The Space Building
NASA BUILT A HANGAR 50 STORIES HIGH FOR THE ROCKETS THAT WENT TO THE MOON
IT LOOMS OVER FLORIDA’S BANANA RIVER LIKE A MANHATTAN skyscraper over the Hudson. As you approach it, you realize that there is nothing nearby remotely similar in size. One writer declared that as he came closer, it seemed to grow “in great spurts, as though it were being shoved up out of the ground.” It is NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building, and it amounts to a box nearly as tall as the Washington Monument. For a time it was the world’s most voluminous building.
Constructed during the 1960s, it served initially as the hangar for the Saturn V moon rocket. The enormous launch vehicle was assembled and checked out inside its cavernous vastness before being sent to a launch pad for firing. And the structure continues in use to this day, supporting flights of the space shuttle. Yet it has rarely been used to anything like its true capacity; it is much larger than it has almost ever needed to be, despite a succession of attempts to fully employ it. It is a monument to unrealized hopes.
Those hopes first took form in 1959, as NASA officials looked ahead to a far-reaching space program using the Saturn rocket. The Saturn was twice as tall, at 162 feet, as earlier missiles, and its thrust of 1.5 million pounds was four times that of its most powerful predecessor. Other rockets had reached Cape Canaveral by truck or airplane; this one looked as if it might need a barge.
The Saturn’s launch facilities were built at what was called Pad 34. They featured a blockhouse (a control center with walls and roof of thick concrete) and a mobile service structure with enough steel framing for an office tower. This structure held cranes that would lift Saturn’s stages into position at the launch pad, and platforms to give access to the rocket during preparation for launch. Prior to firing, the whole thing would roll away from the rocket, leaving it ready to go.
NASA’s most optimistic planners forecast as many as 100 flights per year powered by Saturn. But Kurt Debus, who headed NASA’s Cape Canaveral launch operations, understood that Pad 34 alone could handle no more than 4 or 5 of them, since each took two months of assembly and preparation to fly. He was building a second facility, Pad 37, but even with as many as 10 pads, only 48 flights could have been launched per year. And since there had to be plenty of room between these facilities in case of a rocket explosion, they would have to stretch for 30 miles along the Florida coast, meaning a lot of costly real estate and high-salaried launch crews. Debus wanted a way to cut costs.
He had an idea. He had worked during World War II on Germany’s V-2 missile, and it had been launched from a military half-track vehicle, at improvised sites in forest clearings. The missiles were trundled to the firing area aboard a specialized truck and lifted erect at the launch site. And Debus and his colleagues had used this approach with the V-2’s successor, the American-built Redstone, which was also designed to be fired in the field.
Saturn hadn’t been developed with such an approach in mind, but in February 1961 Debus discussed it with two fellow Germans, Theodor Poppel and Georg von Tiesenhausen, who also held senior responsibilities in launch operations. Adopting the V-2 method would mean constructing not additional full launch facilities but a very large assembly building that could serve as a hangar. The Saturns would be assembled and checked out there, and then a big transporter, corresponding to the earlier missiles’ trucks, would carry them to a pad one by one. Each would need no more than a few days on the pad, which could then be quickly readied anew. Debus collaborated on a study with an Air Force counterpart, Maj. Gen. Leighton Davis, to determine whether the rocket should be checked out while lying horizontally within such a hangar and swung erect at the pad, or assembled vertically, checked out, and then transported to the pad while remaining upright.
The horizontal method had served for both the V-2 and Redstone; the vertical approach amounted literally to a Walt Disney fantasy. Several years earlier Wernher von Braun, who had been Debus’s boss, had collaborated with Disney on a television program, “Man in Space,” that portrayed the routine use of rockets much larger than Saturn, and they were stacked and transported erect from a towering hangar.
Debus and Davis’s team determined that technicians working with a horizontal Saturn rocket were likely to damage wires and tubing and that fuel and electrical connections to the rocket were likely to rip loose as it swung upright. The vertical approach was definitely to be preferred.
VON BRAUN’S FANTASTIC VERTICAL HANGAR NOW HAD to be taken seriously. It would be costly, for it would be no simple sheet-metal shed; it would stand hundreds of feet high. Nor could the transporter amount merely to a large truck. It would need a huge mobile platform on which the fully assembled rocket could ride, accompanied by a tower to hold the fuel and electrical connections. Nothing like it had ever seen service before.
