Before the Kennedy Space Center – or even NASA – officially existed, a team of expert managers, engineers and technicians were making history on Florida’s Space Coast, involved as they were with our nation’s early missile and rocket launches.
They would go on to create KSC and call it home, laying the foundation for the launch teams and historic achievements to follow. Whether actually launched from KSC property, or managed by the KSC launch team and sent aloft from nearby Cape Canaveral and elsewhere, here’s my take on 10 of the most significant of KSC’s achievements during the past 50 years – in chronological order.
1958 First U.S. satellite in orbit.
Today’s communications, weather and navigation satellites that so significantly improve our daily lives; all that we have done in space since, or plan to do in the future; none of it could be possible without first learning to get something into orbit. What’s more, the launch team that would design and build the Kennedy Space Center to fly a Saturn V rocket to the Moon was in the blockhouse on Jan. 31, 1958 to send Explorer 1 into Earth orbit from Launch Complex 26 at the Cape Canaveral Missile Annex.
1961 First U.S. man in space.
Americans took their first step into space May 5, 1961, with Alan Shepard flying atop a Mercury Redstone rocket on a 15-minute suborbital hop, and cemented the need for the nation to build NASA’s Launch Operations Center when 20 days later President John F. Kennedy committed the U.S. to landing a man on the Moon before the end of the decade.
1962 First U.S. man in orbit.
With his three revolutions of the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962, Mercury astronaut John Glenn won the hearts of the Free World, put America solidly back in the space race with the Soviet Union and apparently loved flying in orbit so much he decided to do it again — 36 years later, this time launching from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998.
1962 First commercial satellite launch.
Today’s emphasis on launching NASA payloads on commercial rockets — including the historic first flight in 2012 of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to the International Space Station — can trace its history to the first commercial payload launched on a NASA rocket. On July 10, 1962 a NASA Thor-Delta rocket lofted ATT’s Telstar 1 communications satellite into orbit from the Cape.
1969 First man on the Moon.
Humanity took its first steps on another world after departing Earth from a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center and became a turning point in human history. Now plans are being laid so that when astronauts venture on to Mars, they will once again begin their epic voyage from the same Florida spaceport.
1972 First probe to explore outer solar system.
By the time Pioneer 10 was launched from the Cape toward Jupiter on March 3, 1972, other robotic spacecraft had been thrown past Mars, but this was the first to be sent into true deep space beyond the asteroid belt. Many others followed, lofted into space by unmanned rockets or the Space Shuttle, either to reconnoiter the planets directly, or explore the universe from orbits closer to Earth.
1974 First U.S. space station in orbit.
With brute force a two-stage Saturn V lifted into orbit the nation’s first space station, the Skylab orbital workshop, all in one piece. Problems with Skylab were overcome and taught us important lessons about living and working in space for longer periods of time. That experience served NASA well with the assembly and operation of the International Space Station, where we continue to learn things that will help blaze a trail back to the Moon for extended stays, and then on to the asteroids and Mars.
1976 First manned international mission.
The Apollo Soyuz Test Project — known as the Soyuz Apollo Test Project in Russia — brought together two Cold War rivals in Earth orbit for the first time in July 1976, and marked the final launch of Apollo hardware from the Kennedy Space Center. The relationships and friendships forged during that mission helped make possible today’s expeditions to the International Space Station, where astronauts and cosmonauts representing many different nations work and live together in peace.
1981 First launch of the reusable Space Shuttle.
America entered a new era of space exploration with the launch from Kennedy Space Center on April 12, 1981, of John Young and Robert Crippen aboard Columbia, a winged spaceship capable of launching like a rocket, landing like an airplane and returning to space time and again. For the next 30 years, through triumph and tragedy, the Space Shuttle program helped us explore our world, unlock the mysteries of our universe, and secure a permanent presence for humanity in space. Its legacy will continue in contributing to the design and operation of NASA’s new heavy-lifting rocket, the Space Launch System.
1983 First U.S. woman in orbit.
From the launch pads of Kennedy Space Center, Sally Ride pioneered the final frontier, not only for women, but for all those diverse faces of color, religion, nationality and yes, sexual orientation, that followed her into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle — and will continue to fly, representing the best of America, on the launch vehicles and spacecraft of an equally diverse range of nations and commercial operators.
Many other firsts and historic achievements in space — too numerous to list and some too technical to summarize in short order — were the result of the miracle workers who reported for duty each day at the Kennedy Space Center. While those listed here are dominated by the early days of KSC, each contributed directly to all that we have accomplished on Florida Space Coast to date, and will continue to influence our future. There are more firsts to come.