Kennedy Space Center Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The primary launch facility for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


After World War II, the United States began serious development of long-range missiles. Work to extend the range of missiles quickly encountered a major public safety issue. Missiles fired from existing test sites would have to fly over populated areas. Early missiles were inherently unsafe and unreliable, so civilian overflight was deemed unacceptable. A coastal or island launch facility was considered ideal, since flights over unpopulated ocean would result in minimal civilian risk. Many sites were considered. Soon, however, the Cape Canaveral area of Florida became the choice for most of the large missile tests. Cape Canaveral prominently juts out from Florida’s eastern coastline. This provides a large margin for safety if a missile were suddenly to go off course. Furthermore, the area around the cape was marshy and had a low civilian population density. Despite its relative isolation, major roads, rail lines, and port facilities were nearby, so logistics were less of a difficulty at the Cape Canaveral site than many others suggested.

Limited tests were conducted in the Cape Canaveral area as early as 1947, but full-scale missile tests began in earnest in July, 1950. Missiles and rockets have been fired from Cape Canaveral ever since. The Cape Canaveral site began in 1940 as the Banana River Naval Air Station. The site was transferred to the Air Force in 1950 and renamed the Patrick Air Force Base. The launch facilities were designated the Atlantic Missile Range and the Missile Firing Laboratory. The launch facilities are now part of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, associated with the Patrick Air Force Base, under the jurisdiction of the Forty-fifth Space Wing.

Most early missiles, and nearly all intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), were tested at the Cape Canaveral launch facilities. Working under the principle promoted by Wernher von Braun, the chief missile designer in the United States, each launch facility was built for a different type of missile. Fueling equipment, servicing equipment, and a service tower, called a gantry, were all built specifically for each rocket. Furthermore, control systems for each rocket were housed near the launch pad in a reinforced concrete bunker called a blockhouse. Missiles and rockets were generally assembled at the launch site, so each launch complex required vehicle assembly equipment. Each launch complex received a numerical designation, based on the order of its construction.

When the United States made the decision to send humans into space, it made sense to use the facilities at Cape Canaveral to launch the rockets carrying the astronauts. Launch Complexes 5 and 6 served as the launch sites for the first U.S. crewed spacecraft, the Mercury/Redstone flights. With the decision to go forward with the Apollo Program, Launch Complexes 34 and 37 were constructed to test the Saturn I rockets.

Launch Operations Center Establishment

Two key factors played a role in the creation of a separate launch facility for the crewed spaceflight program. One of these factors was a Department of Defense study in April, 1960, in which the Atlantic Missile Range was described as being nearly saturated with launch facilities. Additional facilities could not be built on site without the safety hazard of overflying other launch facilities. A second factor was the directive associated with the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, in which a separate civilian space organization, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was created and dedicated to the peaceful exploration of space. While NASA continued to use Department of Defense facilities at Cape Canaveral for the Gemini missions and early Apollo tests using the Saturn I rocket, various government officials felt strongly that NASA should have its own launch facilities.

In selecting a launch site for the rockets used for the Apollo Program, NASA was faced with several considerations. The farther south the launch site was located, the easier it would be to launch a spacecraft into an equatorial orbit around Earth. Furthermore, a launch site from which spacecraft could be launched in an easterly direction would enable the rocket to use Earth’s eastward rotation to assist in achieving the necessary velocity for Earth orbit. Numerous sites were studied, including several Pacific islands as well as barrier islands off Georgia and Texas. Ultimately, the logistic capabilities, together with the need to use some of the tracking systems of the Atlantic Missile Range, led NASA to a site adjacent to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). Shortly after the selection of the Cape Canaveral site, NASA acquired over 111,000 acres on Merritt Island, just northwest of CCAFS. On March 7, 1962, NASA made the Launch Operations Center a separate NASA field center, and was made the controlling entity for the new Merritt Island Launch Area on January 17, 1963. The launch area was designated Launch Complex 39. On November 29, 1963, the Launch Operations Center was renamed the John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in honor of the assassinated president a mere week after his death. Cape Canaveral was also renamed Cape Kennedy at this time, but in 1973 the state of Florida changed the name back to Cape Canaveral. KSC headquarters moved to Merritt Island on July 26, 1965, and KSC became a fully functioning space center.

Though a separate facility, KSC continued use of launch complexes constructed at CCAFS for launches of uncrewed missions until 1990. During 1989 and 1990, control over uncrewed launches shifted from KSC to the Air Force and to rocket manufacturers. Most of the uncrewed NASA missions, however, are still launched from CCAFS, and payload processing often occurs at KSC, though the launch itself is no longer under KSC direct control.

Launch Complex 39

The heart of KSC is Launch Complex 39, designed initially for the Saturn V rockets, but adapted for use with the space shuttle. Launch Complex 39 has two virtually identical launch pads, 39-A and 39-B. Earlier rockets were generally assembled at the launch pad, fueled, and then launched. Such an approach was fine for the smaller rockets. However, the time needed to assemble the massive rockets needed for lunar missions would require a launch pad to be tied up for many months. Additionally, the corrosive, salty ocean spray and the potential for tropical storms at Cape Canaveral made a spacecraft exposed on the launch pad susceptible to damage. Launch Complexes 34 and 37 at CCAFS had louvers on a mobile service structure to protect the spacecraft. The Moon rockets would be too large, however, for that approach to protecting them. Additionally, with pads tied up for months, it was projected that NASA would need up to several dozen launch pads. A better, less expensive approach was needed.