In May 1961 President Kennedy went before Congress and announced a plan to send astronauts to the moon. The new program, Apollo, would use a moon rocket that took form as the Saturn V (initially called Saturn C-5). Saturn V represented another giant leap, its height of 363 feet over twice that of the Saturn I, and its thrust, 7.5 million pounds, a fivefold increase. The problem of building a transporter had appeared severe enough with the original Saturn I. It now was much worse with the far heavier Saturn V. For a time thoughts returned to settling for a launch site with fixed facilities, as at Pad 34. Recent studies had showed that fixed facilities would be the most economical solution if there were no more than 5 Saturn V flights a year. That was as many as NASA ever achieved, but the agency’s managers couldn’t know that at the time. With between 5 and 10 launches a year, fixed and mobile launch facilities would cost about the same; above 10, mobile launch arrangements offered clearly lower costs.
NASA was not actually planning more than 10 flights a year, but the agency was no place for the timid and its managers had no wish to limit the future space program at the outset. They therefore maintained their commitment to building mobile facilities, including a transporter. After all, they were aiming for the moon.
In early 1962 the firm of Bucyrus-Erie weighed in with a way to get the rocket to the launch pad. Bucyrus-Erie built very large steam shovels for strip mining, one of which weighed 3,000 tons and incorporated a leveling system that let it balance a heavy load on uneven terrain. An even larger one under construction was going to be able to carry a load heavier than the Saturn V and its support equipment. It, too, would have a leveling system, suggesting that Bucyrus-Erie could make equipment to keep the Saturn V accurately upright while ascending a grade to the launch pad. Within months the company proposed to build a road crawler for NASA. It would have a loaded speed of one mile per hour and would keep the rocket’s platform within 10 inches of horizontal while climbing a 5 percent grade.
When completed, the crawler would run along a roadway that closely resembled an interstate highway except for being paved with river rock rather than concrete. One of the two lanes would accommodate the transporter’s right-hand treads; the other, across a grassy median, the left-hand ones. It was as if a single enormous vehicle were to use all the lanes of an interstate.
THE CRAWLERWAY WAS TO RUN TO THE BIG HANGAR , which became known as the Vehicle Assembly Building. The structure would be 715 feet long, 518 feet wide, and 525 feet high. The Washington Monument was only 30 feet taller. The building’s volume, more than 129 million cubic feet, was nearly twice that of the Pentagon. Indeed, it was so enormous that no single contractor could build it. The Army Corps of Engineers selected separate firms for the architectural design, the foundations, the structure, and the civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering.
Before construction could begin, NASA had to wage war on mosquitoes. They bred massively on the Cape; after heavy rains, which were frequent, one acre might produce 50 million of them. “Everyone wore long shirtsleeves and gloves, even in the summer,” one NASA official recalled. It was found that the most effective thing was to build dikes to flood the marshes. Minnows would then spawn and eat the mosquito eggs and larvae.
A critical problem in designing the building was making sure it would stand up to hurricanes. In the words of the chief architect, Max Urbahn, “We were faced with the fascinating possibility that the shape of the building might make it react like an immense box kite; it could be blown away in high wind.” The local soil, water-soaked sand, was totally unsuitable as a foundation. There was nothing to do but anchor the building in bedrock by driving piles as far as 170 feet down.
The firm of Blount Brothers took responsibility for the foundation. Its workers used steel pipe for the pilings, with welders joining three and sometimes four 55-foot sections to make an individual pile. This part of the work went very rapidly; the first piles were driven in early August 1963, and less than two weeks later the workers had 30,000 feet of piling down. Most of the pile drivers were conventionally driven by steam or diesel power, but three of them were of a new electrical design that jiggled the pilings into the soil.
Once the piles were in place, they had to be protected against corrosion that might have reduced them to tubes of rust. Saltwater in the subsoil would react chemically with the steel in the piles to produce an electric current, making the structure the world’s largest wet-cell battery. So workers electrically grounded the piles by welding thick copper wire to each of them and connecting the wires to the steel reinforcing bars in the building’s concrete-floor slab.
Heavy cranes now lifted their long booms, and as the structure rose, workers installed elevators to reach the upper levels. When the building became too high for the ground-based cranes, other cranes appeared at the top of the framework. One day one of them dangled a line from its lofty perch, picked up a portable privy, and hoisted it 20 stories. As it settled into place, its door burst open, and an irate worker stalked off.
