“…I’m home.” Returning to Kennedy Space Center


Arriving almost a year to the day from booking my flights to Florida, landing at Orlando’s McCoy to be exact, I knew I would be returning to John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), and boy did it feel like I was going home. My camera equipment was checked and packed, batteries were charged, memory cards formatted, and photography assignments organised. To some, I may admit to being a self-confessed geek, and nerd I guess (What’s the difference you may ask? Well; Geek: “May the Force be with you”, Nerd: “May the Force be equal to the mass multiplied by acceleration”), and I knew that returning to KSC again would once again cause varying heart-stirring emotions, an awe-inspiring appreciation, and a passion to feverishly re-work my CV in the hope to one day work for NASA. I knew that I would even have to factor in times in my day to simply sit, listen, absorb the atmosphere, take it all in, where I am, and people watch. But more often than not I knew that I would often find myself gazing upwards, to Florida’s blue sky and remind myself that it was into this very sky, right here, this wide blue yonder that star voyagers embark into.

Let me give you a tour; a rundown of the birthplace of American spaceflight if you will; stopping by the launch pads and the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building along the way (that visitors to KSC can do from the comfort of an air-conditioned coach). Visitors can access restricted areas of this working spaceflight facility where America launched to the moon and where NASA plans to launch astronauts into deep space. Learn where NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo partners such as SpaceX, Boeing and United Launch Alliance (ULA) operate on Florida’s Space Coast at this multi-user facility.

So, why Florida? Well, it wasn’t the first place from where rockets were launched in the United States. After World War II, when military rocket technology was in its infancy, rockets were launched from the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. But,the technology was, quite literally, outgrowing the test range. Florida looked increasingly desirable as it is relatively near to the equator compared to other U.S. locations, an East Coast location was even more desirable because any rockets leaving the Earth’s surface and travelling eastward would get a boost from the Earth’s spin (a West Coast location would firstly either send rockets over populated areas and secondly would have to contend with launching against the direction of the spin), so NASA wanted to launch over the ocean as not to endanger any populated areas, and they did what you can do when looking at a map, go to the East coast and go as far south as you can in the United States and you wind up in Florida. The US military was already launching rockets there since the 1950’s at Cape Canaveral, so they already had experienced personnel in the area, and they had tracking stations set up on islands and in the Atlantic. There was a large area of land sparsely inhabited and mostly swamp so it was cheap to acquire with the aim for it to be used as a buffer zone. The weather was another factor because it’s usually very mild there but, they had to be careful of lightning. Central Florida is the lightning capital of the United States and is tied for lightning capital in the World with a place in the Congo Basin in Africa, and Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela.


image credit: Biz360tours

As I leave the Visitor Center and head into the restricted access area’s of KSC, the first thing I see is a Mercury Redstone rocket standing outside of the NASA Badging Office, an exact replica of the rocket that sent the first American into space, Alan Shepard Jr,  on the 5th May 1961, (remember the size of this rocket when you see the Saturn V).

Looking on ground beneath the rocket and you’ll see that there’s a little red plate, that’s the flame deflector, compare that to the shuttle flame trench which is 450ft long, 58ft wide and 42ft deep. Another comparison is that the Shuttle launch control centre is 3.5miles from the Launchpad, where the Mercury Redstone rocket launch control centre was a blockhouse 300ft from the rocket.

Joined by the current Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director Bob Cabana, a 4 time space shuttle astronaut who was actually on the Space Shuttle mission that put the first two pieces of the International Space Station together. He introduces me to KSC:

