All this preparation for what passed in an instant. Then it was time for us to return to our scheduled lessons. Yet, during the day, my mind would drift to thoughts of the astronauts hurled into outer space and circling the earth. I was a physically fearful child, and the thought of being shot in a rocket at enormous speed past the earth into the unknown filled me with dread. At the same time, I felt excited and intensely curious. What would it feel like to be weightless? How would you sleep? Eat and drink? Pee and poop? What would it be like to look back at our earth, as if it were another planet?
Children of my generation lived vicariously through the astronauts. They represented better versions of ourselves—in superior shape and health, with agile minds to match their agile bodies. They received the best training our country could provide. They were universally admired. For children living in Florida, like my cousin who grew up in Daytona, the connection was closer. As an elementary school child, she also watched rocket launches on television, “and then we’d all run outside just in time to see the rocket over our heads.”
This January, I felt the same thrill watching the simultaneous launch of two SpaceX rockets outside our rented condo on Cocoa Beach, near Cape Canaveral. Rocket launches remain one of the area’s most popular attractions, and an hour before the launches, Jetty Park was packed, as well as the roads leading into it and lining the causeway. We were lucky we could just step outside our condo for the show. What was unusual about the launch we saw was that it was a double launch, the purpose of which, one of the locals told me, was “top-secret military.” This is how the SpaceX website described it: “On Sunday January 15 at 5:56 pm ET, the Falcon Heavy launched the USSF-67 mission to a geosynchronous Earth orbit from Launch /complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This was the second launch landing of these Falcon Heavy side boosters which previously supported USSF-44.”
We looked north up the beach, beyond the low structures of the Cocoa Beach pier, and beyond it, we spotted the flares of two bursting fires climbing higher and higher in the twilit sky, leaving behind billowing trails of smoke. It was a beautiful sight. The flares burned bright yellow, tinged with iridescent green, and the clouds of smoke unfurled in huge spirals as they dissipated into the atmosphere. When I looked up, I could see the boosters uncoupling. Most astonishing was the rockets’ return, ten minutes later, after they’d discharged their mysterious payloads, right back to the launch pad. How did they land so precisely, from such terrific speeds? The show was brief, from launch to return less than half an hour accompanied by sonic booms, and it filled us with awe.
A few days later, we visited the Kennedy Space Center, where the rocket launch occurred. The United States space industry complex began operations on Merritt Island in 1950, when the government established a missile testing range on the land it owned surrounding the Cape Canaveral lighthouse. In 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began to launch satellites at the site. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced plans to place a man on the moon before the end of the decade. To achieve this goal, the federal government acquired 140,000 acres of land north and west of the Cape on Merritt Island in 1963, where support facilities for the launch complex were established. That year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service entered into an Interagency Agreement with NASA to manage all lands within the Kennedy Space Center that are not currently being used for NASA KSC operations. These lands, known today as the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, provide habitat for more than 1,500 species of plants and wildlife.
The Visitor Complex of the Kennedy Space Center is privately operated by Delaware North Companies and welcomes visitors from all over the world with a variety of exhibits about the space program accompanied by blaring, piped-in music. The Heroes and Legends exhibits are designed to appeal to emotion. Their message, cited by a number of astronauts in video interviews, is that “nothing is impossible.” They present a hagiography of the astronauts, interspersed with videos of children expressing their own aspirations. The space program is portrayed as a quest for greater knowledge, mastery, and expansion—in short, as an idealistic venture.
That was the same message being conveyed in my childhood. But back then there was another message as well. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union threatened to break out into real war. The advent of the space race elevated the struggle between the two superpowers representing opposing ideologies and economies. The threat of war was sublimated into a higher, non-lethal quest: which of the two countries would succeed in achieving manned space flights and landing a man on the moon? In 1959, the Soviet Union’s Luna 2 on a robotic mission became the first human-made object to reach the moon. Ten years later, the United States’ Apollo Lunar Module Eagle landed on the moon, and Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon’s surface. The United States won that competition, and twenty years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
At the Kennedy Space Center, the struggle concerning the United States and the Soviet Union is underplayed in favor of a message of cooperation between nations symbolized by the establishment of the International Space Station in 2000, a shared program between Europe, the United States, Russia, Canada, and Japan. The exhibits lead the visitors through a Rocket Garden of actual rockets that were built for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs and never deployed, along with two replicas. I was struck by the rockets’ smallness. Models of the first two-men and three-men capsules reveal that there was not much more space than in an airplane economy seat. Space travel, particularly in those early flights, was a claustrophobic experience. Astronauts got their first views of the universe’s vastness cooped up in very small spaces.
