On September 1, 1961, NASA requested appropriations for initial land purchases on Merritt Island on Florida’s east coast to support the Apollo Lunar Landing Program. Designers quickly began developing plans for Launch Complex 39 facilities, which include the Launch Control Center, Pads A & B, and the huge hangar now known as the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).
The combined spaceport of Kennedy and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) has served as the departure gate for every American human space mission — from Project Mercury to the space shuttle — and for hundreds of rocket launches carrying advanced research and interplanetary spacecraft.
Today’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is the doorway to further exploration of the solar system, reaching out to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Programs and Facilities
Ground Systems Development and Operations Program – The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is being assembled, tested, and ultimately will launch aboard the Space Launch System (SLS) from KSC. Launch Pad 39B is in the process of being refurbished to support commercial users and the SLS.
Commercial Crew Program – The 2010 NASA Authorization Act established commercial providers as the primary means for future crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS). The objective of the Commercial Crew Program is to invest in and work closely with industry providers to produce a certified end-to-end crew transportation system capable of flying to and from the ISS.
Exploration Ground Systems – This program is one of three NASA programs based at KSC including the Launch Services and the Commercial Crew programs. EGS was established to develop and operate the systems and facilities necessary to process and launch rockets and spacecraft during assembly, transport, and launch. Significant enhancements are continuing at Launch Pad 39B, as the EGS prepares the pad to support the launch of the SLS for deep space missions and the Journey to Mars.
EGS has helped transform KSC from a historically government-only launch complex to a spaceport that can handle several different kinds of spacecraft and rockets. A key aspect of the program’s approach to long-term sustainability and affordability is making processing and launch infrastructure available to commercial and other government customers, distributing the cost among multiple users and reducing the cost of access to space.
Launch Services Program – NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) is responsible for launching uncrewed rockets delivering spacecraft that observe the Earth, visit other planets, and explore the universe — from weather satellites, to telescopes, to Mars rovers and more. The program meets the needs of a customer base that includes NASA’s space and Earth science, exploration, technology, and education requirements, as well as support to the national security community, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and international cooperative partners.
Vehicle Assembly Building – The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is the only facility where assembly of a rocket occurred that carried humans beyond low-Earth orbit and on to the Moon. It also served as the final assembly point for space shuttle orbiters to external fuel tanks and solid rocket boosters. One of the largest buildings in the world by area, the VAB covers eight acres, is 525 feet tall, and 518 feet wide.
Applied Physics Laboratory – This research facility is located in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) building. The lab conducts scientific investigations and develops practical, innovative solutions to problems as they arise in support of ground processing and spaceflight including technical issues involving fluids, heat transfer, material properties, optics, mechanics, and other areas.
For 20 years, the lab supported ground processing for the Space Shuttle Program. The lab invented tools and systems for detecting flaws in the orbiter windows including a light-coupling hand tool to illuminate and highlight defects, a window scanner to map defects and stress areas, and a portable tool to measure surface topography down to a height resolution of one micron.
The lab developed a number of devices over the years. Two items the lab commercialized were a laser-based scaling tool — originally made for the shuttle to measure bird scratches and damage from hail — and an ultrasonic leak detection tool initially created to detect hydrogen leaks in the orbiter.
The lab is responsible for window inspection for Orion, the ISS, and commercial partners in support of current spaceflight operations. Additionally, the lab is developing Solar White, a coating expected to be about 80 times more reflective than anything else currently available. The coating will protect systems from heat radiated from the Sun and may open up new potential for the long-term storage of cryogenics in space.
Electrostatics and Surface Physics Laboratory — ESPL conducts scientific investigations to protect flight hardware and launch equipment from the phenomenon of electrostatic discharges, commonly known as sparks, since a spark near rocket propellant or other chemicals could be catastrophic. The lab studies lunar and Martian dust and the physics behind the particles’ dynamic electrical states. It also develops new technologies that leverage electrostatics to solve problems such as filtering dust from air or repelling dust from surfaces using electrostatic forces.
The ESPL provided electrostatic studies for a number of space shuttle components including hydrogen fuel lines, crew escape life preserver and life raft inflators, thrust vector control actuator blankets, and thermal control system blankets. The lab also provided an electrostatic evaluation some design change recommendations for the Hubble Space Telescope’s imaging spectrograph hardware.
