Site Report: Cape Canaveral
A Complex Complex of Complexes: Cape Canaveral and the Two Sides of American Space

216 The public portal into the American space program. CLUI photo

CAPE CANAVERAL IS THE NATION'S main door into space, and a place of extreme contrasts. NASA’s visitor complex, privately designed, built, and managed, draws 1.5 million visitors a year, with rides, omnimaxes, and cavernous display halls, suiting an attraction that is an hour down the road from Disneyworld. Most of the Cape, though, is a vast restricted military area, where the nations’s most sophisticated and secretive satellites are delivered into orbit.

With the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle coming this year, the Cape furthers its transition into a federally subsidized privatized space portal. At this point of transition for the Cape, it seems a fitting time to look into itboth sides of it: the privately funded public side, and the publically funded, but more private side.

A Complex Launch Complex Complex
Side One: The Limited-Access Part

The Cape’s importance to the world’s history of space flight is rivaled only by the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan.* More than 500 launches into orbit, or beyond, have been launched from the pads at Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, including all of the US’s manned space program flights, and 3,000 or more suborbital launches have taken place from its shores. The forty or so launch complexes at the Cape (called SLCs or “slicks” or even more simply LCs) line the shore of central Florida like an eighteen-mile long hemispheric coastal battery aimed at the sky. Of these, most are relics; a few have been converted to other uses; and seven or so are currently actively used in orbital launches.

* It should be noted that the Russians have had more than twice as many successful orbital launches as the US, with over a thousand launches each at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, and from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, 500 miles north of Moscow.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center has two launch pads, and they are the largest on the Cape: 39A, and 39B. 39A is the current space shuttle pad, and the site for the future Ares V program, NASA’s conventional rocket follow-up to the shuttle, due sometime after 2019. This is also the pad used for all the manned launches where astronauts landed on the moon. Next to it, 39B is similar, and has also been used by the shuttle and the manned space program, until it was deactivated in 2009. All the other launch sites, active and historic, are on the grounds of the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, with around 7,000 workers, and limited public access.

217 Launch Complexes 17A and 17B, at the southern end of Cape Canaveral, used for Delta II rocket launches. There have been a few Delta II explosions over the years, and the platform is being phased out in favor of larger, newer rockets. CLUI photoAt the southern end of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Launch Complex 17 is used for Delta II rocket-launched satellite payloads. It was built in 1956, for the Thor rocket, and has supported over 300 missile and rocket launches since that time. It was converted for Delta IIs in the early 1960s, and it hosted the first launch of the Delta III program, in 1998, cancelled after three successive failures. But LC 17 may be approaching the end of its career. It has only one launch scheduled in 2011, an MIT/JPL scientific satellite, built to study aspects of the moon’s gravitational field.

South of LC 17, and closer to the submarine docks at the port for Cape Canaveral, are pads used in the past for the development of submarine-based rockets, such as the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident (at LC 29 and 25). North of LC 17 are several historic LCs used for developing and firing rockets and missiles such as the Navajo (an intercontinental cruise-missile, also known as the “never-go”) at LC 9; the Nike, Tomahawk, Jason, and Draco (at LC 10); the Viking, Vanguard, Thor, and Blue Scouts (LC 18); the Snark and Matador (LC 1 and 2); the BOMARC (LC 4); the Goose and Mace (LC 21 and 22); and the Pershing and Minuteman (LC 30 and 31). LC 31 is also where the remains of the space shuttle Challenger are buried.

218 The launch control building of LC26 is preserved as a historic site. The original blockhouse with two-foot thick walls stands just 400 feet from the launch pad. CLUI photoLaunch complexes in this area were used for the manned and unmanned space missions of the Mercury Program (LC 5) and its associated rockets, the Jupiter and Redstone (LC 6, 26). Launch Complex 26 has been saved as a historic site, and a number of rockets are set up outside on the launch pad in a static display. The Air Force Missile and Space Museum operates the site, which is publicly visitable on special tours through the Kennedy Space Center. Many other historic structures at Cape Canaveral have been torn down, most recently, the Mission Control building for the Mercury program, despite being on the National Register of Historic Places, was demolished in the summer of 2010. This museum, run mostly by retirees and volunteers, is a critical and authentic on-site gathering of artifacts telling the physical history of the development of rocketry at the Cape.