“Hi I’m Bob Cabana, and it’s my pleasure to welcome you to Nasa’s John. F. Kennedy Space Center, from launching the first Americans into space to launching humans to the moon, we’ve launched carrying the dreams of a nation. None of it would have been possible without the tremendous team that made it happen here on the space coast. It has made possible the launch of every American made vehicle that carried a crew into space since that first flight 50 years ago. During this tour, you’ll get a unique behind the scenes look at how America wrote many significant chapters in human and robotic space history. Most recently the Space Shuttle program that launched 135 missions culminated in the assembly of the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, the station is truly an engineering marvel and a testament to what we can accomplish when we all work together. I think one of the most enduring legacies will be the international corporation we have achieved in building and operating it. It has provided us the framework for how we will move forward as we explore beyond our home planet, not as explorers from any one country, but as explorers from planet earth. You’re visiting the center at a very exciting time, since the end of the space shuttle program, we’ve been working in ground breaking missions that are paving the way to the future. We’re focused on launching scientific and research satellites, restoring the US capability to launch humans into space from American soil. Forging commercial partnerships and modernising our infrastructure facilities to support the growing variety of government and commercial activities in the working in long-term human exploration missions on our journey to Mars. For the first time since the end of the Apollo program, which took us to the moon, NASA is taking steps in sending astronauts into deep space, in the new Orion exploration vehicle. We have the first space craft in history able to transport crews to destinations further than we’ve ever gone before, including Mars. As capable as Apollo was, the longest round trip mission to the moon was only 12 days, Orion can sustain a crew of 4 for up to 21 days, and when coupled with a habitability module, will allow us to undertake human missions to mars, which will require close to a 2 year round trip. The vehicle that will carry Orion is the Space Launch System, or SLS. The SLS will be the most powerful rocket in history, but more important, it’s designed to be flexible, evolvable, in order to meet a wide variety of crew and cargo missions. As I said you’re in for a very special experience today, enjoy yourself as you get a unique look at NASA and the Kennedy space center’s past and historic achievements and exciting peek at our current innovative activities in an eye-opening view in our amazing future. Again, welcome to the JFK Space Center.”

NASA started to build KSC in the 1960’s when John. F. Kennedy announced to the world that the United States was going to the moon. When NASA realised they needed to build the giant Saturn V moon rocket and that it would hold so much fuel they needed a 3miles safety zone and the real estate just wasn’t there in Cape Canaveral at the Air Force Station, they came to Merritt Island and started to build KSC. Since December 1968, every manned mission has left from Launchpad 39A and 39B.

Just ahead of us is one the World’s largest buildings by volume, the Vehicle Assembly Building or VAB. It was built for the Apollo program in the 1960s and stands 525ft or 160metres high, the American flag that can be seen on the front is 21 storeys tall, you could take a bus and drive it down one of those stripes. Each of the stars on the flag is 6 feet (1.83 m) across, the blue field is the size of a NBA regulation basketball court, and each of the stripes is 9 feet (2.74 m) wide. It is the World’s tallest single storey building and it’s the 6th largest by volume, if you had 3 and a half Empire State buildings and you could take them all apart you could fit them all inside there. The VAB is where everything comes together before a launch, and where the Apollo and Space Shuttle vehicles were assembled for flight.


image credit: NASA

This cavernous facility contains 4 huge bays where the space crafts were assembled using massive overhead winch cranes for highly complex manoeuvres, today the VAB is being updated to assemble NASA’s next human launch vehicle, the Space Launch System or SLS. The SLS will be the most powerful rocket in history, and will have an evolvable design that ranges from 321ft to 384ft tall depending on mission requirements. This rocket will someday help NASA reach its goal of human exploration of Mars.


image credit: NASA

The large tower next to the VAB is the mobile launcher being built for SLS, when completed, it will carry the massive launch vehicle on top of the mobile transporter to Pad 39B, not only does it provides power, communication and fuel, it’s how the astronauts will get up to the Orion capsule. And yes there is an elevator.


Adjacent to the VAB is the Launch Control Center, the distinctively shaped four storey small white building with dark windows that houses the launch team. This is where the ground controllers, engineers, and Launch Director monitor the spacecraft and manage all the activities leading up to launch. It is the electronic brains of launch complex 39, 3.5miles from pad 39A and 4.2miles from 39B. Though computers do most of the work during the launch there are 200 engineers and technicians in there at the time of the launch, and they have control just until it clears the tower (usually around 8 seconds) before handing total control over to Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston.