In a video interview, Alan Shepard, who became the first American to orbit the earth in 1961, recollected his sense of awe at his first glimpse of the earth from space. This astonishing sight inspired him to wonder why human beings on this small planet keep on attacking one another. Astronauts that followed Shepard have echoed his thoughts. Yet these lofty sentiments, so often repeated, have not led to any lasting changes in human behavior nor altered our impulses towards destruction.
From its beginnings, the space program was not primarily an idealistic quest for greater knowledge. It originated with the military, and military purposes and defense applications have remained paramount throughout its history. Nevertheless, this history, which is crucial to understanding the space program in its entirety, goes mostly unmentioned at the Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex. For every Hubble or James Webb telescope bearing glimpses of interplanetary and interstellar worlds, there are other devices beaming back at us, used by nations to spy on each other. There would be no space program without its military necessity and justification.
On the bus ride from the Main Visitor Complex to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, visitors pass the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). This building is visible from miles away, looming over the marshes, wetlands, mangroves, and inlets of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The VAB, its attendant facilities, and the launch pads along the shore are the functioning heart of the Kennedy Space Center, and they are off limits to the public. Launch Pad 39A, where the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rockets blasted off, has a storied history. From here in July 1969, Apollo 11 sent its three-man crew to the moon, realizing President Kennedy’s goal expressed in his Rice University speech in 1962 of landing a man on the moon within the decade.
Yet it seemed it might not happen, at least not within President Kennedy’s time frame. The space program’s defining disaster of that decade was the training session fire that broke out in the Apollo 1 command module in January 1967, one month before its anticipated launch at the Kennedy Space Center. The three astronauts were trapped inside and quickly asphyxiated. The ignition source of the fire was determined to be electrical, and the fire spread rapidly due to combustible nylon material and the high-pressure pure oxygen cabin atmosphere. Rescue was prevented by the plug door hatch, which could not be opened against the internal pressure of the cabin. The astronauts had previously complained about the lack of safety standards, the shoddiness of the capsule’s construction, especially the wiring, and the possibility of fire. That this preventable tragedy occurred on the ground seemed especially terrible. Manned space flights were suspended for twenty months, while NASA identified and corrected hazards.
If Apollo 1 was the nadir, Apollo 11, just two-and-a-half years later, was the zenith. Yet it was a near failure. The margin of error came down to 17 seconds of fuel. The quick-wittedness and considerable skills of all three astronauts—Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong—as well as the essential role played by NASA’s Mission Control on the ground in Houston led to the space program’s most resounding success. That story is briefly told in a video presentation at the Kennedy Space Center. For those seeking a more in-depth exploration, I recommend Dr. Kevin Fong’s podcast, Thirteen Minutes to the Moon. It expanded my knowledge of the program and its young scientists and engineers, whose average age was 27. The moon landing was one of those rare unifying moments that brought people around the world together. In those years after the moon landing, the astronauts spoke of visiting country after country and hearing people exult, “We did it!” Not “you Americans did it,” but “we, the human race, we did it.”
Five subsequent Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the moon; the last, Apollo 17, in 1972. In all, twelve astronauts walked on the moon. Only Apollo 13 was a failure whose success consisted in narrowly avoiding a catastrophic loss of human life. Its planned moon landing was prevented by an oxygen tank explosion, crippling the command space module. The crew barely returned to Earth safely by using the lunar module as a lifeboat on the return journey.
The Apollo missions collected 842 pounds of lunar rock and soil, which were found to be far older than rocks on earth, ranging from 3.2 to 4.6 billion years, leading to the hypothesis that the moon was created from the impact of the earth with another planetary body. The space program’s next step was to reduce waste by building a reusable space shuttle with recoverable rocket boosters. After nearly ten years in development, the space shuttle Columbia, known as STS-1 (for Space Transportation System), was launched in April 1981. Manned by a crew of two astronauts, the Columbia took off like a rocket and landed like an airplane. It spent 54.5 hours in flight on its maiden voyage, orbiting the earth 36 times. Approximately 31,000 protective silicon tiles were installed to protect it from the heat of re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The space shuttle changed the way we go into space.
In its 30-year existence, the space shuttle program operated 135 space missions. All but two flights returned safely. On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing its crew of seven astronauts. Seventeen years later, on February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke up on its return to earth after 17 days in space, killing all seven astronauts on board. As with Apollo 1, these two disasters prompted NASA’s intense soul-searching and detailed investigations of what went wrong. Photo evidence revealed that a fault in one of the Challenger’s solid booster rockets led to its fatal failure. With the Columbia, damaged heat resistant tiles failed to protect the shuttle upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. NASA made many changes in equipment and protocols to improve the safety of its operations. Today all of the launches at the Space Center are closely tracked and photographed, and the resulting footage is carefully studied by teams of engineers and experts seeking to discover any problematic evidence.
