Kennedy Space Center Story

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Chapter 4
1991 Edition

Genesis of Apollo

When President John F. Kennedy announced the national objective of landing a man on the Moon within the decade of the 1960s, NASA faced the unprecedented task of transforming this goal into reality. At the outset, the means were unclear. The spacecraft that would carry American astronauts to the Moon and back existed only as a theoretical concept, tentatively called Apollo. The powerful rocket that would be needed to launch the spacecraft with sufficient velocity to escape Earth's gravity was only a few lines on an engineer's scratch pad. The vast support, checkout and launch facilities required to launch the daring lunar voyagers had to be designed, built and activated.

Intense effort by NASA's rapidly growing government-industry-university team gradually filled in the grand design. The ambitious program called for launching three astronauts into lunar orbit. Two of them would then pilot a smaller spacecraft to land on the lunar surface. The third would orbit the Moon in the mother ship while his companions completed the initial lunar exploration. Then they would rendezvous with his craft and the trio would return to Earth in the mother ship. This basic decision fixed size and weight parameters for the booster rocket, which in turn dictated the dimensions and scope of the facilities needed to service and launch the rocket and its two spacecraft.

The Marshall Space Flight Center was given the responsibility for providing the launch vehicle for the program. Called the Saturn V, this vehicle consisted of three separate stages and an instrument unit, atop which sat the spacecraft.

The Boeing Co. won the contract to fabricate the large first stage. It contained five engines, each generating 1.5 million pounds (6.7 million newtons) of thrust. The Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation furnished these engines. North American also received the entire second stage contract, calling for a rocket stage equipped with five engines, each with 200,000 pounds (900,000 newtons) thrust capacity. Douglas Aircraft Co. won the competition for the third stage, equipped with a single 200,000-pound (900,000-newton) thrust engine with a restart capability, required for the lunar mission.

IBM was selected to provide the instrument unit, containing a computer and the electronic control systems which steered the vehicle and corrected its trajectory in flight.

While Marshall assembled its industrial partners, the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center) conducted the competition for spacecraft contractors. North American won the award to develop the Apollo command and service modules which would carry the astronauts from Earth to lunar orbit and back. Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. received the contract to fabricate the lunar landing spacecraft. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology provided the spacecraft guidance system. General Electric built the automated Acceptance Checkout Equipment to test the command, service, and lunar landing modules. In all, some 300,000 men and women, in hundreds of firms across the nation, shared in the total program.

Among the responsibilities of the Kennedy Space Center was the requirement to provide the launch site for the Saturn V. KSC's director, Dr. Debus, provided engineers with pencil sketches depicting innovative concepts. From these rough drawings emerged the structures which comprised the launch facility. The ground servicing facilities had to match perfectly with vehicles that, at this time, existed only on paper.

Space Center planners were guided by four fundamental considerations:

* Only those activities essential to checkout, mating, testing, erection, and launch of the Apollo-Saturn V would be conducted at the launch complex.

* All supporting activities, and those concerned with testing Apollo modules before mating, would be performed in an area separate from the launch complex.

* Access from the ocean would be provided so that the enormous stages of the Saturn could be transported by barge to the launch center from NASA testing sites in California, Mississippi and Alabama. This required construction of a lock at Port Canaveral connecting the Banana River and the Atlantic, and dredging of a channel in the river.

* One-third of the land and water area within the Space Center, primarily the north portion, would be reserved for future launch sites that might be needed by NASA or the Department of Defense.

The facilities had to be capable of meeting requirements for programs beyond Apollo--then not clearly defined--as well as those of the Apollo program. In addition, the size, complexity, and cost of Apollo-Saturn V vehicles and those of succeeding programs demanded radical changes in launch techniques.

Dating back to the first rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, those techniques had remained relatively unchanged. Rocket stages underwent inspection and checkout within hangars while horizontal. Then they were transported to the launch pads for final assembly, checkout and fueling. Since the environment of the checkout hangar differed from that of the pad, many of the test procedures had to be duplicated to prevent malfunctions. At each pad, which was a heavily reinforced concrete base, a service tower, or gantry was installed. This was equipped with one or more elevators and several work platforms. Engineers and technicians used the platforms for access to the vehicle during the prelaunch preparations. An umbilical mast, or tower, provided support for the lines that carried fuel and power into the rocket from ground sources.

Close to the pad was a concrete-and-steel shelter, or blockhouse, housing the control systems. It also protected the launch crews during hazardous tests and launches. Cape Canaveral blockhouses were only a few hundred feet from the launch pads. At the time of construction, greater separation was not feasible due to the state of the art in electronics technology: signal degradation between the rocket and control systems in the blockhouse left no alternative but to keep them in close proximity.

The assembly-at-the-pad concept of launch preparations tied up the total facility for long periods of time. Severe weather could halt work or even require disassembling and moving the vehicle back to the hangar for safekeeping.

Experience convinced Debus that a more efficient method had to be devised to cope with vehicles like the Apollo-Saturn V. His early sketches expressed a mobile concept. That is, the rocket would be assembled and checked out with the spacecraft in the protective environment of a building, then transferred to the launch site when almost ready for flight. This would prevent interruptions during checkout, mating and erection; provide greater assurance of test integrity; and materially increase the launch rate from the same pad. In an emergency such as a hurricane alert, the means of transporting the vehicle to the pad could also carry the vehicle back to the hangar, preserving all the vital connections, and return it to the firing site when the storm had passed.

This was the challenge for the engineers, to create facilities unlike any elsewhere in the world, for a program that had no historical precedent. The result was Launch Complex 39.

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