Kennedy Space Center NASA Vehicle Assembly Building

image credit: FamilyVacationHub

The four grey doors on the VAB are the World’s tallest doors at 460ft tall. They take 45mins to open, but when they’re open you can take the Statue of Liberty, torch, and platform included, fit her inside the door frame and still have 150ft left over. When the Saturn V came out it would just clear the door frame by only 6feet.

On display outside the VAB is an armoured personnel vehicle, an M113, which was used as an emergency abort system for the Shuttle astronauts. Next to that, resembling what looks like an Apollo launch escape system tower on a trailer, is exactly that. It is an emergency abort system that is an exact model of the abort system for the Orion capsule. If there was a problem during launch, it would be used to quickly separate the capsule from its launch vehicle rocket in case of a launch abort emergency, such as an impending explosion, and would lift the Orion off the rocket, and take it a mile away and parachute to safety. The metal gantry beside it, is an orbiter access arm taken from Launchpad 39A, and is what the astronauts used to walk across the get to the shuttle throughout the program.


image credit: CollectSpace


image credit: ThemeGo

Opposite on the opposing side of the road to the VAB, the M113, launch escape system and 39A metal gantry, is the press launch viewing area. Press come from all over the world to cover the launches of the rockets and Shuttles, some of them even have permanent facilities there. Adjacent to the press area NASA recently replaced the countdown clock from the 1960s, that is now situated by the entrance to KSC.


image credit: CollectSpace

Between the press area and launchpad 39A & B, there is a body of water known as the ‘turning basin, and it is exactly that; It is a turning base for a barge called the ‘Pegasus’ that is used to bring up the large orange external fuel tanks (from the Shuttle era) from Louisiana, and right now the Pegasus is in Louisiana being updated for the new SLS rocket, where they’re adding 50ft to it.


image credit: Wikimedia commons

I’m now approaching Launchpad 39A, which was constructed for the Apollo program and it is from where all 12 moonwalkers began their historic journeys. Following the end of the Apollo program pad 39A was the site that launched Skylab, the first US Space Station to orbit the Earth on the 14th of May 1973. Skylab provided America’s initial experience of long duration space flight, during 1973 and 1974 three Skylab crews were launched on missions of 28, 59 and 84 days, the first Space Shuttle was launched from here on the 12th April 1981. Over a period of 30 years there were a total of 135 shuttle missions where 82 lifted off from this very Launchpad. The reusable Space Shuttle System transformed the way humans operate in space, the Space Shuttle launched dozens of communication satellites as well as robotic spacecraft on groundbreaking missions to Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. Not only did the Shuttle deploy the Hubble Telescope in 1990, but it conducted 5 repair and upgrade missions that enabled the Hubble to rewrite astronomy textbooks. The Space Shuttle program ultimately assured its place in history with the complex orbit assembly of the International Space Station, the ISS. The Shuttle made 37 flights to construct the Station which is larger than an American football field and can be seen at night orbiting Earth with the naked eye. This unique scientific platform allows researchers from all over the world to work on innovative experiments and help to enable NASA’s long-term human exploration plans.


image credit: theEnchantedManor

Over on my left I have the crawlerway, this is the route that the massive crawler transporter used to bring NASA’s rockets and shuttles to the Launchpad. It has two 40 feet (12 m) wide lanes, and NASA dug down seven feet and put in various layers of fill enough to support 26,000,000lbs and then put river rock on top 4inches thick on the straight sections and 8inches thick on curves.  NASA used river rock because it’s round and smooth and it acts like a ball bearing to cushion the ride for the crawler, and it does not spark. But every time the crawler goes by it pulverises the rock so it has to be re-graded after every trip. Now, that’s ‘Tennessee’ river rock; where do you think they get it? Alabama.