Daniel Tani, an engineer and retired NASA astronaut, believes that most astronauts are thinking of their predecessors when they go into space. “If you are a mountain climber scaling Mt. Everest, you will be aware of the places where previous climbers met with accidents. The two hardest feats in all of rocket science are starting and stopping. Going into full throttle up, I thought of that moment when we lost the Challenger, and on re-entry, when we hit Mach 19, I thought of the moment when we lost the Columbia. Maybe every astronaut thinks of these moments and feels an intense relief to get past them,” he confessed in Dr. Kevin Fong’s excellent documentary, The Final Launch of the Space Shuttle Program, about the last flight of STS-135, the space shuttle Atlantis in 2011.
Today visitors to the Kennedy Space Center can see the actual Atlantis rotated 43.21 degrees with payload doors open and Canadarm extended, as if just undocked from the International Space Station. For a successful mission, millions of things must go right. Dr. Fong’s film is a surprisingly emotional document. He was granted close access to the astronauts and ground crew during their preparations and simulations. He was at the launch pad when the Atlantis blasted off for the last time, and he was on the tarmac filming the landing. Atlantis’s pilots trained rigorously in an especially adapted Gulfstream 2 business jet adapted to have the same flying qualities as the space shuttle. Each pilot had to complete 1,000 practice missions before operating the shuttle. The flight deck of the training aircraft was modified so that it was identical to the Atlantis.
The space shuttle was designed to travel at hypersonic speeds in the upper atmosphere. Its short wings meant that when it came down, it sank like a stone, descending at an angle seven times greater than a commercial jet, with the engines in reverse working to push the plane backwards, and the landing gear deployed at 30,000 feet. Chris Ferguson, who completed 1,400 practice runs before he piloted the Atlantis on its final flight, told Fong, “The first time I went up in a training session, and the pilot showed me the tiny strip of runway under my left arm, I said, ‘There’s no way we can land on that.’ He said, ‘I’m going to show you.’ And he did. You come downhill really fast, but it works.”
Fong accompanied Ferguson and his co-astronaut Doug Hurley on a practice run where they rapidly ascended 28,000 feet and even more rapidly descended, roaring, with the engines blasting in reverse. Just short of the runway, not ten feet from the ground, the plane, which seemed in free fall, pulled up, leveled off and began to ascend. It was an astonishing feat, like the dive of a falcon. Fong filmed himself in the plane with Ferguson, as they went down and then up again and down.
We’re falling 28,000 feet per minute [commented Fong]. I’m looking straight down at the ground. I feel the dead weight and the powerlessness of the shuttle. It feels like we’re falling out of the sky. We’ve come down 16,000 feet by the time we are lined up with the runway, dropping out of the sky like a stone. A few feet from the ground, we pull up and soar back into the sky. Up we go again, and back down. It’s an incredible ride, the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life – 28,000 to zero, 28,000 to zero, up and back for ten times in an hour and a half.
When Ferguson landed the Atlantis on her final flight, he came down as lightly as a feather.
On the launch pad before the final take-off, Fong observed, “It’s peaceful up there, and you’re 200 feet in the air off the coast. There’s some sunshine, the breeze in your hair, and then you see you’re standing next to a hydrogen bomb. And if you’re the astronaut, you’re about to get into that machine and leave the earth at 17,000 miles per hour.”
Former astronaut and NASA engineer Daniel Tani recalled, “On launch morning, I got out of the Astrovan, and I stood here and thought how incredible it is that humans could put something so complicated together. Steam was coming from it. It was like a beast awakening, and I had an awareness that this machine, now sleeping in its protective metal cocoon, was going to come alive very soon.” After he was an astronaut, Tani worked in Mission Control. During the space shuttle program, he was asked if the flights ever came to seem routine. He replied, “Putting human beings in that explosion that is going underneath them to get them into orbit is amazing and not even close to being routine. We conduct training scenarios where things go wrong, so we can learn from them. We have very difficult simulations.”
Terry White designed the shuttle’s thermal protection system in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster: “Upon re-entry into earth’s atmosphere, the shuttle must be able to withstand temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit in order for the orbiter, its payload, and the astronauts to get home safely. The polystyrene tiles on the Columbia had a coating like an eggshell. The ones on the later shuttles are so strong that you can hit them against a brick without damaging them. It takes up to two weeks to install one tile. It took two years to install the Atlantis’s 24,000 tiles.”
Each launch is photographed, and the footage is closely inspected by teams of specialists in order to ascertain if there is any damage that needs to be repaired in space. Kenny Allen was NASA’s lead instrumentation specialist in the space shuttle program. “I am in this enclosed area with the best instrumentation in the world,” he told Kevin Fong. At blast off, the sound waves come through walls and go right through my chest, while I’m tracking the duration of the flight with my joystick. Then I go to the computers and look at what we’ve done. The imagery is stunning. We look frame by frame in the minutest of detail. Photographic evidence is crucial. When foam hit the wing of the Columbia, it was seen. We’re here to say if the spacecraft is safe.”
