NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is now almost six decades old – it was officially founded on July 1, 1962 by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Construction started soon after.
At that time the “Launch Operations Directorate” under Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists was in Marshall. However, NASA leaders recognized that they would need their own Florida facilities in addition to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. So they founded a new “Launch Operations Center” on nearby Merritt Island. President Lyndon B. Johnson would rename the facility the Kennedy Space Center in Dallas a week after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.
As plans for the Apollo program developed, NASA soon realized that a large building would be required to assemble the Saturn V rocket that would power the moon landings. Work began on what was then the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB), in which the large rocket was stacked in a vertical configuration before rolling to the launch pad.
The 160 meter high building was completed in 1965 and completed in 1966. The construction photos of the development of the VAB – the building required almost 90,000 tons of steel – are just as incredible as those of the finished building. But NASA officials wanted to make it clear at the time that this building was not an end in itself. Rather, it was a means to an end.
“This building is not a monument,” said Kurt Debus, the German rocket scientist who oversaw the construction of the Florida facility in 1965. “It’s a tool, if you like, that can take heavy launchers. So if people are impressed.” Because of their size, they should be aware that size in this case is a factor in the rocket-powered transportation systems required to give the United States a broad ability to do whatever the national purpose is in space. “
Even before it was completed, the name of the VAB was changed from vertical to the vehicle assembly building because it was believed that the building could be used for launchers other than the Saturn V. In fact, it would operate the Space Shuttle from 1981 to 2011. Upon returning to Earth, the spacecraft would roll into the VAB building for refurbishment after each mission.
After the shuttle resigned nine years ago, the cavernous building was empty for a while. But as Debus noted in 1965, the building was built for the nation’s large missiles and was soon to be used again. The VAB has four high bays that will be used for various purposes in the coming decade. One is used to stack the large NASA Space Launch System rocket, another is currently used for the Northrop Grumman Omega rocket.
The future of these two big missiles is far from certain – each will probably only exist as long as the government pays the bill (NASA for the SLS missile, U.S. Space Force for Omega) – but if missiles come and go, the VAB remains the same thing.
Listing image from NASA