ELV Launches Remain Kennedy's Backbone
Thor-Delta launch vehicle

An Echo 1 satellite launched atop a Thor-Delta from Launch Complex 17A on Aug. 12, 1960. Image credit: NASA
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Atlas-Centaur launch vehicle

An Atlas-Centaur rocket carrying the Mariner I took off from Launch Pad 36B on May 30, 1971. Image credit: NASA
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Titan III-Centaur 4 rocket

A Titan III-Centaur 4 rocket carrying Viking 1 took off from Launch Complex 396 on Aug. 20, 1975. Image credit: NASA
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Delta II launch vehicle

A Delta II carrying the Mars Global Surveyor took off from Launch Complex 17A on Nov. 7, 1996. Image credit: NASA
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Atlas V launch vehicle

An Atlas V carrying the New Horizons Deep Space Probe shot from Launch Complex 41 on Jan 19, 2006. Image credit: NASA
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For the past 50 years, NASA has relied on the Space Coast and a fleet of expendable launch vehicles to carry the agency’s multitude of scientific, Earth-observing and interplanetary missions into space.

In the late 1950s, shortly after NASA was established, the original Vanguard Naval Research Laboratory team became the Launch Operations Branch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

In 1965, the team merged with Kennedy Space Center.

From the earliest Vanguard launch in the 1950’s to the powerful Atlas V launch in 2006 carrying New Horizons to explore Pluto, NASA’s requirements for expendable launch vehicles continues to evolve.

Explorer spacecraft launched primarily aboard Delta vehicles from Launch Complexes 17 and 26 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Atlas-Centaur was the launch vehicle for Surveyor I, the first U.S. spacecraft to soft land on the moon. It, along with several other Surveyors, launched from Complex 36. Two Viking missions to Mars and two Voyager missions to outer planets launched aboard Titan III-Centaur launch vehicles from Launch Complex 41.

Complex 41 later became the launch site for the most powerful uncrewed U.S. rocket at the time, the Titan IV, developed by Martin Marietta for the U.S. Air Force. A Titan IV launched the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn in 1997.

In the 1970s, the Titan-Centaur became the most powerful vehicle available in the United States’ unmanned space program. The vehicle was a combination of the Air Force’s Titan IIIC and the more powerful Centaur upper stage of the Atlas-Centaur. NASA used this vehicle to launch missions to study Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the sun.

NASA used the Titan II to launch several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, weather satellites. A Titan III sent NASA’s Mars Observer on its journey in 1992.

The Atlas-Agena and Thor-Agena launched a series of Orbiting Geophysical Observatories in the 1960s, and the Atlas-Centaur launched a series of Orbiting Astronomical Observatories in the 1960s and 70s. The powerful Atlas-Centaur sent High Energy Astronomy Observatories into space in the late 1970s.

The Atlas-Agena, a much more powerful vehicle than the Thor-Agena, could place spacecraft in lunar or interplanetary trajectories. The Atlas-Agena sent four Rangers to the moon, five Lunar Orbiters, and the first Mariner spacecraft to Venus and Mars.

The Delta launch vehicle, produced by Boeing, is referred to as the workhorse of NASA’s expendable launch vehicle family. It has carried more than 200 NASA scientific, wind and communications payloads into orbit and on to other planets. Delta vehicles launched a series of Orbiting Solar Observatories in the 1960s and 70s from Launch Complex 17.

By the 1990s, NASA’s Expendable Launch Vehicle Program was established to oversee the expendable launch vehicle fleet. In 1997, Kennedy Space Center became the program’s lead center for NASA’s acquisition and program management of expendable launch vehicle missions. The program later realigned and was renamed the Launch Services Program.

NASA’s first successful return to Mars after the Viking mission was the launch of the Mars Global Surveyor atop a Delta II in November 1996. The Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, launched aboard Delta II rockets in 2003. In 2005, a Delta II carried NASA’s Deep Impact mission bound for the comet Tempel 1.

Today, the majority of NASA missions are launched aboard Delta II, Atlas V or Pegasus XL expendable launch vehicles. The Delta IV and Atlas V are evolved expendable launch vehicles. The Pegasus XL, produced by Orbital Sciences, is the only expendable launch vehicle carried aloft, attached beneath an Orbital Sciences carrier aircraft, and then released for launch.

Fifty years of rocket launches produced data about the universe that researchers only dreamed of, and future missions will do the same.

The first map of the boundary between the solar system and interstellar space will be created by NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, spacecraft, aboard a Pegasus XL. The launch is scheduled for later this year from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, is targeted for launch in 2009, aboard an Atlas V from Launch Complex 41. LRO will identify safe landing zones that are free of large boulders and craters for future lunar missions.

Kennedy’s Launch Services Program is the backbone of the space program in Florida and will continue its essential role in the oversight of rocket launches throughout NASA’s next 50 years.
Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center