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Launch Complex Emerges From Wilderness
We don't know where the first fire was built, or who made it. But we know where humans turned that fire into thrust and rode it into the heavens.

That place is here, and there are still plenty of people to testify about the days when Kennedy Space Center was still emerging from an oceanside wilderness punctuated by the occasional citrus grove.

The Operations & Checkout Building takes shape in the industrial area of Kennedy Space Center Image right: The Operations & Checkout Building was one of the first facilities built at Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit NASA/KSC

"The mosquitoes were horrible," said NASA retiree Charlie Parker. "If you think we've got mosquito problems now, multiply it by tenfold, or a hundredfold."

Parker came to the Cape Canaveral launch area in 1960 to work on the Army's Pershing missile program.

Ambitions to put men into space were tempered by the realization that there was still a lot to learn about even simple rockets before entrusting them with the lives of astronauts. This was a time when the health of a rocket's engine was judged by the knowing eye of an engineer looking at the color of the exhaust flame instead of by a studied reading of telemetry.

Crews carved an area for the Vehicle Assembly Building. Image left: The Vehicle Assembly Building was designed to be one of the biggest structures in the world, so architects called for more than 4,000 steel piles driven into the Merritt Island sand to hold it up. Photo credit NASA/KSC

But it was also a time when global political ambitions dictated determination on the part of NASA. For the rocketeers, that meant making stronger engines, bigger fuel tanks and, above all, safer designs.

For the burgeoning space agency, it meant building a permanent launch base on Merritt Island while still launching satellites and astronauts from launch pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The Army and Air Force had been launching missiles from Cape Canaveral for nine years by the time NASA selected its first elite corps of astronauts in 1959. Still, Norris Gray, a former NASA rescue and safety officer known as "Chief," said the requirement for a permanent base was unexpected.

"We thought (spaceflight) was just a passing fancy," he said.

Kennedy Space Center officially opened as the NASA Launch Operations Center in 1962, when four astronauts had reached space and only two of them had seen orbit. But that didn't stop the rush of construction crews onto the base to build the Operations and Checkout Building and headquarters.

For the moment, most of Kennedy's staff worked in trailers or temporary buildings, in offices rented in nearby Cocoa Beach or even at the NASA center in Huntsville, Ala. It would take until 1965 for the Florida center to build up enough facilities to house all of its workers.

The Vehicle Assembly Building was designed to handle the largest rockets ever made. Image right: The infrastructure needed to support the Saturn V rocket was built at roughly the same time, and the gantries for the rocket materialized just as the Vehicle Assembly Building took its final shape. Photo credit NASA/KSC

The work force itself also saw fast changes. Dr. Kurt Debus directed fewer than 300 workers when NASA was chartered in 1958. Ten years later, his Kennedy work force peaked at more than 26,000, including contractor employees.

The monumental Vehicle Assembly Building began in May 1963 with the driving of the first of 4,225 steel pipe piles. By the time it was finished, the structure had consumed enough steel in its frame to build 58,000 cars.

The first Saturn launch pads started taking shape, too. Complex 34 launched the first unmanned Saturn I in 1961. Launch Complex 37 would be built first to launch others in the family.

The launch pads of Launch Complex-39A and 39B for the Saturn V presented fresh challenges. First, squat pyramids of sand and concrete were built to raise the launch pad more than 40 feet. The whole gantry and even the massive crawler transporters that would move the rocket and the gantry onto the pad area dwarfed previous designs. The flame deflector alone for the Saturn V was half as tall as the whole Mercury-Redstone rocket that shot Alan Shepard into space in 1961.

Four years after Shepard's flight, NASA had its starting point for moon missions. Another year after that, 1966, saw the first Saturn V lift off the pad and point the way to the moon. Everything was looking smooth.

"The Saturn V had quite a big impact on the range," said Angelo J. Taiani, who worked on several projects back then and helped develop a weather balloon that is still used today.

It would be only a few more months before that optimism was tested by deep tragedy.

It was Jan. 27, 1967 -- the one day that uniformly stands out in the memories of Kennedy workers of the early era.

"That was where we lost our three astronauts," Gray said. "I went into I guess a state of shock. I jumped in my car and drove up here. I didn't tell my wife, my friends -- they didn't know where I'd gone."

There were plenty of tests during the first decade, but the spectacular successes of launching astronauts into space, then landing them on the moon, showed what the young agency and its fast-maturing cadre of workers could accomplish.

"It hit everybody from the janitors up to the top administration," Gray said.

As big as the change was in less than a decade, it did not shock most of the folks closest to it.

"Our technology was moving ahead; I expected to see it," Gray said.

Steven Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center