219 Historic rocket on the pad at LC 26. It was from here that Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, was launched. CLUI photoNear the tip of the Cape are LC 46 and LC 36, both currently dormant, but may be active again soon. LC 46, the furthest east launch site on the Cape, located east even of the lighthouse, is a former Trident II rocket launch pad used in the late 1980s. After that it was used to develop Lockheed’s Athena rockets, in the late 1990s, and was transferred from the Air Force to become part of the new state-managed Spaceport Florida. LC 36 was used for Atlas launches from 1962 to 2005, with a total of 145 launches from two pads, A and B. The two umbilical towers were demolished in 2006, and the LC has also been transferred to Spaceport Florida.

Spaceport Florida is an initiative to develop more uses for launch facilities at the Cape, many of which are now laying idle after the heydays of the Apollo program and the Cold War. Spaceport Florida is managed by Space Florida, a state agency created to stimulate and diversify aerospace related economic activity in the region. The Air Force officially handed over management (though not ownership) of these two facilities to Space Florida in March, 2010.

220 Though it resembles a rocket, and is managed by the Air Force, the old iron lighthouse has been at this location since 1894, after it was hauled a mile inland from its previous location, which was being undermined by shoreline erosion. The lighthouse marks the bulge near the tip of Cape Canaveral, the most pronounced protrusion on the Atlantic Ocean side of Florida, and thus the reason for the establishment of the rocket proving ground here, starting in 1949. So long as they were headed eastward, even slightly, or aloft long enough to be carried by the prevailing wind, the rockets could only fall into the ocean, and not over land (unless, of course, they went into orbit, or happened to hit Bermuda). CLUI photoThe old launch complexes are more uniform in size and shape north of the Cape. One after the other, the adjacent LC 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, are referred to as ICBM Row, as they were used to develop Titans, Pershing, Thor, Delta, Atlas, and other intercontinental ballistic missiles. Some of them have been used for other things as well, such as LC 14, which was used for all four of the manned Mercury/Atlas launches (the first U.S. program that put astronauts in orbit, starting with John Glenn, in 1962.) The blockhouse at LC 14 has been restored voluntarily by site contractors including Johnson Controls, Brown and Root, General Dynamics, Lockheed, and Boeing, into a sort of conference center for special gatherings. Several memorials and plaques have been installed at the entrance of the access road, including a time capsule that will be opened in 2464, 500 years after the end of the Mercury Program.

221 Launch Complex 34 is where astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee died when their test capsule caught fire in a pre-Apollo 1 test. It was also used as a location for the 1998 film Armageddon. CLUI photoLC 34 is a larger complex north of ICBM Row, now abandoned, with much of the site dismantled. This is where six of the first seven of the Apollo missions were launched, including the first manned flight in the program, Apollo 7. After that, Apollo 8 through 17 were launched from the new NASA Launch Operations Center at the Kennedy Space Center’s LC 39.

Known to the world, and defining the age, the Apollo Program was the most glorious period for the Cape. It started in 1961 after Kennedy’s declaration to go to the moon before the end of the decade, and ended with Apollo 17, in 1972, when, by the time of this last moonwalk, space travel had begun to appear banal to a jaded public. All we could do with the moon, it seemed, was to drive around on it in 4x4s, and play golf. Truth is the moon was visited only six times, and walked (or driven) on by a total of twelve people.

LC 37, just north of its twin, LC 34, is still in use. Like its twin it was built to support the Saturn 1 rockets, in 1963, and hosted a total of eight launches. The last launch, Apollo 5, the only official Apollo launch at the complex, was an unmanned test of the lunar module. After that the complex was dormant until it was retrofitted for launching Boeing’s Delta IV rockets in 2002. Still part of the Air Force Station, the launch complex manages launches by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a company that is a shared venture by Lockheed and Boeing. ULA, headquartered near Lockheed’s Space Systems plant in Littleton, Colorado, in the southern suburbs of Denver, was established in 2006 to provide a standardized satellite launching platform for government payloads. Using three expendable rockets, Boeing’s Delta II, Delta IV, and Lockheed’s Atlas V, ULA is busy at Cape Canaveral, and at Vandenberg, the Air Force’s west coast launch facility, favored for satellites that require a polar orbit.

