- A History of the Kennedy Space Center
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has long had what is probably the most effective contract history program in the federal government, producing excellent first drafts of scholarship on various subjects that provide a solid foundation for those who follow. NASA has long given its contract historians access to documents and to its own officials, and virtually unlimited independence in the pursuit of the story. This book by Kenneth Lipartito and Orville Butler is a very good addition to this canon, telling of the development of the launch facility at Cape Canaveral, which has not only been vital to the nation’s space program, but has also had a major impact on the economy and social development of the state of Florida.
Cape Canaveral was originally selected as a missile launch site by the air force for geographic reasons: a long stretch of empty ocean over which unmanned [End Page 813] missiles and rockets could fly, and fall. Because many rockets have to launch eastward in order to go around Earth, it was a natural site for launching NASA rockets into space. And the site could also be easily reached by water, so large rocket stages could be shipped there.
NASA was assembled in 1958 out of pieces of several organizations, most importantly the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which had several field centers, including property in Virginia that had been used for missile launches. But it was clear that Cape Canaveral was the best choice for launching the agency’s rockets. The cape was already bustling with work on the American ballistic missile program, and NASA started by utilizing army and air force property and equipment.
But the Apollo program significantly changed this dynamic. NASA acquired substantial amounts of property and began extensive construction in the swamps on Merritt Island. Soon the agency was building one of the largest enclosed structures there to house the mighty Saturn V rocket, the Vehicle Assembly Building. Workers faced a horrific mosquito problem, and they also had to contend with alligators and poisonous snakes, not to mention wild boars. After President Kennedy’s assassination the area was renamed Cape Kennedy, but eventually the name was changed back to Cape Canaveral, with NASA’s facility named the Kennedy Space Center, or KSC for short. The major input of cash and a skilled workforce to a relatively sleepy southern state had a lasting political impact, and one of Florida’s two senators even flew on a space shuttle when he was a congressman and NASA was pandering to any government official who could provide funding.
Lipartito and Butler provide an excellent and comprehensive narrative account of NASA’s development of the area. Their opening chapter explains the myriad tasks involved in the preparation of the Saturn V rocket and Apollo spacecraft that carried Apollo 11 to the Moon, illustrating just what happens at a launch site like KSC. They also make the point that once the rocket lifts off, except for analyzing lessons learned from its preparation, the center’s job is done and everyone turns their full attention to the next launch. Kennedy is an example of technical “operations,” rather than science or research and development.
The authors then recount the initial history of the area, air force and NASA occupancy of reclaimed swampland and former orange groves, and the substantial investments for Apollo. They also discuss the impact of all that construction and technical work on the local region, formerly comprised of sleepy fishing and farming communities. They cover the downturn in work—and the local economy—as the result of the end of the Apollo program, and then changes implemented for the space shuttle program, which required some new construction but largely relied on the existing Apollo infrastructure. Shuttle operations and the two tragic accidents, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, are examined. In both cases, NASA’s safety culture was identified as a culprit. However, although [End Page 814] the vehicles are maintained...