The solution was to build a Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) a safe distance from the launch pad. The rocket would be assembled in the VAB while sitting on a Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) which would then be transported to the launch pad when the craft was completed. Three MLPs were constructed. A Mobile Service Structure (MSS) was used with the Saturn V rockets to prepare them for launch. The MSS was removed prior to launch, and the gantry at launch was part of the MLP. The MLP system was redesigned for the space shuttle without the large gantry. A Fixed Service Structure (FSS) is now built at each launch pad, which contains orbiter crew access and umbilical arms for fueling the space shuttle. Attached to the FSS is a Rotating Service Structure (RSS) that swings into position to cover the orbiter while it is on the launch pad, permitting access and servicing of the payload bay. A system of flame deflectors and trenches channels rocket exhaust away from the rocket as it takes off.

Vehicle Assembly Building

To protect the Saturn V during assembly, and to promote a faster launch pad turn around, the Vehicle Assembly Building was constructed. The VAB, one of the largest buildings ever built, covers 8 acres of land, and measures 716 feet long, 518 feet wide, and 525 feet tall. It consists of four high bays and a low bay. The high bays were originally used to assemble the Saturn V. Two bays are now used to mate the space shuttle orbiter with the solid rockets and the external fuel tank. The other two bays are used for external tank checkout and storage, solid-rocket contingency handling, and orbiter contingency storage. The low bay is used for engine maintenance shops and as a storage area for certain solid-rocket aerodynamic parts.

Launch Control Center

Advances in electronics technology by the time of the Apollo Program meant that launch control no longer needed to be housed in a blockhouse adjacent to the launch pad. Thus, KSC’s launches are directed from the Launch Control Center (LCC) located over three miles away from the launch pads. The LCC is a multilevel building containing offices, computers, and data analysis equipment on the first three levels. Offices and conference rooms are on the fourth level. The third level contains the firing rooms, where launches are directed. Two firing rooms are fully operational and can be used to direct launches. The other two are used for software development and analysis and for data and engineering analysis. Controllers have a view of the launch pads from large windows at one end of the firing rooms. Large, heavy steel shutters are designed to close rapidly to protect the windows in the event of a catastrophic accident at the launch pad.

Shuttle Landing Facility

The Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) is essentially an airportlike facility for the space shuttle. Its main feature is a 15,000-foot-long, 300-foot-wide runway on which the space shuttle can land upon returning from orbit. Adjacent to the runway is a Recovery Staging Area where a convoy of recovery vehicles can wait for the shuttle to land. These vehicles extract the poisonous fuels from the shuttle and make sure that there are no poisonous vapors in the area prior to crew egress. Also adjacent to the runway is the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF), where the orbiter can be serviced. The OPF has facilities to mate or remove the orbiter from the back of a modified Boeing 747 used as a transport between NASA facilities.


To carry various components and equipment from place to place within the facility, KSC has a variety of transporters. Most have special functions, such a solid-rocket transporter, an orbiter transporter, or a payload-canister transporter. The most impressive, however, are the two oldest transporters used, the crawler transporters (CTs). The CTs, originally designed to carry the MLP from the VAB to the launch pads carrying the Saturn V, now carry the MLP with a space shuttle on board to the launch pad. Moving at about one mile per hour, the CT is 131 feet long and 113 feet wide, and carries loads as heavy as 12 million pounds. The crawler is able to deliver the MLP to its proper position to within 2 inches precision. Each crawler is able to travel about 35 feet per gallon of diesel fuel.

The Future

As the United States’ spaceport, KSC is looking ahead to the next-generation launch vehicle that will replace the space shuttle. The modular design of Launch Complex 39 permits great flexibility in adapting to new launch vehicles. Unlike previous launch complexes that generally became obsolete along with the rocket that they were originally designed for, Launch Complex 39 was readily adapted from Saturn V operations to space shuttle operations. Thus, it is expected that similar adaptations would be possible for most of the foreseeable designs of launch vehicles in the coming decades.

  • Benson, Charles D., and William Barnaby Faherty. Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations. NASA SP-4204. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1978. A very thorough history of KSC through the Apollo Program.
  • Kennedy Space Center. The Kennedy Space Center Story. Kennedy Space Center, Fla.: Author, 1974. A very good overview of the origins of KSC.
  • _______. KSC Transporters. Kennedy Space Center, Fla.: Author, 2000. A short pamphlet in the NASA Facts series about the unique KSC crawler/transporters.
  • _______. Launch Complex 39 Pads A and B. Kennedy Space Center, Fla.: Author, 1999. A short pamphlet in the NASA Facts series about the major launch facilities at KSC.
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration. America’s Spaceport: John F. Kennedy Space Center. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994. A short but informative pamphlet about KSC.

Air Force, U.S.

Apollo Program

Wernher von Braun

Crewed spaceflight

Mercury project


National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Saturn rockets

Space shuttle


Categories: History Content