In 2012, the lab became part of Swamp Works and started focusing on more in-situ resource utilization work; for example, the ESPL worked jointly with the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations lab to test the idea of a heat shield made from space dirt. Making a heat shield in space instead of launching it from Earth could potentially save fuel and launch costs. The lab made rounded bricks out of a lunar simulant, then tested the bricks under extreme heat similar to what a payload would experience entering an atmosphere. The bricks stayed relatively cool on the back, showing that, with more investigation, space dirt might work as a material to thermally protect payloads.
Research and Technology
Developments by scientists and engineers at KSC are critical to the future success of space exploration and also play important roles in improving the quality of life on Earth.
Spaceport Command and Control System – The SCCS is the first new processing and launch software to be developed for NASA since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. It will operate, monitor, and coordinate the ground equipment for launch of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft. The SCCS will comprise a suite of complex software linking the launch team operators with the SLS and Orion in processing areas such as the VAB, Mobile Launcher, and Launch Complex 39B. It will also allow controllers at Kennedy to communicate with astronauts inside Orion, controllers at the Air Force Eastern Range, and other NASA control centers.
Growing Plants in Space – On the ISS, astronauts receive regular shipments of a wide variety of freeze-dried and prepackaged meals — resupply missions keep them freshly stocked. To provide astronauts with nutrients on long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars, the Veg-PONDS-02 experiment is currently underway aboard the ISS. The present method of growing plants in space — called Veggie —uses seed bags, or pillows, that astronauts push water into with a syringe. Using this method makes it difficult to grow certain types of “pick and eat” crops beyond lettuce varieties. Crops like tomatoes use a large amount of water, and pillows don’t have enough holding capacity to support them. As an alternative to the pillows, 12 passive orbital nutrient delivery system (PONDS) plant growth units are being put through their paces. The PONDS units are less expensive to produce, have more water holding capacity, provide a greater space for root growth, and are a completely passive system — they can provide air and water to crops without extra power.
Corrosion-Resistant Coating – Corrosion is a real concern at KSC due to humidity, salt, ultraviolet light, and exhaust from rocket launches. Of special concern are the launch pad and ground support equipment being prepared for the SLS and Orion. KSC developed an environmentally friendly smart coating that could be used to detect and stop corrosion in metal. The coating was recognized by Tech Briefs magazine’s Create the Future Design Contest as the top winner in the Automotive & Transportation category in 2015. The coating features corrosion inhibitors packaged inside tiny micro capsules or micro containers that remain dormant until corrosion begins underneath the coating. The shells of the micro capsules break open and deploy the corrosion inhibitor.
Flame Suppressant – A nontoxic environmentally safe flame suppressant does not deplete the ozone, which contributes to stratospheric ozone destruction. The invention consists of water mist that is microencapsulated in a flame-retardant polymer capsule. It uses the small water-containing droplets to retard and suppress a flame while, at the same time, overcomes the known problems associated with the use of such water droplets by themselves (freezing or evaporating).
Nanotube Printer Ink – A conductive carbon nanotube ink for inkjet printing combines carbon nanotube inks with other additives, such as metallic nano-particles, for use in standard inkjet printing. These inks are water-based and can be readily applied to a number of surfaces including paper and textiles.
Wire Damage Detection – An in-situ wire damage detection and rerouting system consists of a miniaturized inline connector containing self-monitoring electronics to detect wire faults and determine fault type and fault location on powered electrical wiring. When a damaged or defective wire is identified, the system autonomously transfers electrical power and data connectivity to an alternate wire path, limiting damage not only to the core conductor but also to the insulation layer before the core conductor becomes compromised.
Mobile Robotic Platform – The Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (RASSOR) Excavator is a teleoperated mobile robotic platform with a unique space regolith excavation capability. Its design allows it to load, haul, and dump space regolith under low-gravity conditions with high reliability. The compact, lightweight unit enables the launch of an efficient, rugged, versatile robotic excavator on precursor landing missions with minimum cost. It can be scaled up and used for terrestrial mining operations in difficult-to-reach or dangerous locations.
The Technology Transfer Office (TTO) at Kennedy Space Center supports commercialization efforts for KSC-developed technologies. The office facilitates the transfer of these technologies to companies, universities, non-profits, other government agencies, and individuals to benefit the U.S. economy and the general public.