Happy 50th birthday to the Kennedy Space Centre officially activated as the Launch Operations Centre on July 1, 1962. It received the name Kennedy the next year. It is located on the east coast of Florida on an island adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Cape Canaveral hosts the military launch pads, having developed from a missile proving ground established in 1949. The location was ideal for testing missile launches – missiles could be launched over water in a virtually unpopulated area, with a handy chain of islands in the Atlantic allowing for ground tracking.
As the US developed a space programme, Kennedy was the launch site of choice for an impressive series of firsts. This includes the first American earth satellite, astronaut, astronaut in orbit, unmanned lunar landing and of course Apollo 11, which carried the first men to walk on the Moon. It is also the launch site for the first spacecrafts that orbited Mars, Saturn and Mercury, as well as the launch site and often the landing site for the space shuttles. It also witnessed tragedies, including the loss of the three crew of Apollo 1 in a launch pad fire, the seven crew of the Challenger and over the years the deaths of nine workers from falling off structures or disconnecting pressurised pipes.
The Kennedy Space Centre is a major tourist attraction, with a visitor centre open year round. Visitors can take a somewhat pricey “up-close” tour of the launch pads and for a limited time the interior of the Vehicle Assembly Building. The iconic Vehicle Assembly Building is the huge block of a building, the largest single storey building in the world. It has not been open to the public since 1978 (as I know well, because it was closed when I visited with my family in 1978!) due to construction of the space shuttles. Launches can be viewed from a series of parks inland from the space centre, prices vary! Of course, with the retirement of the shuttles, humans launching to space tend to go from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and over half of the skilled staff at Kennedy have been laid off.
The future for the Kennedy Space Centre is still unsure – Boeing has set up operations there to manufacture their crew transport capsule and hope to employ up to 550 people by 2015. NASA has plans to develop a Space Launch System, a heavy booster to get into orbit, but its first test flight is likely to be late 2017 and it may only launch once a year. There are 6 assorted launches planned for the rest of this year – I fancy December in Florida to see a SpaceX Falcon 9 taking off!