Launch Complex 39A Carries History of Innovation into New Public-Private Partnership
John F. Kennedy Space Center, Florida
President John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon was realized in the construction of the Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida, in 1965. LC-39A is one of two historic districts designed and constructed to launch the last two historic programs of Apollo and Space Shuttle Program vehicles. On November 9, 1967, the uncrewed Apollo 4 test mission successfully launched from LC-39A, beginning the launch pad’s long and storied history.That history includes the 1969 Apollo 11 mission which landed men on the Moon and returned them safely to the Earth. Five more Apollo missions launched from LC-39A, as well as Skylab 1, the first U.S. space station in 1973. In 1981, the launch pad transitioned from the Apollo program to support the first reusable launch and landing system, the Space Transportation System (STS), commonly known as the Space Shuttle Program. Over the next three decades, five space shuttles collectively launched 135 times, with 82 of these from LC-39A. LC-39A continued to be a setting for history and notable missions including the following: STS-7, the first flight of a U.S. female astronaut, Sally Ride; STS-8, the first flight of an African American astronaut, Guion Bluford; and STS-88, the first shuttle flight to the new International Space Station, carrying the first U.S. module. On July 21, 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis ’ wheels came to a full stop on Kennedy Space Center Runway 15, concluding the STS-135 mission, bringing the Space Shuttle Program to an end, and closing another chapter for LC-39A. LC-39A furthered its legacy of firsts in space exploration as the Kennedy Space Center started the transformation from a launch site with a single government user to accepting proposals for commercial use of the pad as a premier, multi-use spaceport. On April 14, 2014, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration signed a property agreement with private aerospace manufacturer SpaceX for use of the launch pad complex for 20 years.
Front elevation of Leetown Administration Building (USGS)
Space Shuttle Columbia approaches Pad 39A for its inaugural flight in 1980. (NASA)
SpaceX has managed to maintain significant portions of the historic structure while meeting its technological/operational needs. Since 2014, the company modified the launch complex to support its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and built a processing hangar at the base of the pad. On February 19, 2017, a Falcon 9 rocket and uncrewed Dragon spacecraft lifted off
as the company’s first launch from LC-39A. On November 15, 2020, NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission lifted off from LC-39A, and the launch pad became the site of the first NASA-certified commercial human spacecraft system in history.
SpaceX built a horizontal processing facility at the base of LC-39A where it will process rockets and spacecraft before they are transported to the pad for launch. (NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)
This public-private endeavor represents a true success in the use of the Section 106 process. LC-39A’s ongoing use exemplifies the balance between historic preservation and supporting the mission of space exploration. Each chapter of the space program brings change, and those changes become additional chapters in the historical legacy of the Kennedy Space Center.
IN A SPIRIT OF STEWARDSHIP: A REPORT ON FEDERAL HISTORIC PROPERTY MANAGEMENT 2021 | 53
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