Florida and the Apollo Program
Preparing for Launch
President Kennedy’s determination to put a human on the Moon by 1970 captured America’s imagination, but a host of problems confronted NASA before they could pull off the project. One of the first issues—one that interested Florida very deeply—was where the “moonport” should be located. Cape Canaveral had been the chosen site for launching spacecraft up to this point, but it was not automatically selected as headquarters for the Apollo program. Eight sites were considered in total, ranging from Mayaguana Island in the Bahamas to the southern tip of the Big Island in Hawaii to Brownsville, Texas. The biggest contender against Cape Canaveral was just up the road in Cumberland Island, Georgia. It had port facilities, sparse development, low real estate prices, and it was very close to Jacksonville. It had two key disadvantages, however. Cumberland Island was one of very few islands on the east coast that hadn’t been developed, thanks to preservation efforts by the Carnegie family and later the National Park Service. It also wasn’t geographically in line with the established flight path for tracking spacecraft.
Still, Cape Canaveral had its own drawbacks. NASA personnel knew all too well that Brevard County remained seriously underdeveloped, lacking the schools, roads, infrastructure and services needed to support a large workforce. If Apollo was located at the Cape, would Brevard be able to catch up, or would it hinder the program’s progress? In the end, Senator Robert Kerr of Oklahoma helped tip the scales in Canaveral’s favor. Kerr chaired the Senate Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee, and he felt that NASA would be able to make the Cape work with a little long-range planning and cooperation with local and state authorities. Most importantly, it was already on the correct flight path for using existing tracking stations. After taking everything into consideration, NASA announced on August 24, 1961, that it would purchase 125 square miles of Brevard County territory for staging manned missions to the Moon.
The initial reaction to this news in Florida was enthusiastic. Governor Farris Bryant called it “the biggest development ever in the Florida economy.” Senator George Smathers marveled that “the first American on the Moon will start his historical voyage from Florida.” Don Holt, president of the Cocoa Beach Chamber of Commerce, estimated that Brevard County would soon add about 25,000 people to its population, spurring an unprecedented boom of construction and business activity. “Everybody is thrilled,” he said. “We think this will be good for everybody in the state.”
Planning for the Moon Boom
The potential economic benefits of Apollo were undeniable, but careful planning was needed to help Brevard County accommodate the flood of new arrivals. Two months after NASA announced their plans to expand their operations at Cape Canaveral, Governor Bryant established the Joint Community Impact Coordination Committee, with representatives from the state, NASA, the Air Force and the communities that stood to be affected most by Apollo. The group studied community problems ranging from education to sewage systems and roads and presented recommendations in a final report in 1963.
Better highways were one of the most obvious and immediate needs. U.S. 1 was still a two-lane road when Apollo was announced, but the State Road Department soon opened it up to four. Travelers looking to cross the Indian River onto Merritt Island had been limited for decades to just two causeways, one at Titusville and another at Cocoa. These became hopelessly jammed with space center traffic until state and federal authorities funded construction of the Emory L. Bennett Causeway (State Road 528) and the Orsino Causeway, later called the NASA Causeway. The Bennett Causeway was finished in 1962; the Orsino route opened two years later. State roads 3 and A1A also received upgrades during this period.
Even with these improvements, traffic congestion was still a problem, especially at rush hour, and engineers searched for ways to expand local roadways even more. At one point in 1965, the State Road Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hatched a plan to build an expressway down the middle of the Banana River on pilings. The “Banana Split,” as it was called, wasn’t very popular with residents or sailboat owners. It was slated to rise only 16 ½ feet above the water, not enough for many boats to sail underneath. These considerations, plus the immense cost, led highway officials to scrap the idea.
New schools were another priority. With state and federal aid, Brevard County constructed a host of new elementary, junior high and high schools to accommodate the influx of children whose parents had come to the Cape for the space industries. Three new elementary schools went up in 1966 alone, each with the name of a major space program—Apollo, Gemini and Saturn. Satellite High School opened in 1962 in Satellite Beach, and Astronaut High School began serving Titusville students in 1972. Construction didn’t always keep up with growth. Golfview Elementary School in Rockledge was slated to open in 1964, but enrollment surpassed the capacity of the new classrooms even before the contractors finished their work. School officials held a meeting to brief parents and with their input decided to open the school anyway, but with double sessions. Half the students attended in the morning; the other half came in after lunch.
For the adults, new institutions of higher learning appeared as well. Jerry Keuper, a nuclear physicist with both a job at RCA and a penchant for teaching, started the first one from scratch. Before coming to Florida, he had worked for the Remington Arms Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and taught calculus at night at a local school for engineering students whose jobs prevented them from taking traditional daytime classes. Keuper quickly realized that NASA’s growing workforce needed something similar. He shared the idea with a few of his colleagues, and soon they were meeting regularly at the Pelican Bar on State Road A1A in Melbourne to sketch out plans. The Brevard Engineering College emerged from these informal meetings. Classes were held three nights a week in rented classrooms at Eau Gallie Junior High School until a local bank allowed the school to use a vacant church building it owned at the time. By 1964, the school was fully accredited, and by 1966 it had its current name, the Florida Institute of Technology. By this point it had also moved to its current home in Melbourne.
