While many countries worldwide are contributing their knowledge to advance space exploration technology, here in the U.S. the Kennedy Space Center has played a crucial role. And just so you know, the KSC is open to visitors! Let’s go behind the scenes to the Kennedy Space Center, and learn about the past, present, and future of space exploration. Who knows—your great-grand-children might just become your favorite Martians….
Discovering the Kennedy Space Center
To explore strange new worlds
To seek out new life
And new civilizations
To boldly go where no man has gone before…
And so begins one of the most familiar and beloved science fiction journeys to explore the far reaches of the cosmos…..at least in our imaginations (Star Trek, for those who might not recognize the classic show’s episode prologue).
Our Fascination With Outer Space
We humans have an age-old fascination with the universe—the expanses of outer space. It’s humbling to realize that we are mere specks in the larger scale of our cosmos. Just how big is our universe? Our nearest star, the sun, is 93 million miles away. The Milky Way is so enormous that even traveling at the speed of light, it would take 100,000 years to cross from end to end.
It has taken humans a while to launch into outer space. Now that we’re there, though, we have made the first steps toward Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s haunting words. Space exploration entails discovering the wonders of astronomy, developing scientific understanding of a range of concepts, and applying all we’ve learned to benefit life on earth.
International Efforts to Develop Space Flight
In a nutshell, and at the risk of greatly oversimplifying an incredibly complex subject, space flight technology soared after World War II. Where in earlier decades research was conducted by universities and private foundations, after the war governments assumed the lead in space exploration.
The United States and Soviet Union were the earliest governments to champion the cause. This was largely due to the costs of the venture (and because of their fierce Cold War rivalry, of course). Research was expensive, equipment was complicated, and it required a huge brain trust (convening the teams of necessary scientists and engineers).
But there was also a military component, as technology developments led to intelligence satellites that helped us keep an eye on one another. Satellites also became indispensable for weather forecasting, global positioning systems (GPS), and air traffic control. Today many countries have launched their own telecommunications satellites, including China, Japan, India, and other countries in Europe.
Just as the United States created its own dedicated space agency in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), France has the French Space Agency (CNES). Germany started the German Aerospace Center (DLR). You’ll also find the UK Space Agency, Italian Space Agency (ASI), European Space Agency (ESA), and too many others to mention from other countries in Asia and across the globe.
Most of us are aware of the major milestones of space exploration. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in 1957. By 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Since 1972 more than 500 humans have spent time in our various space stations, enduring more than 438 consecutive days up there.
None of this would have been possible without the Kennedy Space Center.
Getting to Know the Kennedy Space Center
Kennedy Space Center is NASA’s main launch facility. The center works with both manned and unmanned space missions.
The center’s official mission is to conduct research and develop technology to advance “human spaceflight, aeronautics, space science, and space applications that have had widespread impacts on our nation and the world”.
As mentioned, it all started in the late 1950s with the build-up of Cold War “space race” competition. In 1961 (namesake John F. Kennedy was President), Congress funded NASA to purchase 125 square miles of land in eastern Florida.
KSC now occupies more than 6,000 acres (fun facts: 7.8 million square feet of buildings; 564 miles of roads; combined space port of Kennedy and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station).
Kennedy Space Center Milestones
In its early years, the first four phases of the space program defined its role in the bigger picture of space exploration.
Mercury: Manned spacecraft in orbit around Earth 1961-1963
Explored whether/how humans could survive in space
Gemini: Dedicated to long-term missions 1965-1966
2-person spacecraft researched needs for lunar trip
Apollo: Landed astronauts on the moon (and back) 1968-1972
Successful mission(s) to the moon
Space Shuttle: Created reusable shuttle 1981-2011
Research contributed to the construction of
International Space Station (John F. Kennedy, 2021).
As an aside: it took us 11 years (2000-2011) and a whole lot of international cooperation to build the International Space Station (ISS). It stands as one of humanity’s most brilliant accomplishments.
Research conducted at Kennedy Space Center has resulted in cutting-edge technology advancements in airplane construction and flight. Research (partly due to spacecraft like the Hubble Space Telescope) has also led to our ability to know the solar system and better understand the planets. Clearly, the space center has also served as a catalyst for international collaboration in space exploration.
Today KSC is responsible for a range of space exploration-related projects. Launching satellites (scientific, meteorological, and communications) is one of its most important functions. The Center also plans and directs space vehicle assembly. It handles all aspects of preflight preparation, tests spacecrafts, and manages countdown, launch, and landing operations.
What does the future hold for the Kennedy Space Center?
KSC is changing with the times. As demand grows for commercial and private space travel, NASA plans to rent its vacant facilities. It sounds like science fiction, but Kennedy science is actually making it possible for humans to travel to Mars, an asteroid, or even other destinations with our solar system.
Several of NASA’s programs will contribute to the future of space exploration. The Ground Systems Development and Operations Program will make it possible to launch heavy spacecraft into outer space (using the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle).
The Commercial Crew Program, in collaboration with private industry partners, is producing “end-to-end” crew transportation to and from the space station. Companies contracting with NASA are developing two space capsules, a space plane, and several kinds of rockets.
Final Thoughts on the Final Frontier
This brief overview of Kennedy Space Center helps us understand its role in advancing the “science” behind the science fiction that fuels our imagination for space travel. Check out the resources and videos in this article.
And in the not so distant future (certainly less than a light year from now), consider an in-person visit to one of the more fascinating science centers in the world. The KSC is actually open now, offering a variety of tours and special programs to satisfy the inner-astronaut in all of us.
Websites for more KSC information:
- Official website of KSC
- History of the Kennedy Space Center
- Think you know a lot about the KSC? Take this QUIZ!
- KSC Visitor Center history
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