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NASA History Lesson - Launching from Kennedy Space Center - Past, Present and Future
Before the webcast space enthusiasts from all over the world submitted questions for our historian, Dr. Roger Launius. The questions were answered during the show. In case you missed the webcast, or would like to review each of the questions and answers, we have provided the NASA History Lesson Q&A in its entirety below.

Lisa from Ridley Park, PA
Several years ago I came across an article about the crawler-transporter commemorating its' National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. Can you give me more information about this magazine and status?
The crawler, as well as the VAB and Launch Complex 39 have all been declared National Historic Landmarks, which is a program through the National Park Service. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the ASME, as it's called, also designates engineering landmarks around the country, as a nonfederal activity. The crawler, the VAB, and Pads 39 A and B have all be designated in that way as well.
John from Reston, VA
Are the Shuttles still using original IBM Onboard Data Processing Systems? If not, could you briefly describe the current systems in use?
The Data Processing Systems that are on there are no longer the original ones; they've been swapped out, and been made more capable over time. They're still a little behind what you would normally have at your desk in terms of the computer systems, but they have to interface well with all the other equipment that is available on the shuttle. So, we have updated them, but they're not quite like the Mac you may have on your desk.
John L. from Santa Barbara
What number Saturn Moon Rocket put the unmanned Skylab into orbit, which weighed 84 tons?
I had to go look that one up because I didn't know it off the top of my head: AF513 is the number for that particular launcher.
Theodora from Hong Kong
When was the last year that human beings landed on the moon?
1972. December, to be exact. Gene Cernan was the mission commander for Apollo 17.
Rich from Mesa
How have the public viewing area locations changed from the first launches to the present, and why?
When they first started launching out here, it was very informal. People went out to the beach, basically, to watch these when they thought they were going to take place or they were scheduled to. They would show up on the beach to take a look at what was happening. It was very informal, you could get as close as the guard would allow you to do so, which was still a few miles away, but nonetheless, quite informal. Since that time, beginning of the 1960s, they began to redevelop facilities that would handle people who were going to come visit this, and there were bleachers available and that's still about as sophisticated as it is today.
Vicky from Lindwood
Will we ever consider launching another Saturn V?
I don't think so. The Saturn V production line was ended in 1970. The blueprint, the plans for them are housed in the national archive, so we could actually go find them and pull them out, build another one if we wished to do so, but it would take a fair amount of time to build the tools that were necessary to construct a Saturn V, and there's just no reason to do it. Plus, the technology is really very old. They had vacuum tubes in them; we would never build a vehicle like that today. If we wanted to have that kind of heavy lift capacity that the Saturn V gave us, we would build a new vehicle using modern technology.
Michael from Birmingham, UK
How was the method of spacecraft transportation from the VAB to the launch pads chosen? Why was a rail based system (instead of a crawler) not chosen instead?
The reality is, they looked at every option you could think of. They talked about maybe trying to float it there on the water, they talked about whether or not it should be horizontal instead of vertical, in terms of movement. Ultimately, rails were seriously considered, but they just wouldn't work. They wouldn't hold the weight of the Saturn V stack, and they officially went to this crushed rock base with this big crawler with huge footprint treads that would take the thing from the VAB out to the pad.
Brad from Waterloo, IA
Will we ever return to the moon, or is all work done there and instead we are going to Mars?
There's a huge debate about this going on right now. We affectionately like to call the two groups on either 'going to the moon' or 'going to Mars' as the Lunatics or the Martians. Those who suggest we should go back to the moon, say, and appropriately so, I think, that there's a lot really significant thing we've still to do there. There's a lot of science to be done, it's relatively close, in the overall scheme of the cosmos. We can come and go within three days, back and forth to the Moon. It provides a really good test bed for technology that we'll need for really deep space missions. It's a really good platform for an astronomical observatory. There's a lot of really good reasons to put some sort of colony or research station on the Moon. The Martians, the people who want to go to Mars, they're basically 'been there, done that', in terms of going back to the Moon. 'Let's go out to Mars, where we think that there's some really exciting things.' The possibility of past life is an open question. In 1996, there was the discovery of the Mars meteorite which they suggested 'Maybe there's some remnants of fossilized life in this', so perhaps there's something on Mars which is very exciting. Not that there's necessarily anything that's alive there today, but perhaps in the past, it harbored life. More recently, the Mars Global Surveyor has suggested that there is water or ice on Mars and that makes it even more intriguing. So, the debate continues, and you can line up on either side. The reality is, we need to go to both places. How soon we do that will be a subject of public debate, as it should. And whether we go to one versus the other first is something that's going to have to be determined.