222 A Delta IV Heavy rocket on the launch pad at LC 37 in October, 2010, a few weeks before it carried the “largest spy satellite ever made” into space. CLUI photoOn November 21, 2010, ULA launched what is generally considered to be the largest spy satellite ever made, from LC 37. Though the payload was classified, experts believe the mission, known officially as NRO LR-32, was to launch a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite high above the equator (hence the east coast launch), in a geosynchronous orbit, to eavesdrop on communications. It is believed to have an antenna the size of a football field. It was launched by a “Delta IV Heavy” rocket, 23 stories tall, the largest payload capacity launch platform that the NRO has at its disposal.

There are two other active space launch complexes left to mention, both among the largest at the Cape, LC 40 and LC 41. Both were originally developed by the Air Force in the early 1960s for the Titan III, and served as busy, large-scale workhorses on the base for over 30 years, launching many of the largest and most sophisticated satellites and scientific probes of the day. In 2002, LC 41 was converted to launch Lockheed’s bigger and current Atlas V, which it continues to do, now operated as part of United Launch Alliance’s operations at the Cape (like LC 37, which is used for ULA’s Boeing Delta IV rockets.)

LC 40 was used for Titan launches up until the end of the Titan program, in 2005. The towers were demolished in 2007 and 2008, to make way for a new tenant, with a new rocket, and a new approach: the Space Exploration Company, also known as Space X. Space X was founded by, and is directed by Elon Musk, the famous entrepreneur who manages to embody the qualities of both a James Bond movie villain and James Bond. (Musk is also famous for his development of the exotic Tesla electric car). With an additional launch facility on the remote Marshall Islands of the Pacific, Space X has been developing a new space program with lighter and more efficient rockets, in contrast to his competitors, Lockheed and Boeing.

In 2005, Space X filed complaints against Boeing and Lockheed, citing violations of antitrust, unfair practices, and racketeering. The U.S. government dismissed the charges, and even allowed the two dominant aerospace companies to create a new space launching company, the United Launch Alliance. Soon afterwards though, Space X won a $1.6 billion NASA contract to develop rockets to supply the Space Station, and work began to develop a launch site for their Falcon 9 rocket at the Cape’s LC 40.

In June of 2010, the first Falcon 9 rocket was successfully launched and orbited. On December 8, 2010, the second Falcon 9 was launched, this time carrying a payload spacecraft, called the Dragon, which orbited successfully. The company seems well on its way to fulfilling the contract, a veritable David, charging at the Goliath titans of aerospace. Space X, whose founder Elon Musk was propelled to riches as a co-founder of Paypal, is not alone in this battle, of course. Other information age fueled space enterprises include Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin Company with its New Shepherd Spacecraft, being tested and flown out of his 165,000 acre West Texas ranch, and the Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic project in Mojave, California, whose first space flights were funded largely by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and whose Spaceport America is currently under construction in New Mexico. These are perhaps the new titans of the emerging post-internet space age, who may become themselves, someday, Goliaths for Davids to slay.

Beyond LC 40 and 41 is the northern limit of the Air Force’s Cape, and the site of NASA’s shuttle launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. The space shuttle Discovery is currently in the vehicle assembly building being readied for its final launch to deliver components to the International Space Station, sometime after February 24, 2011. After that, Space Shuttle Endeavour will take its place on the pad, and if all goes according to plan, make another delivery of components to the Space Station, and complete it’s last space shuttle mission, in April 2011. Then there may be one more flight of the third shuttle, Atlantis. What happens at the Space Center after that is still up in the air.

224 Tents being set up along the causeway to watch the last remaining space shuttle launches. CLUI photo More Images of Cape Canaveral

A Complex Visitor Complex Complex
Side Two: The Unlimited-Access Part

It seems, with efforts like Virgin Galactic, that the future of space travel, besides deploying satellites and the occasional probe, is tourism. The main motivation to go into space is simply perhaps “because it is there.” In the meantime, before these facilities are built, for those trying to get close to the space experience, and who can’t afford millions of dollars for a few minutes ride above the atmosphere, the Kennedy Space Center may be as close as you can get to space, in one direction, at least.

225 Solar panels provide shade, not power, at the Ticket Plaza/entry satellite for the Visitor Complex, the flip side of the Cape. CLUI photoLike some other NASA facilities, public visitation has been integrated into the site. Since NASA’s future is affected largely by the will of American tax-payers it behooves them to provide a good time for visitors, not to mention the fact that it is their duty to do so, if they really are there to serve the public’s interest. At the Kennedy Space Center, the visitation infrastructure has grown to the point that it is now, itself, a destination, largely distinct from the actual function of the Space Center.

