Operations are currently controlled from Launch Complex 39, the location of the Vehicle Assembly Building. The two launch pads are 3 miles (5 km) to the east of the assembly building. The KSC Industrial Area, where many of the Center's support facilities and the administrative Headquarters Building are located, are found 5 miles (8 km) south.
Kennedy Space Center's only launch operations are at Launch Complex 39, Pads A and B. All other launch operations take place at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), which is operated by the 45th Space Wing (45 SW) of the US Air Force.
Originally called the Launch Operations Center, KSC was authorized in 1958 during the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower and completed in 1962 during the administration of John F. Kennedy. In 1963, the facility received its current name following the latter President's assassination. The adjacent Cape Canaveral was also renamed Cape Kennedy, but this change was unpopular with local residents and the cape reverted to its original name by a legislative act of the State of Florida in 1973.
The announcement of the lunar program led to an expansion of operations from the Cape to the adjacent Merritt Island. NASA began acquisition in 1962, taking title to 131 square miles (340 km2) by outright purchase and negotiating with the state of Florida for an additional 87 square miles (230 km2). In July 1962, the site was named the Launch Operations Center. The buildings were initially designed by Charles Luckman.
Place a manned spacecraft in orbital flight around the earth. Investigate man's performance capabilities and his ability to function in the environment of space. Recover the man and the spacecraft safely. The project started in October 1957 using the Atlas ICBM as the base to carry the Mercury payload, but early testing used the Redstone rocket for a series of suborbital flights including the 15-minute flights of Alan Shepard on May 5 and Virgil Grissom on July 21, 1961. The first human carried by an Atlas was John Glenn on February 20, 1962. While Mercury was launched by NASA, launches occurred from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as KSC was not yet developed.
From the knowledge gained through Mercury the more complex two-man capsules of Gemini were prepared as was a new launcher based on the Titan II ICBM. The first manned flight took place on March 23, 1965, with Gus Grissom and John Young. The following mission, Gemini 4, featured the first American extravehicular activity, a "spacewalk" by Ed White. A total of twelve Gemini missions were launched from KSC, the last ten of which were manned. The final flight, Gemini 12, was launched on November 11, 1966, and concluded four days later.
The Apollo program had another new launcher—the three-stage Saturn V (111 m high and 10 m in diameter), built by Boeing (first stage), North American Aviation (engines and second stage) and Douglas Aircraft (third stage). North American Aviation also made the command and service modules while Grumman constructed the lunar lander. IBM, MIT and GE provided instrumentation.
At KSC, an $800 million center was built to accommodate this new rocket—Launch Complex 39. It included a hangar to hold four Saturn V rockets, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, 130 million ft³); a transportation system from the hangar to the launch pad, capable of carrying 5440 tons; a 446-foot (136 m) movable service structure and a control center. Construction began in November 1962, the launch pads were completed by October 1965, the VAB was completed in June 1965, and the infrastructure by late 1966. From 1967 through 1973, there were 13 Saturn V launches from Complex 39.
Before the Saturn V launches there was a series of smaller Saturn I and IB launches, to test the men and equipment, from the Complex 34 on the Cape Canaveral site. The deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee by fire on Apollo-Saturn 204 (later designated Apollo 1) on January 27, 1967 occurred at Complex 34.
The first Saturn V test launch, Apollo 4 (Apollo-Saturn 501) began its 104 hour countdown on October 30, 1967 and, after delays, was launched on November 9. Apollo 7 was the first manned test on October 11, 1968 (on a [[Saturn IB]). Apollo 8, the first manned Saturn V launch, made 10 lunar orbits on December 24-25, 1968. Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 tested the lunar lander. Apollo 11 was launched on July 16, 1969 and the Moon was walked on at 10:56 pm EDT, July 20.
The Apollo program continued at KSC, with Apollo 13 in 1970 which was crippled in a explosion which thus it was called a "Successful Failure", Apollo 14 in 1971, the 24th US manned space flight (40th in the world), and ended with Apollo 17 in December 1972.
The Air Force chose to expand the capabilities of the Titan launch vehicles for its heavy lift capabilities. It constructed Launch Complexes 40 and 41 to launch Titan III and Titan IV rockets at CCAFS, just south of Kennedy Space Center. A Titan III has about the same payload capacity as a Saturn IB with a considerable cost saving. Launch Complexes 40 and 41 were used to launch defense reconnaissance, communications and weather satellites and NASA planetary missions. The Air Force also planned to launch two manned space projects from LC 40 and 41. They were the Dyna-Soar, a manned orbital rocket plane (cancelled in 1963), and the Manned Orbital Laboratory, a manned reconnaissance space station (cancelled in 1969).
