Looking back 50 years at the Kennedy Space Center (pictures)

NASA's landmark facility on the Florida coast has been sending rockets and astronauts into space for a half-century. We take a look back at some of the early missions.

Jon Skillings
Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET, where he's worked since 2000. A born browser of dictionaries, he honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS, AI and 5G to James Bond, aircraft, astronauts, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Jon Skillings
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Kennedy and von Braun

John Kennedy was a Navy man, a New Englander with a penchant for the sea, but as president of the United States, he brought impetus and a distinctive eloquence to the space race that defined a generation and vaulted American astronauts into the heavens. "This nation," he said in a famed speech in May 1961, "should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

And for the last half-century, his name has been affixed to the vast enterprise at the heart of America's many voyages into space, NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The space agency notes that it was 50 years ago this week, on July 1, 1962, that the launch facility at Cape Canaveral in Florida took on full-fledged center status, no longer under the auspices of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

Here we see President Kennedy (wearing sunglasses) gazing skyward in the company of Wernher von Braun, the expatriate German scientist who was critical to the early development of the U.S. rocket program, during a trip to Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 37 on November 16, 1963.

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Saturn V briefing

On that same day, Kennedy and others get a briefing on the Saturn V rocket program in the Complex 37 blockhouse. (The president is in the center of the front row, with his left hand to his chin.) At that time, the Florida facility was known merely as the Launch Operations Center. But just one week later, Kennedy was dead from an assassin's bullet, and on November 29, the facility was renamed the John F. Kennedy Space Center.
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In the company of astronauts

Kennedy chats with Mercury astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard in the Mercury program's Flight Control Area in February 1962, a matter of days after Glenn's historic space flight as the first American in orbit. In May 1961, Shepard had been the first American into space, period, but in a 15-minute suborbital trip. Glenn's three-orbit voyage lasted nearly five hours.
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Mercury Control Center

Another of the Mercury astronauts, Scott Carpenter, flew in May 1962 in the Aurora 7 capsule.
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Chris Kraft

Inside Mercury Mission Control, this man was in charge: Christopher Kraft, chief of the flight operations center.
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Prelaunch simulation

Here's an overview of Mercury Mission Control, as staffers run through a prelaunch simulation for Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra's September 1962 mission.
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For Mission Control, upgrades and downgrades

Almost two years later, in March 1964, as the Gemini program was ramping up (but before any manned Gemini launches), the flight control area at Kennedy Space Center Mission Control has seen some upgrades. Along with the addition of some computer workstations, the trend charts on either side of the world map have been replaced with rear-projection screens. But after the first three Gemini flights -- including March 1965's Gemini III, the program's first manned mission, undertaken by Gus Grissom and John Young -- mission control was moved to Houston, leaving the Florida facility to handle launch control and tracking.
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A plain gray shed

It might have been high tech (for the day) on the inside, but from the outside the Mission Control Center at the Kennedy Space Center wasn't much to write home about.
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Vehicle Assembly Building, being assembled

As significant as the Mercury and Gemini programs were in their own right, the decade was still building toward the moon landing President Kennedy had called for. Those upcoming Apollo missions would require the use of the massive Saturn V rocket, which in turn required expansive new structures. (The Mercury astronauts headed into space atop Redstone and Atlas rockets, and the Gemini astronauts aboard Atlas and Titan rockets.) Under construction here in November 1964 is the Vehicle Assembly Building.
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Vehicle Assembly Building from above

Here's another look at the Vehicle Assembly Building and the sprawl around it, from August 1965. It would be completed later that year.
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Launch Pad 39A, a work in progress

To complement the Vehicle Assembly Building were two new launch pads. This is Launch Pad 39A under construction.
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Grissom, White, Chaffee

In those early years, astronauts were all essentially test pilots, putting their lives at risk with fledgling technology. These three astronauts -- Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee -- died in a fire in the Apollo 1 command module while performing a preflight test on the launch pad in January 1967, just a few weeks after this picture was taken.
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Apollo 7 liftoff

The Apollo 7 mission lifts off in October 1968, propelled by a Saturn 1B rocket at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 34 en route to 11 days in orbit around the Earth. Two months later, the Apollo 8 crew would head aloft from Launch Pad 39A aboard the big Saturn V rocket -- 363 feet tall, versus 224 feet for the Saturn 1B -- en route to the first-ever manned orbit of the moon.
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Long crawl for a rocket

In March 1969, a Saturn V rocket takes the slow ride down the Kennedy Space Center "crawlerway" from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39B for the Apollo 10 mission, which would test-fly the lunar module in an approach to the moon as a prelude to the Apollo 11 moon landing.
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Out of the garage

Now comes what everything had been building toward through that first decade of the Kennedy Space Center: the moon landing. On May 20, 1969, the Saturn V rocket that will carry the Apollo 11 astronauts edges out of the Vehicle Assembly Building en route to Launch Pad 39A.
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Command module

The Apollo 11 command and service module, seen here on a work stand in April 1969, is the vehicle that will orbit the moon while the lunar module descends to the surface.
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Armstrong in training

You don't do a moon landing without a lot of practice first. Here, Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong gets in some practice on the Kennedy Space Center's lunar module simulator.
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Apollo 11 crew

And then the day arrives. The Apollo 11 crew -- Armstrong (right), plus Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins -- and support staff stride down a hallway in the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building. Liftoff is just hours away.
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Apollo 11 liftoff

July 16, 1969: The Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 astronauts lifts off on its historic mission at 9:32 a.m. ET. Four days later, on July 20, the lunar module would touch down on the moon's Sea of Tranquility at 4:18 p.m. ET, and Armstrong would step onto the surface at 10:56 p.m. ET.

For more on the Apollo 11 mission, see "Photos: The Apollo 11 moon landing."

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White shirts, dark ties

NASA staff in the Launch Control Center stand transfixed by the Apollo 11 liftoff.
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Florida turf, moon practice

This doesn't look much like the moon, but the Kennedy Space Center terrain will have to do as a stand-in for the moon's Hadley-Apennine region for astronaut David Scott, commander of the Apollo 15 mission, who practices using a battery-powered lunar surface drill in July 1971. A lunar rover vehicle is parked behind him, to the right side of this image.
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Saturn V at the launch pad

A view of the Apollo 15 mission's Saturn V rocket from high above Launch Pad 39A on July 13, 1971.
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Viking Lander 1

Over time, NASA has looked well beyond the moon to other parts of the solar system -- and beyond -- but liftoff has invariably been the job of the Kennedy Space Center. Here, in January 1975, the unmanned Viking Lander 1, under its aeroshell cover, undergoes preparations in Kennedy's Spacecraft Assembly and Encapsulation Facility-2 for its trip to Mars.
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Shuttle, piggyback

In March 1979, the space shuttle Columbia lands at the Kennedy Space Center after a cross-country ride from California's Dryden Flight Research Center on the back of a 747. At this point, no shuttle has yet gone into space. Columbia's maiden orbital flight is still two years away.
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Firing Room 1

Here's what the Launch Control Center -- specifically, Firing Room 1 -- looked like in December 1980 after upgrades to its launch-processing systems from the earlier Apollo systems.
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Columbia on the crawl

The Columbia and its booster rockets ride the crawler-transporter to Launch Pad 39A in December 1980.
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Shuttle Columbia lifts off

Six years after the last manned space flight at the end of the Apollo era, Columbia lifts off with astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen and launches the space shuttle era -- which would run for the next 30 years, to end just a year shy of Kennedy Space Center's 50th anniversary.

For more about Columbia's first flight, see "When the space shuttle was new (photos)."

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