He was one of a substantial force of hardhat men who were accustomed to working on high steel. They had foremen who made sure they refrained from throwing paper airplanes, but in the spring of 1964 five of them were fired for drinking and gambling on the job. Their labor union arranged for three to be rehired, but it was clear that such behavior threatened safety. Both labor and management shared a strong concern in this area, and one result was that only two men died during construction: One fell; the other was struck by lightning.
In August and September 1964, when the building was still a forest of pilings topped by an extensive steel framework, Hurricanes Cleo and Dora hit. Managers had planned for this; workers had sandbags in place hours before Cleo swept in, and the construction site rode out the two tempests with aplomb. Wind damage came only to a negligible $35,000.
The work went on. As the builders approached the top, they needed to install rails in the building that would hold cranes weighing a total of 250 tons. The rails needed their own steel for support, and the workers provided it by using their rooftop cranes to haul girders up several hundred feet to where they were riveted to form extensions of the building’s framework.
In April 1965 a topping-out ceremony was held, a traditional event when the last girder is lifted into place. The girder was a steel I-beam painted white and decorated with the logos of NASA and of the American Bridge Division of the United States Steel Corporation and signed with the names of employees. It completed the framing of the roof, though much work remained on details. Only 20 months had passed since the driving of the first pilings.
“You can’t call it a high-rise building,” said American Bridge’s construction superintendent. “It’s more like building a bridge straight up.” The Vehicle Assembly Building ultimately cost more than $100 million and had four high bays, each capable of supporting the assembly and checkout of a complete Saturn V. Adjacent empty land provided room for more such bays if they became necessary.
Buildings of standard size stood nearby, and workers’ cars were parked within an easy walk, but still the new structure loomed over everything like an Egyptian pyramid over its builders’ huts. Urbahn had hoped to add windows but he feared a deluge of rain and salt spray through smashed panes in the event of a hurricane. In addition, any windows large enough to let in useful amounts of light might not survive the concussion from a Saturn V liftoff.
Even knowledgeable people came away in awe. James Atwater of The Saturday Evening Post visited in 1965 and wrote that “the men raising the framework were so high above us that the rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat of their riveting was as hushed as distant gunfire. Then we went inside. There, finally, the full size of the structure hit me. I was in an enormous room that went straight up. Standing on the concrete floor, I could look up nearly 500 feet—about 50 stories. The empty space above me was so vast that it seemed to take on weight. I could feel it pressing down on my shoulders.” He ascended in an elevator and saw more: “Viewed from above, the room is not a room at all—it is an abyss.
“I knew, of course,” he continued, “that plans were going ahead for the seven-day roundtrip to the moon, but I had never grasped the full meaning of the project until I stood inside NASA’s fantastic building. Then it hit me that they really meant it; they really did intend to put a man on the moon.”
THE VEHICLE ASSEMBLY BUILDING SEEMED TO DEFY ANY sense of proportion. It included a room that stood 20 stories tall, but that was merely the low bay, where Saturn V stages would undergo preliminary checks. The high bays, built to hold complete Saturn Vs, were a good deal taller.
The first Saturn V at the site was not a live rocket but a fullsize mockup for dry runs of the launch procedures. Watching such exercises, visitors saw not the delicate precision of a laboratory but heavy industry at work. The activity began where a mobile launch platform stood on supports. It was a big steel box with a hole for the rocket exhaust, and it held a red launch umbilical tower. The whole structure reached a height of 446 feet. Pipes running up it branched off at various levels to carry propellant to the Saturn V stages. An overhead crane assembled the rocket by hoisting its stages into position one by one.
Then in came a crawler. There were two of them, built by the Marion Power Shovel Company, which had underbid BucyrusErie for the contract. The crawler weighed 3,000 tons and was larger than a baseball infield yet had the massive solidity of a railroad bridge. A double set of treads taller than a person stood at each corner. Inching forward on those treads, the crawler clanked its way into the Vehicle Assembly Building and crept beneath the mobile launch platform, which was lowered onto its broad upper surface. The complete array—crawler, platform, tower, and rocket—weighed some 9,000 tons, even though the rocket held no fuel. The assemblage made its way through an open door that could accommodate a 45-story building and had movable panels the size of a homeowner’s lot. The crawler, with everything else on top, then set out for the launch pad at a mile an hour.
The first live flight took place in November 1967, and it showed that the world of aerospace had accomplished the kind of speedy technical progress that people were coming to associate with electronics. During World War I, a 100-horsepower motor found plenty of uses. The Saturn V developed about 180 million horses, more than twice as much power as all the rivers and streams in America would generate by flowing through hydroelectric turbines at the same time.
