Editor’s Note: Yesterday, the Obama Administration announced the formation of the “White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force,” which is to be led by Vice President Joe Biden. But as Clifton Leaf, Fortune’s Deputy Editor, writes in a commentary about the new cancer initiative, the Vice President could get some valuable insight as to what’s needed most in this endeavor by studying the unglamorous—and largely unheralded—effort to construct the Apollo Program’s “Moonport” in the 1960s. Fortune published the following story on that project back in February 1966, in which the unnamed author offers an early look at the emerging space center on Florida’s Merritt Island—a place where “examples of man’s ingenuity in the struggle with cosmic forces abound.”
The fifty-two-story cube and the three towering steel skeletons at the left, jutting from the Florida flatlands, suggest a twentieth-century return to the massive monument building of past ages. But the great building and the 446-foot gantries are no idle monuments. Prosaically named Launch Complex 39, they are being constructed to launch the manned rockets that the U.S. plans to land on the moon by 1970. When the $750-million NASA project at Merritt Island is completed this summer, it will be the first fully integrated launch center in the U.S.
Its operations will begin when the components of a three-stage Saturn 5 rocket and Apollo spacecraft are shipped in from test facilities in other areas. They will be assembled vertically on the steel structures shown in the picture—they are mobile launchers—inside a 525-foot-high room, the heart of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Then a giant 5,500,000-pound “crawler-transporter” will carry the rocket and launcher over a specially constructed roadway wider than the New Jersey Turnpike to one of two launch pads three and a half miles away. Thus a rocket can be set up and fired in a matter of days, rather than in weeks or months as at the Cape Kennedy sites, where assembly and testing on the pad is cumbersome and vulnerable to bad weather. The same instruments that check the rocket’s systems during testing control them in launch and flight—also an improvement over present practice, which requires two separate sets of instruments.
At Merritt Island, examples of man’s ingenuity in the struggle with cosmic forces abound. The assembly building is so enormous and cavernous that rainstorms could form in its interior; great fans keep air circulating to prevent that from happening. Test instruments inside thebuilding that report on the rocket’s complex conditions during testing are so incredibly sensitive that they are even adjusted for the resistance offered by the wires that transmit the data. Thus Launch Complex 39 simulates the moon journey itself in its dimensions—from the vast to the infinitesimal.
(Below left) The biggest room in the world, where moon rockets will be assembled, has the tallest window in the world (400 feet). The galleries flanking the translucent window are the edges of platforms that face two tall rocket bays. Technicians on the platforms will be able to work on all levels of the rockets during vertical assembly.
(Above top right) An Apollo-Saturn mooncraft will sit on this mobile launch platform, viewed above from the top of the gantry tower. Searing exhaust gases will pass through center hole when Saturn is mounted on the launch pad (overleaf) and its three liquid-fuel boosters ignite. When they have built up 65 percent of their 7,500,000-pound thrust, the four supporting clamps will release the rocket.
(Above bottom right) Ten-foot-square television screens face out over hundreds of instrument consoles in one of the launch complex’s four “firing rooms.” Technicians at the consoles will receive and analyze information from the mooncraft and send instructions during launch and flight.
In the aerial photograph shown above, pipelines, service roads, and crawlerway converge on a launch pad, a forty-eight-foot mound of earth and concrete. The crawler will deposit the rocket and the mobile launch platform on four anchors at the near end of the flame trench, jack itself down, and back away. The trench directs the rocket’s exhaust at a 350-ton steel-and-ceramic flame deflector, which will be rolled up on the rails at the far end.
For more on space shuttles, watch this Fortune video:
This article was originally published in the February 1966 issue of Fortune.