ELV rocket development also continued at KSC—before Apollo, an Atlas-Centaur launched from Launch Complex 36 placed the first American Surveyor lander softly on the Moon on May 30, 1966. A further five out of seven Surveyor craft were also successfully transferred to the Moon. From 1974-1977 the powerful Titan-Centaur became the new heavy lift vehicle for NASA, launching the Viking and Voyager series of spacecraft from Launch Complex 41, an Air Force site lent to NASA. Complex 41 later became the launch site for the most powerful unmanned U.S. rocket, the Titan IV, developed for the Air Force.
The Saturn V was also used to put the Skylab space station in orbit in 1973. Launchpad 39B was slightly modified for Saturn IB use, and launched three manned missions to Skylab in 1973, as well as the Apollo component of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.
KSC is now the launch site for the Space Shuttle, reusing the Complex 39 Apollo infrastructure. The first launch was of Columbia on April 12, 1981. KSC also has a landing site for the orbiter, the 2.9 mile (4.6 km) Shuttle Landing Facility. However, the first end-of-mission Shuttle landing at KSC did not take place until February 11, 1984, when Challenger completed STS-41-B; the primary landing site had until that time been Edwards Air Force Base in California. Twenty-five flights had been completed by September 1988, with a long hiatus from January 28, 1986, to September 29, 1988, following the Challenger disaster (which was the first shuttle launch from Pad 39B).
In September 2004, parts of Kennedy Space Center were damaged by Hurricane Frances. The Vehicle Assembly Building lost 1,000 exterior panels, each 3.9 x 9.8 ft (approx. 1.2 x 3.0 m) in size. This exposed 39,800 sq ft (3,700 m2) of the building to the elements. Damage occurred to the south and east sides of the VAB. The Space Shuttle tile manufacturing facility suffered extensive damage. The roof was partially torn off and the interior suffered extensive water damage. Further damage to KSC was caused by Hurricane Wilma in October 2005.
The Central Florida area receives more lightning strikes than any other place in the U.S., causing NASA to spend millions of dollars to avoid strikes during launch.The first lightning strike on the launchpad happened in 2006, during Hurricane Ernesto. This happened while NASA had to reprieve the Space Shuttle mission STS-115.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, operated by Delaware North Companies, is home to a number of museums, a simulation ride into space, two IMAX theatres, and a range of bus tours allowing visitors a closer look at various restricted areas that would otherwise not be possible. Base admission for people over age 12 is $38. Included in the base admission is tour-bus transportation into the restricted area to an observation gantry on the grounds of Launch Complex 39, and to the Apollo-Saturn V Center. The observation gantry provides unobstructed views of both launch pads and all of Kennedy Space Center property. The Apollo-Saturn V Center is a large museum built around its centerpiece exhibit, a restored Saturn V launch vehicle, and features other space related exhibits, including an Apollo capsule. Two theaters allow the visitor to relive parts of the Apollo program. One simulates the environment inside an Apollo-era firing room during an Apollo launch, and another simulates the Apollo 11 landing. The tour also includes a visit to a building where modules for the International Space Station are tested.
The Visitor Complex also includes two facilities run by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation. The most visible of these is the Space Mirror Memorial, also known as the Astronaut Memorial, a huge black granite mirror through-engraved with the names of all astronauts who died in the line of duty. These names are constantly illuminated from behind, with natural light when possible, and artificial light when necessary. The glowing names seem to float in a reflection of the sky. Supplemental displays nearby give the details of the lives and deaths of the astronauts memorialized. Elsewhere on the Visitor Complex grounds is the Foundation's Center for Space Education, which includes a resource center for teachers, among other facilities.
Several articles of flight-used and flight-ready spacecraft are on display at KSC:
- Gemini 9A capsule, at the Visitor Complex
- Apollo/Skylab Rescue mission Command Module, at the Visitor Complex
- LM-9, an Apollo Lunar Module originally meant for Apollo 15, Saturn V Center
In addition, Mercury-Atlas 8 capsule Sigma 7 and Apollo 14 Command Module Kitty Hawk are located at the nearby Astronaut Hall of Fame.