Damian from Melbourne
How long did it take to process a vehicle for launch during the Mercury and Gemini programs? Did processing time increase during the Apollo and Shuttle eras, and if so, how much and why?
No, the time actually has not increased, it's actually gone down. You can do a Shuttle faster than we could do any of those earlier missions. Typically, it was 6 to 9 months to prepare a Mercury, Gemini and Apollo for flight; a minimum of 6 months, but often longer than that. The Shuttle program, you've got more than 100 launches that have taken place from the Cape, so the folks who are working that program have a pretty good idea and understanding of what is required to get an Orbiter and a stack ready to go, and they can do it as quickly as two months.
Brian from Ames
How many astronauts have been lost in the space program?
Everyone is aware of the tragic accidents, a total of 10 astronauts that have been killed during activities in space vehicles. The first, of course, was the January 1967 loss of the Apollo 1 crew: Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffey and Ed White. That was a ground test, they weren't flying at that particular time, but it was a tragic accident. The three of them lost their lives. The Apollo program, they were in the midst of trying to make that happen at the time, and the Apollo program essentially had to go into hiatus for about 18 months as they revamped the spacecraft, reconfigured it and made it safer and pressed on. Everybody's also familiar with the Challenger accident in January of 1986 in which seven astronauts lost their lives. A similar sort of stand down had to take place following that as the whole Shuttle program went into a reconfiguration mode. They redid most of the features of the spacecraft, they reconfigured the O-ring, which was the specific problem with that accident. In addition to that, there have been astronauts who have been killed in other ways, some of them on active duty, but not in space vehicles. Nine individuals have died in plane crashes. Some of them at one time were traveling from one place to another for NASA, and the best example of that is the lost of Charlie Bassett and Elliot See in 1966 when they were flying a T-38 and crashed in bad weather in St. Louis. Other have died in various other plane crashes; one of our astronauts was killed in an automobile accident, and that was not official business but he had died tragically.
Andrew from Orlando
How do you get rid of your garbage when you're in space?
Generally speaking, you don't get rid of the garbage in space. In fact, it's a real problem. There's a whole bunch of people around the world who are concerned with what we call 'orbital debris', and it's stuff that's up there: all the dead satellites that have fulfilled their life expectancy and are just drifting. Some of it's stuff that got tossed overboard at some point. Consequently, we pack up the garbage, leave it in the Orbiter, bring it home, and it's disposed of here. There are a few instances where we do throw things out. There's a great example, of which there was much debate at the time, during one of the Hubble servicing missions. They replaced the solar array; those are really big things that they couldn't really fold up and bring home, so they essentially tossed them overboard. But there had to be a debate about that, and the discussion of whether or not this would really be a significant threat to any other space vehicle; that was one of the concerns. Or, when it reenters the atmosphere, whether it poses any kind of threat to life on the planet. So, occasionally it does happen, but not very often.
Michael from Birmingham, UK
Thinking of the future and the procurement methods for new launch systems, the funding of such systems, and the US government commitment to space exploration, how does NASA see the future, in say 10-25 years time, of the status of the current launch facilities of KSC. Who will run them, how will they be funded, and indeed will KSC remain in existence as the premier launch facility in the US?
I think KSC's going to continue to be the premier launch facility, I don't think there's much debate about that at this point in time. There's a huge and important infrastructure here, there's a capability that exists here that would be very difficult to duplicate anyplace else. There are complexes that would be astronomical in cost to duplicate anyplace else, so I don't think it's moving anywhere anytime soon. In terms of the actual activity that takes place here, those may well change. In fact, I suspect they probably will. We're going to continue to launch Shuttles here, they're going to be government launches for the foreseeable future. It's possible in 10 or 15 years there may be a Shuttle replacement online, but not much before that time. There's been a rise in commercial activity at KSC in the past few years; that's only going to increase in the future, and those launches will be managed by corporate structures that want to launch communication satellites, or GPS systems, or whatever it happens to be. Management of the KSC range is probably going to be a government activity for a long, long time, the same way that the airways is a government managed activity and has been since we started flying airplanes. But there probably will be more commercial activity, and more commercial launches.
Ustun from Ankara, Turkey
What is the current tally of ALL spacegoing people (astronauts + cosmonauts)?
A grand total of 382 men and 38 have flown, as of today.