Visitors bound for Cape Canaveral are directed by road to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, the only part of the Cape that is open to the public on a drop-in basis. With processing halls and crowd management structures, where entire buildings are made to hold lines and fold crowds while they wait to enter an attraction, the experience of visiting the visitor center is what it might be like to visit a foreign planet if the Disney corporation got there first.

After parking in a vast lot, visitors approach the Ticket Plaza, with a long kiosk structure that is a pedestrian toll booth, from which collectors extract the basic admission, $41 per person. The first stop after the Ticket Plaza is an entry building called Information Central, where visitors pass through turnstiles, and into a lobby with bathrooms, breathing space, friendly space-suited greeters, and a site map that few people look at, indicating the layout of the various visitor facilities that lie beyond in the interpretive launch complex.

Through the doors to the outside is a round plaza called NASA Central, with the NASA logo on a pedestal for photo-ops, and wayfinding aids and concourses leading to the various buildings.These sites include the Astronaut Encounter building, where a real live astronaut, usually a space shuttle veteran, one of the less than 600 people who have actually been in space, presents a talk about their experience, and where visitors have the opportunity to talk to them. Across from that is the “Exploration Space: Explorers Wanted” hall, another exhibit and live theater environment where visitors are introduced to ideas of what future space travel might look like and where we might be headed in hypothetical futuristic future missions. Also on the first plaza is the main gift shop, called the Space Shop, and labeled as the “World’s Largest Space Shop.”

On the other side of the plaza is the Orbit Café, cafeteria style, and the Imax theater. IMAX and the space program have always seemed to go together, and the Visitor Center has two IMAX theaters showing dramatic NASA footage shot from space, as well as related promotional Hollywood movie tie-ins (like Tron: Legacy An IMAX 3D Experience®). The IMAX theaters are flanked by a Hubble Telescope display and the NASA art gallery, with changing exhibits of paintings and photographs of space, rockets, and related things. Behind the IMAX theater is a lagoon with alligators (and a sign warning visitors not to feed them as they “attack their prey with vice-like jaws, gripping their victim, then twisting until [it] is torn apart.” This might be the most compelling sign in the complex).

At the west end of the Visitor Complex is the Rocket Garden, a static display of vertical rockets, arranged in a sprouting, clustered bouquet, and lit dramatically at night. Next to that is the Early Space Exploration building, off to the side and appearing to be among the least visited of the interpretive complexes. Displays inside highlight the Mercury and Gemini programs, and feature the actual Mercury mission control consoles, arranged as they were in the original control building before it was torn down in 2010. Next to it is a meeting and conference facility used for special events and memorials.

At the northeast end of the Visitor Center Complex is the Space Mirror Memorial, dedicated in 1991, and built to honor the astronauts that have lost their lives in space exploration. The memorial is on a white frame structure, faced with a 50-foot wide rectangle of black granite, where the names are inscribed, designed to look like they are being projected out into space. There are 24 names on the wall, with lots of room left for more. Next to it, the Space Shuttle Plaza has a full sized replica of the Space Shuttle Explorer, which you can go inside of to see the flight deck and the capacious cargo bay.

226 On the outside, the Shuttle Launch Simulation Facility building was made to resemble the Shuttle Vehicle Assembly Building. CLUI photoAcross from that is the most elaborate interpretive complex at the Visitor Center, the Shuttle Launch Experience, a 44,000 square foot facility that opened in 2007, and cost $60 million to build. To experience the experience, visitors enter the Shuttle Launch Simulation Facility, a six-story structure that resembles the monolithic space shuttle facilities at Kennedy Space Center. All loose material must be removed from pockets, and stored in lockers available outside the facility. You climb up the ramp of a kind of support tower/tourist gantry, zig-zagging many levels up, while astronauts on video monitors overhead give testimonials about what the launch experience is like.

