It all began more than 50 years ago, when NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) found its way to North Merritt Island to meet the 20th century’s Cold War challenge of conquering space. It was 962, three short months after President Kennedy announced American astronauts would be first on the moon. The $800 million project included the Launch 39 complex featuring a hangar large enough to assemble rockets, big rockets, Saturn Moon rockets along with launch gantries 45 stories high, tracked crawler ways, and launch pads. The construction project took four years to complete.
Apollo 1, the first manned mission to the moon, ended disastrously. Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed by an accidental fire during the practice countdown. The launch team was traumatized. Flights were suspended for months, and investigations resulted in numerous changes in procedure at the space station. The first launch at the John F. Kennedy Space Center (named on November 29, 1963 only seven days after Kennedy’s assassination) was November 9, 1967 when an unmanned Saturn V test flight blasted off. The first manned Apollo flight blasted off nearly a year later with NASA astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walt Cunningham on board Apollo 7. Apollo 8 took flight two months later when astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders became the first men to see the entire earth and the dark side of the moon.
In 1969, Apollo 11 lifted off with NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins headed to the moon. On July 20, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the spacecraft onto the lunar surface and into history. Three years later in 1972, the final Apollo Mission launched and remains the last human travel outside Earth orbit.
In 1973, the United States launched Skylab, the first space station into orbit where it stayed until the summer of 1979. In July 1975, American astronauts Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand, and Deke Slayton aboard an Apollo Command Module docked with Soviet cosmonauts Alexey Leonov and Valeri Kubasov aboard Soviet Soyuz 19 in an event symbolizing détente and the end of the space race which began in 1957 with the Soviet Sputnik’s successful launch.
At its peak in 1968, the Kennedy Space Center employed more than 26,000 individuals. In 1970, the number was down to 15,000, and by the historic flight of 1975, the work force numbered only 8,000.
The space shuttle program launched in 1981 with astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen aboard the reusable Columbia shuttle which would enter Earth orbit like a rocket and return to Earth like an airplane. Unlike previous programs, the shuttle had never been launched unmanned. The subsequent shuttle missions fascinated, astronauts with jetpacks retrieving satellites, deploying top-secret spacecraft and more. And then in 1986, tragedy struck, as Challenger exploded after just over a minute in flight. Commander Francis “Dick” Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, mission specialists Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, and Judith Resnik, along with payload specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe (the first teacher-in-space) were lost. The space shuttle program was halted for 32 long and agonizing months.
Finally, in 1988, Discovery, with five astronauts aboard, launched successfully. In the years that followed, a plethora of missions including science, exploration, military expeditions including multiple missions on board Mir, the Russian Space Station. In 2003, tragedy struck again, as Columbia disintegrated on reentry. Mission commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, payload commander Michael Anderson, along with mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Clark, and payload specialist Ilan Ramon (the first Israeli in space) were lost and the shuttle program was once again grounded. In 2005, Discovery lifted off with her crew of seven, copycatting the Columbia accident, a huge piece broke away. This time the shuttle returned safely, but the program was grounded once more.
The International Space Station was begun in 1998, and during the shuttle downtime, NASA returned to the task of completing the project. The last module was fitted in 2011. The ISS at nearly a million pounds and larger than a football field, is considered a marvel of engineering. In the same year of the ISS completion, NASA’s final shuttle mission, the 135th, was completed successfully.
The shuttle program saw the Kennedy Space Center work force increase to a peak of nearly 17,000. Today the Center employs 8,000 and is looking forward to a bright and productive future.