Winston from Nashville, TN
When was the first space Shuttle launched and who were the astronauts on the first flight?
The first Shuttle, Columbia, was launched on the 12th of April in 1981. As a result of that, the Shuttle program has just celebrated its 20th anniversary of flying. The two astronauts aboard were John Young; John was the mission commander. He had been a veteran of numerous flights, going back to the Gemini program, and was one of the men who had walked on the Moon, commander of Apollo 16. The other person; there was only two astronauts aboard that first flight, was Robert Crippen. He was a rookie at the time of that flight, he hadn't flown in space before, had transferred over to NASA from the Department of Defense in the late 1960s, after the termination of a military space station program that they had underway over there called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, and he became a part of NASA, flew in that first mission, and then, of course, went on to command other Shuttle flights, later in the decade.
Bennett from Bules Creek, NC
The first ten years of NASA's existence produced results that, if they were to happen again, would be amazing and inspiring. Where would we be today if we had maintained that pace?
We don't know, obviously, what really would have happened because it didn't, but one might project a number of possibilities. One of the things that might have continued is we might have flown some more Apollo missions and landed on the Moon. Had we done that, we might have been farther toward developing some sort of research station than we are today. We wanted very definitely to build some sort of station at the time and to build a reusable transport that would go back and forth between Earth orbit and the space station; that became the Shuttle. We might have built that and the station on a more aggressive schedule and had that up somewhere in the neighborhood of 1980. That was the plan that NASA had in 1969, 1970, which we were not able to accomplish. We don't really know, but perhaps we would have some sort of research station on the Moon by now. It's perhaps possible, but I think unlikely, that we would have gone to Mars with humans by this particular time, at the end of the 20th century. Instead, we would be sending robots, as we are, and learning more about that planet for an eventual human trip.
Staci from Chattanooga
What happens to the spacecraft remains from the few accidents that have occurred in the U.S. space exploration history?
There are two spacecraft that NASA has control of. The first one is the Apollo 1 spacecraft, in which the three astronauts were killed in 1967. That spacecraft was essentially taken apart and looked at in great detail by the accident investigation board, and then it was placed in storage, where it still is kept today, at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. It's kept in a controlled environment there, and it'll remain there indefinitely. The Challenger, which exploded on launch, was recovered, the pieces of it, from the ocean. They were also looked at and investigated thoroughly by the people who were conducting the accident investigation. At the conclusion of that, they were placed in storage here at KSC, in an abandon missile silo, where there's a controlled environment and they can be maintained indefinitely. There is also one capsule that is not under NASA control, in which, I guess one could say was an accident, and that was the Liberty Bell 7. Gus Grissom, the second flight of Mercury, that capsule was lost at sea. We don't exactly know what happened; the hatch blew prematurely, water became to come into the capsule and it sank. It was lost for more than 30 years, and in the late 1990s it was recovered. It has been stabilized, not really restored, but certainly stabilized, so it will not continue to deteriorate, and it has been in a variety of places on display around the country and you can see it. For a while it was at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas, and presently I believe it is in Alabama.
Michael from Merritt Island
What criteria were used for making the selection of the spaceport that is now KSC, and what other locations were considered?
There were lots of locations considered. One of the things that you typically do when you're looking to base something somewhere is you gather a team together to look at all possibilities, and that's what happened in the late 1940s. They looked around for locations in the United States that might be appropriate for launching rockets, especially into orbit. It was a military team, made up of some Army folks and some Air Force folks, and there were a few Navy people there as well. The NACA, which was NASA's predecessor; NACA stands for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, was also involved in that process. They looked for sites that were under the control of the federal government, so it was government property, government land. White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico was one of the sites looked at. They looked at the southern part of California where Vandenberg Air Force Base is located, and there is a military launch capability there today. They looked at places in Virginia that were on the east coast, they also explored places that were along the outer banks of North Carolina as possible launch sites, but Florida was very early on hit upon as the key place and there are a number of reasons. One of the most important was that it was on the east coast. You needed to be able to launch so that the trajectory would take the rocket away from a population. If you did that some place in the middle of the country, or on the west coast, and you were launching to the east, you tend to fly over places that are inhabited, and you don't want to do that, in case there's some accident that might take place. So, Florida was logical in that context. It was also the farthest south that they could go, and the closer to the Equator that you are, the greater bump you have from the movement of the Earth, in terms of generating energy to get you into orbit. You want to launch to the East, away from the direction that the Earth is turning, and that's how they hit upon Florida.
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center