Inside, finally, is an empty hall that fills with the next load of visitors, who look up at video screens that move around on robotic arms. A video astronaut (actually Charlie Bolden, a former astronaut and now a NASA administrator) describes the shuttle launch sequence, making sure visitors are aware of the stress levels so they can opt out (people with high blood pressure, and heart, back or neck problems are discouraged from going any further.) Amid fog, doors open, and visitors climb into the “crew module” of a stylized space shuttle bay, with rows of benches in an enclosed platform, facing a large screen. After being strapped in, doors close, and the platform moves the tourist payload to an upward angle, giving one the sense of pointing vertically up at the sky, like the shuttle on the pad. Then the countdown, the fiery blast, shaking, combined with more tilting to simulate Gs, the apogee, and a slow transition back to the horizontal. The cargo bay doors open and reveal a calm fiberoptic starry cosmos.

228 Forty NASA tour buses circulate through the Visitor Complex depot. CLUI photo The largest feature of the Visitor Center is the tour bus depot, large to support the long lines that can develop while people wait for their turn to get on the bus. Reservations are highly recommended. The Visitor Center has a fleet of 40 motor coaches, circulating continuously during the day, offering three tours. One, the basic Kennedy Space Center tour, leaves every 15 minutes, and takes visitors to a 60-foot tall “Observation Gantry” overlook tower that provides a 360-degree view of the distant launch facilities.

Two other, more extensive tours are available, each lasting about 2.5 hours. One, “KSC Today and Tomorrow,” takes visitors to see the Vehicle Assembly Building, the Shuttle Landing Facility, and the A/B Camera Stop, a point of view that is the “closest possible view of the Space Shuttle Launch pads.” The other tour, “Cape Canaveral Then and Now” takes visitors onto the grounds of the Air Force Station to see some of the old launch complexes, and the Air Force Space and Missile Museum at LC 26. Photography is restricted to places where people get off the bus. Both tours make a stop at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, another visitor complex located six miles north of the main Visitor Center. This is a massive display hall, covering a Saturn V rocket, prone and distended in sections, on its side. At 363 feet in length (as tall as a 36-story building), the Saturn V is the largest rocket ever made, and is the vehicle that carried all the astronauts to the moon. On the edge of the hall are souvenir shops and other displays, including an opportunity to touch real space rock, and the Apollo Treasures Gallery, where spacesuits and hardware from the Apollo missions are presented like crown jewels inside a dimly lit display hall, entered through a faux bank vault-like door.

The tours are scheduled so that to do both the “Yesterday and Today” and the “Today and Tomorrow” tours would require a second visit on another day (perhaps yesterday, or tomorrow). They cost $21 each, on top of the admission price of $41, bringing the total for a visit to Cape Canaveral to $83.00. These expenses are due to the fact that the visitor facilities are privately designed and operated, and are intended to be self-sufficient in funding, and not to use tax-payer dollars (though presumably many of the visitors shelling out the price of admission are American tax-payers who funded the space program to begin with).

The company that operates and generates a profit from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is called Delaware North, and is one of the largest privately held companies in the country. Delaware North is a hospitality services company, managing gaming and entertainment venues, such as Indian casinos, dog tracks, sports arenas, resorts, airports, and even National Park facilities at the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite.

Delaware North is similar in some respects to its main competitor, the company Xanterra, also privately held, which operates National Park System visitor facilities at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Crater Lake, Mount Rushmore, Zion, and most of Yellowstone, as well as a dozen major resorts and conference centers in the country. Delaware North might be more diversified in their portfolio of landmarks, and is certainly more sports oriented: It operates the Queen Mary, Niagara Falls State Park, the massive Memphis Flea Market, a number of state fairgrounds, and does retail and concessions for more than 50 sports venues, including the new Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey. It also manages Boston Garden, as the owner of Delaware North, Jeremy Jacobs, also owns the Boston Bruins. Jacobs’ father started the business with a popcorn stand in 1915. It now has around $2 billion in annual revenues, and Jacobs is listed as a billionaire on the Forbes list. The company motto is “Focus on what you do best, and leave the rest to us.” Indeed.

Delaware North won the visitor concessions contract at Cape Canaveral in 1995, and began making improvements there soon after. A $160 million Thematic Development Plan was announced in 2005, to take place over ten years, which included the Shuttle Launch Experience facility. With Delaware North’s contract with NASA now renewed through at least 2020, the company will preside over a period of transition at the Kennedy Space Center, with the end of the Space Shuttle program this year. No doubt the interpretive space complex will expand to fill the void.

More Images of the Kennedy Space Center