No one had ever launched such a rocket before. As it thundered upward atop a dazzlingly bright pillar of yellow-white flame, Walter Cronkite, covering the event for CBS, shouted, “Oh, my God, our building is shaking! Part of the roof has come in here!” The roar was as loud as a major volcanic eruption, and people in Jacksonville, 150 miles away, saw the ascent.
The Apollo program unfolded over the next several years, its moon rockets following what became literally a well-worn path to the launch pad. (The crawler left strips of crushed rock in its wake.) The year 1969 proved to be an especially busy one.
To achieve President Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon before the decade was out, preparatory flights had to be run off in rapid succession. The rocket stages for each of these flights often reached the Cape Canaveral dock more than a year before, and with four high bays in the building, technicians could easily make undisturbed preparations. In this fashion NASA launched five manned Apollo flights between December 1968 and November 1969.
After that the pace slowed to no more than two flights a year. But there was still hope for more. Following the success of the first moon landing, Thomas Paine, the administrator of NASA, announced plans that took one’s breath away. He hoped not only to continue the Apollo program but to build a lunar base and a large, earth-orbiting space station accommodating a crew of 50. To get into space affordably, NASA would develop a reusable shuttle. In addition, NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission had been collaborating to develop a nuclear rocket engine that would power a trip to Mars—perhaps as early as the mid-1980s. However, NASA’s federal funding came to much less than anticipated, and by 1970 plans for the lunar base, the Mars program, and the 50-man space station had fallen by the wayside. Lunar exploration was also suspended indefinitely, leaving only the shuttle.
After that the shuttle took on a life of its own, emerging as the centerpiece of NASA’s future. The agency projected weekly flights carrying both civil and military payloads. The shuttle offered a new reason to hope the enormous hangar would see the flight rates for which it had been conceived.
The building had a good year in 1973, when it supported the Skylab program, which used a Saturn V to launch a space station and then three Saturn IB’s, more powerful versions of the ancestral Saturn I, to carry teams of astronauts to work there for as long as 84 days. NASA consolidated its Saturn operations within the Vehicle Assembly Building, shutting down Pads 34 and 37 and crafting a big steel pedestal to lift each Saturn IB to reach the work platforms that had been installed for the much taller Saturn V. The building handled four launches in only six months.
The Skylab program accomplished one feat that hadn’t been attempted even during Apollo, the launch of two Saturn-class rockets only 11 days apart. The Apollo launches had taken place at intervals of at least two months, but the Skylab program’s managers wanted to get their first astronauts aboard as soon as possible after their station reached orbit. The station went up on May 14; the first crew followed on May 25. And the building had another big moment in 1975, when it supported the launch of a Saturn IB that carried astronauts to a rendezvous with a Soviet spacecraft.
By then the space shuttle Enterprise was under construction. It was little more than a shell at first, but when it reached Cape Canaveral in April 1979, technicians in the Vehicle Assembly Building mated it with other components to achieve a full-size replica of a complete shuttle. This required significant reworking of the facilities. The Saturn V had been fueled at the launch pad, three miles away; the shuttle used large solid-propellant boosters that were assembled in the building. Attention turned to safety, because the solid fuel was highly volatile.
As late as 1979 the shuttle’s planners continued to promise 55 flights per year. The shuttle went into service in 1981, but for the first few years the number of launches remained in the single digits. NASA was planning 15 for 1986 and 24 in 1990.
It never got there. Late in January 1986 the destruction of the shuttle Challenger showed that NASA was pushing too hard and cutting corners on safety. Thoughts of even 15 flights per year went out the window, along with numerous already planned missions. The flight rate remained at the single-digit level. Then, in 2004, following a second accident that destroyed the shuttle Columbia , President Bush announced that the shuttle program would be canceled, perhaps in 2010.
Only a handful of launch sites around the Cape are still active. Many have long since been marked with the stenciled words ABANDONED IN PLACE and left to decay. Their tall steel towers are gone. At Pads 34 and 37 only massive artifacts of poured concrete show where NASA once imagined 100 Saturn launches a year.
When the shuttle reaches the end of its life, the enormous crawlers will be left in place where they last were parked, their diesel engines turning no more. Visitors will cease to see the dramatic moment when part of the launch structure swings away to disclose a complete shuttle, as if in majestic unveiling. But until it is torn down, the Vehicle Assembly Building will continue to loom across the Banana River. Tourists won’t be allowed to enter, since rusting steel beams may make it unsafe, but they will surely marvel at it, recalling that there were once giants in the earth.