space shuttle launch pad

STS-41-B Launch

The Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A on mission STS 41-B on February 3, 1984. Aboard the Challenger were astronauts Vance D. Brand, Robert L. Gibson, Ronald E. McNair, Bruce McCandless II, and Robert L. Stewart. The first untethered spacewalks with the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) were made on this mission. This dramatic air to air picture was taken by astronaut John Young who was monitoring the launch in the cockpit of NASA’s Shuttle Training Aircraft.

flickr: NASA on The Commons


For the first time in 2,044 days, a rocket is perched atop historic Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket arrived at the pad early this morning, February 10, ahead of an upcoming static fire test.

The former Apollo and Shuttle era launch pad last saw a space vehicle in July of 2011 when the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, launched. NASA continued to operate the pad until early 2015, when SpaceX leased it for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy operations. This historic event marks the third rocket to fly from LC-39A behind the Saturn V moon rocket and space shuttle.

SpaceX will perform a static fire test sometime Saturday to test the rocket’s systems. Once complete, the rocket will return to the Horizontal Integration Facility for mating with the Dragon spacecraft.

Falcon 9 will perform its east-coast return to flight with the CRS-10 mission to the International Space Station, slated for February 18. Following liftoff, the rocket’s first stage will return to Cape Canaveral for a landing at LZ-1, the third time the company has done so.

Below, the Falcon 9 rocket is seen prior to being erected vertical at LC-39A.(Photo credit: William Harwood/CBS.)

P/C: Elon Musk/William Harwood.

The Space Shuttle Discovery soars skyward from Launch Pad 39B on Mission STS-64 at 6:22:35 p.m. EDT, September 9, 1994. On board were a crew of six: Commander Richard N. Richards; Pilot L. Blaine Hammond Jr.; and Mission Specialists Mark C. Lee, Carl J. Meade, Susan J. Helms and Dr. J.M. Linenger. Payloads for the flight included the Lidar InSpace Technology Experiment (LITE), the Shuttle Pointed Autonomous Research Tool for Astronomy 201 (SPARTAN201) and the Robot Operated Processing System (ROMPS).

The workhorse of the Kennedy Space Center.  The crawlers transported the large rockets and Space Shuttle to the launch pads.  Sometime soon, these old, tough machines will be transporting the SLS rockets to the launch pad.


     Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center, on Northern Merritt Island, Florida, was built in the mid-1960s, to launch the Saturn V moon rocket for peaceful exploration of space. Over the years, this complex launched every Saturn V, Saturn IB, all the Space Shuttle missions, and an Ares I rocket. Needless to say, this is the most iconic launch facility in history. The complex is split into two launch pads; 39A and 39B. Both pads launched Saturn rockets and shuttles, but the future of these pads will tell very different stories.

     The first photo in the set shows the crawlerway leading out to Launch Pad 39A. This path holds the weight of the crawler transporter as it moves the launch vehicles from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the pad. The second and third photos display the pad itself, which is now owned by SpaceX. As you can see, the shuttle launch tower is still in place, but this will eventually be scrapped, and SpaceX will convert the area for use with the Falcon 9 Heavy rocket. When this vehicle launches, it will be the most powerful rocket currently flying. The fourth photo shows a Liquid Hydrogen tank, which stored propellant for the space shuttle.

     Photo number five shows Launch Pad 39B, photographed from Launch Control Center, 3.5 miles away. The sixth photo shows the pad up close. NASA removed the shuttle launch tower from this facility, and constructed three large towers, used for lightning suppression, shown up close in the seventh photo. This pad configuration allows multiple types of launch vehicles to operate here, and will allow commercial companies to rent the facility when NASA doesn’t need it. NASA’s primary use for 39B will focus around the enormous Space Launch System (SLS), which is the most powerful rocket in history, edging out the Saturn V boosters that previously launched here. 

     The SLS mobile launch platform and tower, stored next to the Vehicle Assembly Building, can be seen in in the eighth photo. Our final photo shows a shuttle mobile launch platform next to the new SLS launch platform and tower. 