image credit: NASA


image credit: ThemeGo

Soon I come to one of NASA’s crawler transporters, NASA have two of them, but this one sitting on the crawlerway is in two parts, there is a mobile launch platform remaining from the Shuttle era on top of the crawler transporter. Both built-in the 1960s, by the Marion Power Shovel Company, in Marion, Ohio. They were shipped in segments and assembled on site. They are the worlds largest self-powered tracked vehicle weighing 6,000,000lbs and can carry up to 3 times that weight. Each track on the crawler has 67 cleats, each one of those cleats weighs 1ton and the surface plate on the roof could fit an entire baseball infield. With twin operation cans on each side of the crawler, the crawler only has two gears, neutral and forward. So when operators want to go in the other direction they have to climb out of the cab and go to the other side of the crawler. They have diesel-powered the generators running the electric motors on the track and going to the Launchpad loaded they go 1mph, coming back empty they race back at 2mph. They go 32ft per gallon, that is 150 gallons of diesel fuel per mile. When it goes to the Launchpad loaded there’s a team of six people who walk around the crawler transport, and the two people who walk out alone in front, their job is, turtle patrol. Any turtles that are on the crawlerway they pick them up and move them. Of course if the turtles are going in the same direction as the crawler then they don’t have to worry, the turtle will beat the crawler. Fast approaching, before Launchpad 39A is the launch viewing gantry for Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launchpads 41, 40 and 37, you can’t get any closer than that during a launch. This is also a staging area; the crawler transport would take the Shuttle out to the launch pad, come back this far, a safe enough distance from the launchpad, but close enough that if there was a mechanical issue or hurricane approaching they could go back and bring her ‘back to the barn’. The two points on top that look affectionately like rabbit ears are called the tail service masts and they hooked up all the umbilicals to the Shuttle; communications, electricals and fuel. In addition to the tail service masts are six spouts called the ‘rain birds’, the water that comes out of the water tower adjacent to launchpad 39A comes out of those six rain birds. That water tower can hold 300,000 gallons of water in the pipe is another 100,000 gallons. That water is dumped on the Launchpad all at once for the first 35seconds during a launch, it’s use is not to control the heat it was to deaden to sound as NASA didn’t want the soundwaves bouncing back and damaging the Shuttle. So that big white mass of clouded smoke you see during a launch, is mostly steam.

Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, Launchpad 39A has begun yet another transformation; Commercial developer SpaceX is modifying the pad to launch a larger version of their Falcon 9 rocket, called the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX is also building a crew capsule capable of carrying astronauts and will launch crews to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s commercial crew program. Another commercial provider to support NASA’s crew transportation is Boeing, they named their capsule the CST100. Like SpaceX, Boeing’s capsule will begin flying to the ISS later this decade, they will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a modified Atlas 5 rocket. With private industry stepping up to support low earth orbit missions to the ISS, NASA can focus more heavily on deep space exploration.


image credit: amsat.org

There we have launchpad 39A, and it’s still set up for the Shuttle (at the time of writing), and it looks exactly as it did on the day after Atlantis left for its last mission on the 8th July 2011. NASA has leased Launchpad 39A to SpaceX for 20 years, and have already constructed their hangar where they are going to assemble their new Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX are assembling it horizontally and have chosen not to use NASA’s crawler transporter, and have instead built a rail system to get their Falcon 9 to the pad, where they have also built a giant erector to manoeuvre it vertical for launch. In the next few Months SpaceX will be launching satellites from this Launchpad. By 2017 they will be sending astronauts to the ISS for NASA. The tallest part of the launchpad is the white lightning mast, which is solely about 80ft in height, which is about the same size as that Mercury Redstone rocket earlier. Underneath that white lightning mast is what they call the Fixed Service Structure, which is the actual top two-thirds service structure remaining from the Apollo program. At that point it would be sitting on top of the mobile launch platform, with the supporting structure, and the rocket, and they all go down the crawlerway together.

