Kennedy at Pivotal Point, Historian Says
Kennedy Space Center's future as a multi-user launch center may well hinge on the same question asked before NASA made this cape on the Atlantic Coast its primary launch site, said noted space historian and policy analyst John Logsdon.
"It's basically the same decision as was made in 1961: Why go somewhere else when the basic infrastructure is here?" Logsdon said following a presentation from his new book "John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon."
Then, when Merritt Island was competing with Cumberland Island in Georgia to house NASA's emerging manned space program, planners noted that Air Force already had established the Eastern Range, and building a new center somewhere else would mean duplicating that work. They obviously chose to stick with the infrastructure already in place.
Now, as several companies develop launchers and spacecraft for trips to low Earth orbit, space entrepreneurs are facing a similar decision on where to launch from.
Some of the decisions are not yet made, but there is already commitment from some companies to launch from Kennedy, while others are looking into capabilities elsewhere.
For its part, NASA and Kennedy are refurbishing the shuttle launch pads and processing facilities across the center to host numerous kinds of vehicles. It's quite a different approach from previous eras when the center's human spaceflight efforts focused on processing and launching a single kind of spacecraft.
"It's a major shift in the organizational style of the place," Logsdon said. "I think Mr. Cabana is leading in exactly the right direction, but it's not a sure thing. Is there going to be a thriving space launch business that will need launch sites and a range and all of that? I think the answer is yes."
The focus of commercial launch companies will not likely extend beyond low Earth orbit, Logsdon said.
"Commercial success is going to be driven by the demand for access to space for either profit-making robotic things or for people who want to go," Logsdon said. "I can't conceive of, in my lifetime or even your lifetime, privately funded ventures out beyond low Earth orbit of any scope -- maybe stunts of flying around the moon. It's a combination of political will and profit-driven commercial enterprises that will make this place."
There was no thought given to privately operated rockets and spacecraft as Kennedy Space Center took shape 50 years ago.
Covering the 30 months of John F. Kennedy's presidency following the mandate to send astronauts to the moon, Logsdon said his research showed that the race to the moon was not about romantic visions of humanity exploring the cosmos. Instead, it was an out-and-out show of technological muscle and national willpower in the mind of President John Kennedy.
"It was, in Kennedy's mind and continued to be about demonstrating U.S leadership vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in a kind of zero-sum Cold War world," Logsdon said. "Countries around the world (were) becoming independent, choosing what form of political organization to ally themselves with, the United States or Soviet Union."
Logsdon, who wrote his doctoral thesis about Kennedy's decision to set the nation on a course to land astronauts on the moon, analyzed where space fit into the Kennedy agenda before the president was assassinated.
Among his details:
• President Kennedy was under pressure to build mission control and the astronauts' training base in Massachusetts, not Houston.
• Apollo fell under massive criticism in 1963 from all political wings as being far too expensive. National security-focused congressmen, socio-liberal activists and even scientists did not think the benefits would justify the expense. NASA spent $155 billion in 2011 dollars on Apollo over eight years.
• The Bureau of the Budget, now Office of Management and Budget, was Apollo's greatest defender, saying there was no reason to give up on the program.
• President Kennedy reached out to the Soviet Union to fly a partnership mission to the moon, but then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev said no. Kennedy repeated the invitation at the United Nations shortly before he was killed.
• The decision to stop building Saturn V rockets was made in 1967, when Lyndon Johnson was still president.
• Although Kennedy saw the space program through a political prism, his visit to the Florida launch site made him a true believer to the cause. "He came away from the Cape trip very enthusiastic," Logsdon said.
Logsdon said that once Kennedy decided to push for the lunar landing, it took a continued effort by the president and then his successor to see it through. Since Apollo, NASA has matured as a federal agency and its evolution depends on the national goals for space and science.
Steven Siceloff, NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center