A New Space University
Brevard Engineering College provided specialized training for Cape workers, but it could only do so much to meet the increasing need for higher education of all kinds in East Central Florida. “Recruiting scientists for work at Cape Canaveral is not difficult,” Launch Operations Center director Kurt Debus once said. “The problem is retaining them when they discover they’re on an educational dead-end street.”
In 1962, the Board of Control established the Space Age Education Study, led by consultant Dr. Ralph McDonald of Washington, D.C., and a team of Florida science educators. The group interviewed a host of professors, administrators and industry leaders to find out what kinds of higher education facilities and programs Florida needed to meet current and future needs. In the months leading up to the report, many Floridians assumed the study would call for a new “space university,” and clamored for it to be located in their backyard. Dr. McDonald’s report did call for a new university to be located in the Canaveral-Daytona-Orlando triangle, but that would only be part of the solution. “The key to success in the space era is brainpower,” he wrote, and as of 1963, Florida was woefully unprepared to produce it.
McDonald’s team called for high-quality research and doctoral programs at five state universities by the mid-1970s, including the new site in East Central Florida. The report also called for 10 new state colleges by 1980. Space-related sciences would be important, but so would the other disciplines only tangentially related to projects at Cape Canaveral. McDonald also suggested the state invest in other specialties like computerized information storage and retrieval and oceanography.
The new East Central Florida university was to be of unlimited potential, going well beyond the space sciences to quickly offer as broad a range of programs as Florida’s existing state universities. The legislature voted funding for the new school in 1963, calling it Florida Technological University. Many assumed the new institution would be located close to Cape Canaveral, but the state considered sites all over the region, eventually selecting a site just south of Orlando. Just as McDonald had recommended, Florida Technological University was a full-service school with a broad range of course offerings, but in the public mind it continued to be the space university. Perhaps that explains why Norman Van Meter, the man tasked with designing options for the school’s mascot, created the citronaut, a gremlin-like combination of an orange and an astronaut. This unique character was soon dropped in favor of the Golden Knight, as well as a striking Pegasus symbol that is still in use today. The school also changed its name in 1978 to the University of Central Florida.
How to Put a Human on the Moon
Back at the Cape, scientists and engineers were grappling with how to physically get a team of three astronauts into space, out to the Moon and back to Earth safely. There were three main ideas, the simplest of which was to launch the astronauts in a spacecraft that would go directly to the Moon and land. This was the suggestion of Robert R. Gilruth, head of the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center in Virginia. Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who had been brought to the United States after World War II to lead the American effort in military rocketry, favored building an Earth-orbiting space station and having the lunar mission leave from that point. The last major proposal came from John C. Houbolt on the Space Task Group at Langley. Houbolt envisioned sending the lunar mission straight to the Moon, establishing an orbit and then using a secondary spacecraft to land on the surface. Cape workers called it the rowboat method, since it was reminiscent of using a tender or dinghy to carry people and goods to shore from a large ship. All of these methods had risks and advantages, but Houbolt’s rowboat plan eventually won the day in December 1962. The Apollo crew would fly straight to the Moon and then land on its surface in a separate lunar module.
Another vexing question was where at Cape Canaveral to build the spacecraft and its rocket stages. For the Mercury and Gemini missions, NASA had built the ships right on the launch pad. This wouldn’t be so easy with Apollo. The Saturn V rocket that would carry the Apollo spacecraft into space was bigger and more complex, and NASA’s timeline called for many of them to be launched over a relatively short period of time. Dr. Kurt Debus, director of NASA’s Launch Operations Center, favored creating a large building where each ship would be assembled. At launch time, it would be transported to the pad and set into place. In the end, Debus had his way.
The engineering requirements for fulfilling the director’s vision were staggering. To properly house the Apollo vehicle during assembly, NASA would have to build something larger than any building then in existence. It would have to accommodate the Saturn V rocket and its platform at a combined 400-plus-foot height. It would need to provide 129 million cubic feet of open space, including room for the operation of cranes that could lift 110 tons as high up as 197 feet. And it would need to do all of this without falling victim to the hurricane-force winds coastal Florida was often subjected to, or sinking into the soft muddy soil of the Cape.
With help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a team of architectural and engineering firms, NASA completed the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) in 1966. It cost $112 million, and until 1974 it was the tallest building in Florida. It remains the largest single-story building in the world. The space inside the VAB is so expansive that it creates its own weather—when powerful air conditioners aren’t running at full blast, rain clouds can form near the ceiling.
One more major problem confronting NASA was how to get the Saturn-Apollo package out to the launch pad after it was fully constructed. This was a tall order, literally—moving the spacecraft would be like relocating a 400-foot skyscraper. The vehicle doing the moving would have to be extremely powerful, and the 4-mile pathway between the VAB and the launch pads would have to be very durable.
The solution was a unique NASA creation called the crawler-transporter, nicknamed the “Texas Tractor.” It featured two 2,750-horsepower diesel engines and four sets of treads to “walk” the Saturn-Apollo vehicle from the VAB out to launch complex 39. While it wasn’t the most attractive piece of space hardware at the Cape, it was powerful enough to get the job done, and by 1967 NASA was ready to begin putting the whole complex into motion.