     When people hear the phrase “most magical place on earth”, their thoughts instantly drift to The Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I may be a sucker for “Disney magic”, but when I hear that phrase, I think of a location about an hour east of Orlando; a place where my dreams come true called NASA Kennedy Space Center. This photoset displays key infrastructure used to support iconic Apollo and Space Shuttle programs that operated from this location.      Photos One, Two & Three: The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is the largest single story building in the world. The building consists of four “high bays”, each with its own hangar door, which are the largest doors in the world. In the first photo, High Bay Three is open. The area inside is so large that it often creates fog near the top of the high bays. If the air conditioning quits, it actually rains inside the building. The VAB was constructed in 1966 for the purpose of assembling Saturn V rockets and was later used to assemble Space Shuttle components until 2011. Now, this building will be used to assemble the new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, along with multiple launch vehicles for different private and commercial space companies. The first photo shows Launch Control in the foreground, attached to the VAB. You can see inside of Firing Room 4 at Launch Control in my previous article (click here to view).      Photo Four: Space shuttle orbiters are essentially a pickup truck. If you have a big pickup, it’s nice to have a big garage. This is where the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) comes in. After flight, the shuttle orbiters were transported to one of three OPF buildings. There, they would be inspected and refurbished with no nut or bolt untouched. After every mission, the Main Engines and Orbiter Maneuvering System Pods were replaced. Any hardware needed for the next mission was installed and the orbiter would be rolled to the VAB, where it would be mated to the entire shuttle stack. OPF buildings 1 and 2 now house the Air Force operated Boeing X-37B space planes. OPF 3 contains Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft, which will be used as a taxi to the International Space Station.      Photo Five: The Crawler-Transporters, a pair of 6,000,000 lb tractors, were constructed to move the Saturn V rocket from the VAB to their launch pads. These vehicles have also transported every space shuttle. To move a rocket, the crawler positions itself under a mobile launch platform on which the launch vehicle rests. The platform is lifted atop the crawler, then transported to the pad where the crawler sets it down. The crawler then moves out from under the mobile launch platform, retreating to a safe distance away from the launch. After launch, the crawler must retrieve the mobile launch platform, bringing it back to the VAB for the next launch cycle. Since 1977, these crawlers have covered over 2,500 miles back and forth on this 3.5 mile stretch of roadway.      Photos Six & Seven: Prior to the construction of the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF), the space shuttle orbiter landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. This required a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft to transport the orbiter back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which was expensive. On March 18, 1974, the SLF idea was announced. After a groundbreaking ceremony, construction began on one of the largest runways in the world. Shuttles could then land at Kennedy Space Center, the port from which they would launch, making the operation of a reusable spacecraft drastically more efficient. Major efforts are conducted to control local birds and reptiles. Alligators tend to bask in the sun on this landing strip. A few hours prior to a shuttle landing, a brave individual would drive the length of the runway and remove alligators by hand.

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space when the space shuttle Challenger launched on mission STS-7 from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The STS-7 crew consisted of astronauts Robert Crippen, commander, the first two-time space shuttle astronaut; Frederick H. Hauck, pilot; and three mission specialists – Ride, John M. Fabian and Norman E. Thagard.

This high-angle view of the shuttle liftoff, showing a lengthy stretch of Florida Atlantic coastline and a number of large cumulus clouds, was photographed with a handheld 70mm camera by astronaut John W. Young, who piloted the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) for weather monitoring at launch and landing sites for STS missions.

One of Sally Ride’s jobs was to call out “Roll program” seven seconds after launch. “I’ll guarantee that those were the hardest words I ever had to get out of my mouth,” she said later.

The rising sun and some scattered clouds provide a picturesque backdrop for the Space Shuttle Discovery as it travels along the Crawlerway toward Launch Pad 39A in preparation for the STS-83 mission. The Shuttle is on a Mobile Launch Platform, and the entire assemblage is being carried by a large tracked vehicle called the Crawler Transporter. A seven-member crew will perform the second sevicing of the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope (HST) during the 10-day STS-82 flight, which launched on February 11, 1997.