Sitting to the side of the Fixed Service Structure is the Rotating Service Structure, which would rotate around the Shuttle to protect it and allow operators to work on it while it was on the pad, inside the centre of the rotating structure, is a white rectangular area known as the payload change-out area, sometimes NASA would bring the payload out to the launchpad and into a containment area called ‘The Canister’ and operators could load it up into the payload change out room and load it into the shuttle. That’s also the room where NASA would put the live specimens right before a launch. SpaceX will be taking down that rotating service structure as they have no use for it, but they are keeping the Fixed Service Structure because there is an elevator in there. The flame trench is 450ft long, 42ft deep, compared to the Mercury Redstone’s ‘red disc’ from earlier on the tour. It is at this point I am asked if I had noticed that all the fences are curved out towards us as stop, that is because NASA have a video of an alligator climbing the fence.


image credit: spaceflight insider

From launchpad 39A, three active launchpads on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station can be seen running South down the coast. The first consists of four lightning masts and is Launchpad 41, that is where United Lauch Alliance launches their AtlasV, the next set of four lightening masts is Launchpad 40, and that is where SpaceX is launching their Falcon 9 from right now, and then the building a little further away with the two lightning masts is Launchpad 37, that is where United Launch Alliance launches their Delta 4. The tower in the middle of those four lightning masts on Launchpad 41, that is the new astronaut access tower, it’s just been completed for when Boeing sends its Starliner to the International space station for NASA (it was the CST100 but they recently changed the name to Starliner).


image credit: pcdphotography

Further into the Cape are three more lightning masts, and is Launchpad 39B. Which is where NASA’s deep space exploration begins. It used to look exactly like launchpad 39A but now NASA have updated a lot of it because they are getting ready for the new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The target date is 2018 for the new SLS rocket, with the Orion capsule on top but that will be unmanned. The manned mission will be around 2023 when NASA plan to send astronauts around the moon. In 2025 NASA plan to capture an asteroid and put it in lunar orbit to study it, but the big goal is 2030; sending astronauts to Mars.


Leaving launchpad 39A and returning to the VAB and travelling past it I’m introduced to 3 buildings with a grey stripe on them; those are the Orbiter Processing Centers NASA used once the shuttle had landed. NASA would tow the orbiter in and get them ready for their next respective missions. NASA would unload cargo, remove the fuel, inspect and replace heat tiles, and recalibrate the instruments, during what was a four-month turnover. But as all the Shuttles are now in museums (Atlantis is here at KSC), these 3 buildings have other uses; Boeing has their name on two of them (where they’re building the Starliner) and will probably add their name to the third very soon.


Next we’re taken to the Shuttle landing facility, a runway three miles long, and 300ft across, that you could land a small plane on it sideways. NASA used 16inches of cement and it is the world’s longest runway. Right now it’s leased to the commercial space industry for their experimental space crafts and aircrafts. Starfighter is over there with their supersonic jet now.


image credit: NASA

As we approach the SaturnV center we are informed there is a SaturnV inside, on its side. It is 360ft long where visitors are able to walk under it, and around it. Although a total of 13 Saturn V rockets were launched between 1967 and 1972, this is one of only three remaining in the U.S (One is located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas whilst the other is on display at the United States Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville near the Marshall Space Flight Center). It’s an absolute must-see for visitors. Another highlight within the Center is a collection of spacesuits, Alan Shepard’s lunar suit is there with moondust still on the boots. You may remember Alan Shepard was the first American in space in the Mercury Redstone rocket, well he was also Commander of Apollo 14, and his Capsule ‘Kitty Hawk’ is also in there adjacent to his suit. Also, he the only astronaut to play golf on the moon. There are two theatres inside where visitors can relive part of the Apollo program; One simulates the environment of an Apollo era firing room during the launch of Apollo 8, the other recreates the Apollo 11 landing.


image credit: pcdphotography

To bring this rather lengthly blog post to a close I can only paraphrase a quote by Neil deGrasse Tyson, ever so slightly, Ok I’ll ‘borrow’ it and change a few words here and there to try to communicate my point about how I feel when I am at John F. Kennedy Space Center. Think of combining Christmas morning, Walt Disney World and your Birthday all into one and you may well be halfway there:

“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. I am proud to be part of a species where a subset of it’s members willingly put their lives at risk to push the boundaries of our existence.” 

In other words; Some people make it happen, some people watch it happen, and some people wonder what the Hell just happened. NASA made it happen. Now stop what you are doing, and come and see how they did it.

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