellites into orbit around the Earth for military and scientific purposes had been explored by the armed forces and various civilian agencies, it never passed the talking stage; rocketry had not yet progressed to the point where such far-out schemes were feasible.

Toward the end of the war, American interest in rocket technology had increased dramatically. This was mainly because of the impact of the successful German V-2 rocket development on American military and scientific circles. Military planners saw the long-range V-2 as the shape of things to come in the dawning nuclear age. Scientists viewed it as a tool for high-altitude research and the forerunner of larger rocket systems for the exploration of space. Eager to cash in on this technological bonanza, the U.S. Army brought a number of German rocket experts and almost 100 confiscated V-2 rockets to this country following the end of hostilities.

The Army began testing V-2s in 1946 at its Ordnance Proving Grounds at White Sands, N.M. Here, German scientists and technicians, headed by Dr. Wernher von Braun, developer of the V-2, worked alongside their American counterparts in putting reassembled V-2s to use for research. In the course of the next five years, teams from each of the three armed services, aerospace industries and universities--partners in America's missile and space development--assembled information from the successful launchings of 40 instrumented V-2s. While the tests yielded invaluable data in high-altitude research, the emphasis -- and congressional appropriations -- were tuned to the development of intermediate and intercontinental range ballistic missiles for national defense. As the range and sophistication of the V-2 and follow-on rocket systems increased, it became evident that a new, long-range test site was needed. In October 1949, President Harry S. Truman established the Joint Long Range Proving Grounds at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The Cape was ideal for testing missiles. Virtually undeveloped, it enabled personnel to inspect, fuel and launch missiles without danger to nearby communities. The area's climate also permitted year-round operations, and rockets could be launched over water instead of populated areas. A chain of islands extending southeastward from Grand Bahama to Ascension provided sites for tracking stations to follow the progress of missiles in flight. Some years later, many of these same factors led to selection of the area adjacent to Cape Canaveral -- Merritt Island -- as the location of the Kennedy Space Center.

After the proving grounds were established, the Air Force took over the nearby Banana River Naval Air Station -- renamed Patrick Air Force Base in honor of Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick, the first chief of the Army Air Corps -- located 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of the Cape. Here, in 1951, the Air Force established headquarters for the Air Force Missile Test Center, which included a range. These facilities were redesignated in 1964 as the Air Force Eastern Test Range, which became Detachment 1, Space and Missile Test Center in 1977, and was redesignated the Eastern Space and Missile Center in 1979.

An Army team from White Sands conducted the first rocket launch from Cape Canaveral on July 24, 1950. The rocket was called Bumper 8, a modified V-2 with a WAC (Without Any Control) Corporal stage mounted on top. It achieved an altitude of 10 miles (16 kilometers). The launch facilities used for Bumper 8 contrast sharply with those in use on the Cape today. For that primitive launch, Army technicians employed a painter's scaffold as a gantry to service the rocket before launch, and the control center was a converted tarpaper bathhouse surrounded by sandbags.

Shortly afterwards, the Army decided to consolidate its rocket and guided missile programs at the Redstone Arsenal, a former chemical development center near Huntsville, Ala. The first projects assigned to the new Ordnance Guided Missile Center, later renamed the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, were development of the Redstone and the Jupiter missiles. The Redstone was a direct descendant of the V-2, which would have a 200-mile (322-kilometer) range, and the Jupiter was a more powerful version of the Redstone with a 1,750-mile (2,800-kilometer) range. The missile agency was commanded by Maj. Gen. J. B. Medaris. Von Braun headed the agency's Development Operations Division and Dr. Kurt H. Debus, a von Braun associate, was in charge of the Missile Firing Laboratory, which was responsible for launch operations.

The Army began testing Redstone missiles at the Cape in August 1953. Debus and some 75 engineers and technicians drove with a convoy from Huntsville to the Cape for each test. There, they assembled and launched a missile, then returned to Alabama to work on the next missile on the assembly line. When the Army later contracted with Chrysler Corp. to produce Redstones and Jupiters in Michigan, the launch team moved permanently to the Cape to conduct flight testing and assist in training U.S. and foreign military crews in handling these weapons.

By the mid-1950s, rocket technology in the United States had reached the stage where serious consideration was being given to proposals to launch Earth satellites. The opportunity surfaced in July 1955 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that the United States would place a satellite into orbit as part of its contribution to the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year. The Soviet Union also announced its intention of orbiting a satellite during that year, even suggesting that its artificial moon would be much bigger than any the United States might attempt to launch.

