Kennedy Space Center hits 50-year milestone

Take a look back at the early years of NASA's Florida facility, which has been flinging rockets into space like nobody's business since the dawn of the Space Age.

Astronaut Scott Carpenter outside the Mercury Control Center in May 1962. NASA

If you were an American astronaut heading into space anytime in the last 50 years or so, chances are your trip started in Florida.

More specifically, that flight -- into Earth's orbit or to the moon, in a shuttle or in a capsule -- would have started at the Kennedy Space Center on the Atlantic coastline. That now sprawling facility has been at the heart of NASA's operations since the fledgling space agency took over what had been a missile firing laboratory as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s.

The facility didn't carry John Kennedy's name right from the start, though it was infused with his vision for a breathtakingly bold mission to get to the moon before the end of the decade. On July 1, 1962, it was formally separated in the NASA bureaucracy from the Marshall Space Center in Alabama, to which it had up to that point been a mere extension, and granted equal status. At that time, it was known simply as the Launch Operations Center. But when Kennedy was shot and killed in November 1963, within a week, the center was officially rechristened in his honor.

The rest, as they say, has been history, from the "right stuff" era of the Mercury seven to the Apollo moon landings and on to the three decades of the space shuttle program, along with unmanned missions from Pioneer, Voyager, and Viking in the 1970s to the Mars rover, Spitzer telescope, and SpaceX Dragon launches in recent years.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary, we've assembled this slideshow -- not of the full half-century, or we'd have never finished, but of highlights from the early years. Enjoy!

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