Agency Spotlight: Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy Space Center (KSC) has been NASA’s premier space launch operations center for nearly four decades and has no intention of relinquishing that title anytime soon.

As such, KSC is beginning to transform its work force and infrastructure in preparation for the next generation of launchers and spacecraft that will be central to a reinvigorated U.S. space exploration agenda.

At the same time, KSC’s 14,000-plus contractors and civil servants are working hard to return the space shuttle to flight and deliver as much international space station hardware to orbit as possible before the shuttle is retired in 2010.

“We anticipate a lot of changes at the center as we transition ourselves,” said KSC Director James Kennedy.

But unlike the 1970s when the Apollo program ended rather abruptly without “a clear definition of what the new program would be,” Kennedy said, this time KSC has advance notice that change is coming. “We now know what our future is and what the program is and we will find a way to execute it.”

Created in 1962 as NASA’s Launch Operations Center, the Florida facility was renamed in honor of U.S. President John F. Kennedy shortly after his assassination the following year. While the sprawling new launch center was still under construction, America’s initial forays into space continued a short distance down the shore at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It was not until November 1967 that NASA’s newly constructed pads at KSC’s Launch Complex 39 roared to life with the first launch of the Saturn 5 rocket on an unmanned test flight. And though the first manned launch of the Apollo program, Apollo 7, lifted off the from Cape Canaveral the following year, all remaining Apollo-era flights — including the capstone Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission in 1975 — departed from KSC’s Launch Complex 39.

After a hiatus of nearly six years, a reconfigured Complex 39 was back in operation launching the Space Shuttle Columbia on its maiden flight in April 1981.

Today KSC continues to operate the space shuttle fleet, prepare international space station hardware for flight, and find rides for NASA robotic spacecraft and satellites aboard expendable rockets launched by private aerospace companies.

NASA plans to conduct as many as 17 shuttle flights between this summer and Sept. 30, 2010, to complete the assembly of the space station and service the Hubble Space Telescope one last time. NASA hopes to bring on line a new human space transportation system, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), as close to 2010 as possible, but no later than 2014.

The CEV, a larger, more sophisticated version of the Apollo-era capsule, is being designed to transport astronauts to the space station and eventually to the Moon. And like every NASA spaceship since Apollo 8, it will launch from KSC.

The CEV, lunar landers and other Moon-bound hardware will lift off aboard new rockets built from space shuttle components. While NASA chose a so-called shuttle-derived launch architecture in part to smooth the transition from the age of shuttle to the age of CEV, that does not mean the switch is expected to be easy.

Kennedy described the coming transition as “daunting, to say the least.”

In November, KSC reorganized to align its work force to support the space agency’s exploration agenda.

A Constellation Project Office was established under KSC’s former space station and payload processing director John J. “Tip” Talone to work hand-in-glove with Houston’s Johnson Space Center and the Huntsville, Ala.-based Marshall Space Flight Center on the CEV and Crew Launch Vehicle development. Kennedy said KSC’s main role is to bring the operator’s perspective to the Johnson- and Marshall-led undertakings.

KSC also created an Engineering Development Directorate under Scott Kerr, another KSC veteran, to spearhead the changes that will have to be made to the space center’s launch infrastructure to support CEV and the new rockets.

Kennedy said the job of transforming NASA’s launch infrastructure is formidable, and will likely entail modifications to the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, Mobile Launch Platforms and launch pads, all of which were originally built for the Apollo program and later modified for the shuttle program.

Even with a new engineering directorate expected to grow to around 200 people in the years ahead, Kennedy said the job of transforming KSC’s infrastructure would not be done by KSC engineers alone. He said engineers at other NASA field centers — namely the Ames, Glenn and Langley research centers — will be called on for their help designing new ground support equipment and the infrastructure modifications that will be needed for Constellation.

Kennedy said sharing the job with Ames, Glenn and Langley — all of which have a heavy focus on aeronautics and other areas of research that are getting less support under the Vision for Space Exploration — helps fulfill NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s goal of “10 healthy centers” all working towards the agency’s new objectives.

“This is a piece of that equation.” Kennedy said. “If I can take a center that might otherwise be de-staffing and give them some meaningful work that can be done at their home site, then I am contributing to 10 healthy centers.”

Kennedy said KSC also is discarding some of the fundamental research responsibilities it has taken on over the years and focusing on applied technology that could be folded into launch operations.

“[Griffin] has made it clear that KSC is not a research center,” Kennedy said. “In years past we actually did some fundamental research in plant biology and other areas. We wanted to get out of any research we were doing and get into what we call applied technology, the idea being if we are going to be a launch operations center of the future then we have to invest in real world technology we can apply.”

KSC’s Applied Technology Division is headed by David Bartine, previously the center’s chief technologist.

While the new divisions are helping KSC prepare for its future, Kennedy said a lot of attention is being paid to keeping experienced workers on the center’s legacy programs, namely shuttle, station and expendable launch services.

“Its one of our challenges to make sure we keep all four of our programs happy, and that says you can’t just let the best and brightest transition to the new kid in town,” he said.

For guidance on managing the shuttle-to-CEV transition safely and successfully, Kennedy said NASA is looking at the lessons the U.S. Air Force and industry learned during the transition from the Titan 4 program to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

While retaining skilled workers is essential to safely flying out the shuttle program, Kennedy said it is equally important that KSC transition to a leaner work force.

“If it takes as many people to process the CEV and [Crew Launch Vehicle] as it does the shuttle fleet, then we have failed before we’ve gotten started,” he said.

Kennedy said he has told KSC employees that the post-2010 environment will not call for 15,000 contractor and civil servant employees doing what he called traditional KSC work — namely processing, stacking and launching spacecraft and rockets.

Still, Kennedy said he recognizes that the state of Florida is very keen on keeping as many of those jobs in place. After all, according to NASA figures, KSC employees earned an average of $60,000 per year in 2004, nearly twice the annual wages earned by the average worker in Brevard County. Direct NASA spending injected $1.5 billion into the Florida economy that same year, for an estimated economic impact of over $3 billion.

The Florida legislature last year approved spending $35 million to help convince industry to build the CEV at KSC.

Kennedy said finding such “non-traditional KSC work” — the space shuttle orbiters were built in Palmdale, Calif. — is the best bet for maintaining the center’s large work force beyond the shuttle era.

Jim Ball, KSC’s Space Port Development Manager, has been on the job since 2005 finding ventures interested in using the center’s shuttle landing facilities.

Ball already has had a couple takers and expects to conclude the center’s first recurring flight deal this spring.

Zero Gravity Corp. was the first company to try out KSC’s facilities, flying four parabolic microgravity flights out of KSC over two days last November. On Feb. 8, millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett took off from KSC in the Virgin Galactic GlobalFlyer for his record-setting, non-stop solo flight around the world.

“We have some wonderful facilities here that are clearly underutilized even in today’s environment,” Ball said.

Ball said he has received inquiries about using facilities from suborbital space tourism operators to companies interested in providing commercial space station re-supply services to NASA.