The competition among the U.S. armed services for the honor of launching America's first satellite was lively. The Army proposed using a modified four-stage Redstone vehicle. The Air Force pushed its Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) which was still under development, and the Naval Research Laboratory promoted an improved three-stage version of its workhorse Viking high-altitude research rocket, to be called the Vanguard.

Project Vanguard was selected for America's satellite program because it provided an opportunity to develop a new rocket system for civilian rather than military purposes. Furthermore, officials pointed out, Project Vanguard was a scientific program and, unlike the Army and Air Force proposals, would have little or no impact on the nation's critical task of developing ballistic missiles for national defense.

The Navy's Vanguard operations group arrived at the Cape in late 1955 and began preparing for launch operations. They were assigned Pad 18A for launchings, and shared a blockhouse at adjacent Complex 17, a newly constructed launch facility for the Air Force's planned Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) test program. Two Vanguard test vehicles were launched successfully on suborbital flights in late 1956 and 1957. Then came Sputnik.

Russia's launch of the world's first artificial satellite on Oct. 4, 1957, had a profound effect on the American people and the governmental agencies involved with satellite development. Moreover, the size and weight of Sputnik 1--184 pounds (83 kilograms) -- made this country acutely aware that the Soviets had developed rockets far more powerful than any in the American arsenal. This point was driven home even more dramatically a month later when the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, a 1,120-pound (508-kilogram) satellite carrying a dog named Laika. Although there was no way the United States could hope to match the Russian feats, some prestige might be regained by orbiting an American satellite.

The pressure, along with the eyes of the world, was clearly on the Vanguard launch team. The pressure intensified when the U.S. secretary of defense directed the Army launch team to prepare for a satellite launching in the event the Vanguard failed to achieve its objective. Following a third successful test flight, the Vanguard team attempted a satellite launch on Dec. 6, 1957, a little over two months after Sputnik 1. A few seconds after liftoff, when Vanguard had risen about four feet (1.2 meters), its engine lost thrust and the rocket and its beeping payload fell back upon the launch pad and exploded in a flaming fireball that further seared American confidence. Before the Vanguard team could ready another vehicle for flight, the Army team directed by Dr. Debus launched its 30-pound (13.6-kilogram) Explorer 1 satellite into orbit on Jan. 31, 1958, from nearby Complex 26A, using a modified Jupiter-C called Juno 1. America was in space. Explorer 1, built for the Army by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, made up in quality what it lacked in size. An onboard experiment designed by Dr. James Van Allen of the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa) detected the Earth's radiation belt, subsequently named the Van Allen Radiation Belt.

The Army attempted a second satellite launch in March, but it failed when the Juno 1's fourth stage did not ignite. On March 17, 1958, Vanguard placed America's second satellite into orbit, a 3.5-pound (1.6-kilogram) sphere that will stay aloft for 2,000 years. Called Vanguard 1, the tiny satellite carried the first solar cells into space and is now the oldest and smallest spacecraft in orbit. Although the Army team remained America's first heroes of the space age, Project Vanguard personnel had the satisfaction of knowing that in record time--only two years, six months and eight days--they had developed a new high-performance three-stage launch vehicle, a launching facility, a worldwide tracking system and a range instrumentation network. More importantly, they had accomplished their mission: placing a satellite into orbit during the International Geophysical Year.

Despite America's success with Explorer and Vanguard, the Russian Sputniks engendered a widespread clamor that the United States embark upon a vastly expanded space program. NASA came into being on Oct. 1, 1958, absorbing some 8,000 personnel and the laboratories of the 43-year-old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The transfer to NASA included Wallops Station in Virginia and four research centers: Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (renamed Langley Research Center), Hampton, Va.; Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory (renamed Lewis Research Center), Cleveland, Ohio; Ames Aeronautical Laboratory (renamed Ames Research Center), Moffett Field, Calif.; and the High Speed Flight Station (renamed the Flight Research Center and later the Dryden Flight Research Facility), Edwards, Calif.

NASA also absorbed about 150 Project Vanguard personnel who, along with other elements from the scientific and military communities, formed the nucleus of the Beltsville Space Center (renamed the Goddard Space Flight Center) at Greenbelt, Md., established in January 1959. The Vanguard Operations Group at the Cape, renamed the Goddard Space Flight Center's Field Projects Branch, officially became NASA's first launch team. Under the direction of Robert H. Gray, who had served as test conductor for the Vanguard missions, the Goddard team was responsible for launching the majority of the nation's pioneering satellite programs, including lunar and planetary probes and the world's first weather and communications satellites.