In The Final Launch of the Space Shuttle Program, Kevin Fong noted that it took five hours to move the Atlantis with its rocker boosters and tank three miles from the Vehicle Assembly Building to historic Launch Pad 39a. Of the rituals associated with take-off, one of the most cherished came about from the discovery that a 1960s-era rotary wall phone on the bridge of the launch pad still worked, and astronauts are invited to make a last phone call to their loved ones before climbing into the shuttle. Another is the order for a sandwich to be stored under their seats before takeoff and eaten after launch. The most popular choice is peanut butter and jelly.
“One of the drawbacks of the space shuttle program was its complexity,” said Charles Bolden, the NASA Administrator who regretfully oversaw the end of the program in 2011. The government sought private partnerships to develop a future space shuttle program that would be technologically superior and simpler in design. Today NASA’s most active partnership is with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, founded in 2002.
Nine years after Atlantis’s final flight, NASA and SpaceX successfully completed its first joint space shuttle mission on the Dragon spacecraft on May 30, 2020, with a crew of two astronauts. A second mission followed on October 5, 2022, manned by an international crew of four, comprised of NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina. NASA’s video, Expedition 68--NASA's SpaceX Crew 5 Flight Day 1 Highlights gives viewers extraordinary views of outside and inside the spacecraft as it completes its maneuvers, including docking the Endurance spacecraft to the International Space Station in preparation for the long-duration science mission. In the decade since Atlantis, space suits have evolved into sleek efficient machines that connect directly to the shuttle’s seats with an “umbilical cord,” controlling pressure, cooling, air flow, and communications. The control panel of the spacecraft is now operated by touch screens although there are still auxiliary knobs and buttons as a backup. The ambitious plans of NASA SpaceX include ventures to the moon and Mars in the next few years.
An auxiliary benefit of the space program are the inventions developed for space that have been adapted into everyday use on earth. The list includes satellite navigation, scratch-resistant lenses, cordless dust-buster vacuums, ear thermometers, shoe insoles, invisible braces for teeth, memory foam, fire retardant and heat-resistant clothing used for firefighters, space blankets, shock absorbers for buildings, improved solar cells and water filtration, semiconductor electronics, and others. Even the first computer with silicon integrated circuits was developed for the space program in the 1960s.
The Kennedy Space Center is surrounded by the vast marshlands and undeveloped beaches of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. A thirty-five-mile-long barrier island, Merritt Island, between the Banana and Indian Rivers, is on the Atlantic Flyway, a major bird migration corridor. On the day we drove the wildlife trail, we saw over a hundred species of birds, including thousands of American Coots, the resplendent Purple Gallinule, and the shy Sora. The partnership between the Wildlife Refuge and the Kennedy Space Center, is unlikely, but it works. The Wildlife Refuge is a refuge for the Space Center, too, and the Space Center is engaged in efforts to ensure that its practices do not harm the wildlife.
Former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who is also a former astronaut and a Marine Major General, expressed his view that the importance of the space program lies not only in its science and engineering advances. “It changed the way we see the universe,” he observed. “On a clear night, I can look up at the sky and watch the International Space Station fly over.”
Judy Hooper, the Manager of Crew Quarters where the astronauts are quarantined before launch, traces her career back to STS-1, the first space shuttle flight of the Columbia. “I came on board in 1979,” she recalled. “It was the most exciting thing that you could ever imagine. Everybody you ran into—every engineer, every tech, every astronaut—it didn’t matter where they worked, they would have done it for free. That’s how cool it was.” Her worst moment was the Challenger disaster in 1986. “I was up on the LCC watching it. The families were there. And I remember looking up and—somehow you know. You don't know the minute you realize it because I think you kind of go into shock. It was so sad. They were such a great crew.”
That twinned sense of excitement and danger persists in the space program today. There is perhaps no riskier job than being an astronaut, other than serving in the military in wartime. Astronauts accept the risks they are assuming, but it is harder for their spouses. Yet they consider the human costs worth the benefits. What of the social and economic costs? Is the space program an expression of human indulgence and escapism, or vital, necessary, and important exploration and discovery?
I went to the Kennedy Space Center knowing I would not be able to answer these questions. My visit gave me an opportunity to explore the origins and history of the space program, reflect on its past and current development, and learn more about the efforts of so many dedicated, skilled, intelligent, and fearless people that have resulted in its amazing accomplishments.
 Quoted in The Final Launch of the Space Shuttle Program, documentary film written and produced by Dr. Kevin Fong with the BBC, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Yud9NHi7pQ