During this period, the Cape was transformed from scrubland into a major launch base. The Army continued testing its Redstones and Jupiters and a new short-range field missile called the Pershing. The Navy was busy developing its submarine-launched Polaris missile system. The Air Force pushed ahead with its Thor IRBM and its Atlas, Titan and Minuteman ICBM programs. The Thor later became the booster stage for NASA's dependable Delta launch vehicle, which has placed more satellites into orbit than any other rocket in the nation's fold. The Atlas and the Titan also were destined for NASA duty, as booster stages for the agency's manned and unmanned space programs. Launch complexes to support military launch operations sprang up the length and width of the Cape. Many were modified later to support NASA space activities.

Meanwhile, at the Army Ballistic Missile agency in Huntsville, the von Braun team was designing and developing a super booster. Under a study financed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense, the team had clustered eight rocket engines to see if a single stage could produce 1,000,000 pounds (4,500,000 newtons) of thrust, far more than any rocket known. However, in August 1959, the Defense Department decided it had no need for a rocket of this size and suggested that it might serve as a booster in NASA's space program. A month later, the program was transferred to NASA.

In December 1959, an agreement was signed by the Department of Defense and NASA, transferring the von Braun team of 5,000 civil servants, including the Missile Firing Laboratory directed by Debus, from the Army to NASA. The transfer involved $100 million in laboratories, test stands, equipment, shops and office buildings. Von Braun was appointed director of the newly established George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and assigned the task of developing heavy space launch vehicles. Debus was appointed director of Marshall's Launch Operations Directorate at Cape Canaveral, the organization that would form the nucleus of the Kennedy Space Center some 3 1/2 years later.

While NASA was in its formative stages, the Soviet Union progressed with its own space program. On Sept. 12, 1959, Luna 2 impacted on the Moon, and less than a month later Luna 3 took the first pictures of the dark side of the Moon. In August 1960, the Soviets recovered a spacecraft which had carried animals into Earth orbit. In February 1961, they launched a space probe which obtained measurements of the environment of Venus. Then, on April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel in space. The U.S. followed by launching Alan Shepard on his historical suborbital flight less than a month later.

Shepard's flight, the nation's initial manned space flight effort, narrowed the space gap between the United States and Russia. But even more ambitious undertakings were planned by the United States. In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy fired the public imagination by announcing that the United States would fly men to the Moon and back within the decade. His challenge elicited congressional support for a program which required rockets far more powerful than any then available, and spacecraft designed to protect men from the hostile environment of space during the 500,000-mile (800,000-kilometer) journey to and from the Moon.

The program was Apollo, and the vehicle that would launch the Apollo spacecraft and its three-man crew to the Moon was the Saturn V. This three-stage rocket would generate about five times the thrust of the Saturn I, just then reaching its flight phase. The Saturn series of vehicles were the result of experiments carried out by the von Braun team in clustering engines in a single rocket stage for maximum thrust. While the Saturn V was taking shape on the drawing boards, a suitable location had to be found to assemble, service and launch it. Although the Cape's 17,000 acres (6,885 hectares) had proven adequate for previous space missions, larger facilities would be needed for the mammoth Moon rocket.

Dr. Debus, representing NASA, and Lt. Gen. Leighton I. Davis, representing the Department of Defense, organized a joint study to find a new launch site. They considered Hawaii, Texas, the California coast, an island off the coast of Georgia, islands in the Caribbean, and Merritt Island (adjacent to the Cape) as possible sites.

The study concluded that Merritt Island offered compelling advantages. Several small communities were within easy driving range, and larger cities like Daytona Beach, Vero Beach, and Orlando were only slightly further. Locating on Merritt Island also would allow NASA to share facilities of the Atlantic Missile Range, avoiding costly duplication. Only at this location could the same NASA launch organization continue operations on the Cape Canaveral complex while building the spaceport. Debus and General Davis recommended the acquisition of the northern part of Merritt Island. The choice was endorsed by NASA and the Defense Department. Congress authorized NASA to acquire the property.

The space agency began acquisition in 1962, taking title to 83,894 acres (33,952 hectares) by outright purchase. It negotiated with the state of Florida for use of an additional 55,805 acres (22,600 hectares) of state-owned submerged land, most of which lies within the Mosquito Lagoon. The investment in property reached approximately $71,872,000.

In July 1962, the Launch Operations Directorate at the Cape was separated from the Marshall Space Flight Center by executive order. It became the Launch Operations Center, an independent NASA installation, with Debus as its first director. It was renamed the John F. Kennedy Space Center in December 1963, in honor of America's slain president. In December 1964, launch elements of Houston's Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center) were transferred to the Kennedy Space Center. The following October, Goddard Space Flight Center's Field Projects Branch on the Cape was incorporated into the Kennedy Space Center.

The challenge had been issued and accepted. Next came the task of meeting that challenge through the design, construction and operation of a complete spaceport.

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