Growing Past the Plateaus

I’m fascinated by the process of learning. Since the end of my college days in the Eighties, I’ve taught myself a number of things, and I’ve learned a bit about the process. I’m especially intrigued by the process of plateau followed by progress, slowly climbing a ladder of comprehension as I dive deeper into a subject.

It was easy to see that process as I was learning to play the bass guitar over the last six years. When I first bought a bass, I already understood music theory. I knew how the notes I was playing (or trying to play) fit into a song’s overall harmony and I understood the function of rhythm. But that knowledge was a far cry from playing a favorite bass line without missing a beat or a note. I’ve come a long way from those first painful-sounding notes. I’m no virtuoso today, but I can hold my own. And I love it.

The process hasn’t been quick. Over the years, I’ve hit many plateaus. These are times when I would continue to practice, but not seem to improve. Frustrating. And sometimes I’d give up for a couple of days. Then, when I picked up the bass again, I discovered that I’d been able to move on. I could nail the passages that were too difficult to master only a few days earlier. Progress after the plateau. 

And it’s always the same. I’m working now to master my coding skills with Javascript. I’ve been coding as a hobby for nearly forty years, starting with BASIC when I first got a Timex-Sinclair 1000 in 1982. Since then, I’ve learned a number of languages to some degree or another, including Pascal, Visual Basic, Java, C#, and Javascript. My current focus is Javascript, and once again, I’m seeing the plateaus and the progress.

My most recent plateau involved incorporating modules into the code for my Eclipse Phase website. I had been creating a new script file for each system I wanted to incorporate. It’s a practice I’d learned with other languages, and I find it a lot easier to manage multiple, shorter script files than one enormous file. One function, creating random names from a database of hundreds of possibilities in more than twenty languages resulted in a very large script file. Including the random name function, and everything else, into one script file, just felt overwhelming. Even with bookmarks, finding the code I wanted to work on was a daunting thought. But, Javascript doesn’t necessarily work well with so many script files. 

What to do? My solution seemed to lie in using modules. In Javascript, modules are script files that can share their functions and variables with other scripts. Okay, I thought, that’s what I want. I can separate out my random names code simply share the randomName() function with the other scripts that need it. What I didn’t know was that modules impose ‘strict mode’ on the code. 

Javascript CodeIt’s important to note that learning on your own means you can’t just raise your hand to get an answer to a question. I’m relying on a few books and a lot of google-foo to get the answers I want. It’s often a pain. I can ask Google anything I want, but Google only responds with what it thinks the answer to my actual question might be. So when I modularized my code, it took me a couple of days to figure out that ‘strict mode’ didn’t like some of the ways I was doing things. And after all the work I’d done to get the site working, I felt deeply frustrated. Functions that had worked before now showed up as ‘undefined’ and buttons necessary for the site no longer worked. 

So, I had to learn another way to achieve my goals. When I couldn’t find an answer, I posted a question on Stack Overflow. Within a few hours, I had my answer. I had no idea that using onclick in HTML was considered bad form! But now, instead of onclick’s, I started using .addEventListener. Hurdle overcome,  I’m moving ahead with my project and anticipating the next challenge. Bring it on, Javascript, bring it on.

Learning Feeds the Mind

I love learning new things because learning feeds the mind.

Growing up, my brother played the trumpet and after college, he learned to play the guitar. I was always intimidated by musical instruments. I was never musically inclined, but inspired by my musician friends,  I wanted to learn. I discovered MIDI, bought a keyboard and plugged it into a computer. All I could do was plink the keys, but once it was hooked up to a software sequencer, I learned enough musical theory that I could create music. Some of my work is right here on this site.  In 2014, I started learning to play the bass guitar. Over the years, my little Hofner has been a joy.

The Glory of Rome

The Glory of Rome

In the Nineties, I became fascinated by ancient Roman history. I spent long hours reading everything I could find about the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. I learned about the history and intricate nature of that brutal society, its odd quirky traditions, its hardcore military, and the particularly vicious political system that makes modern American politics pale in comparison. That inspired me to create an online game, The Glory of Rome, which gave players an opportunity to lead a Roman noble house during the last century of the Republic.

The Glory of Rome

The Glory of Rome

I was an early adopter of the internet. I originally was an AOL subscriber, and when they started allowing users to create web pages, I was all in. Building a page back then was a clunky, ugly affair. But I learned what I needed to know to do what I wanted to do. Over the last 25 years, I’ve built quite a few sites, always learning what I didn’t know to do it passably well. I picked up bits and pieces of the developing HTML spec and the newer technologies of CSS, Javascript, and various extensions like JQuery.

Now, I’m taking that to a new level. And it’s a good thing that I like to learn. The first thing I recognized as I approached this new endeavor is that the field has exploded with new technologies and options. It’s overwhelming, and the more I dig into it, the more there is to know. I’m focusing on improving my skills with the three core technologies: HTML, CSS, and Javascript. Every day brings new opportunities to learn. And my understanding of what I’m doing with the code is growing.

 

JavaScript Code Snippet

I learn best by doing, and with that in mind, I’m building a new web app. The goal of the site is to provide inspiration to players of a science-fiction roleplaying game. The exterior challenge is to create a dynamic and interesting narrative tidbits to prompt users’ imaginations. The interior challenge is to figure out how to deliver that to the users. The HTML must be well structured, the CSS must create a modern visual ambiance that supports the theme, and the Javascript must be crisp and efficient.

I love learning new things because learning feeds the mind. I want to be a professional coder. I don’t know why lies ahead, only that I’ve got work to do to reach that goal. Bring it on.

Wading through the Technobabble

So last night, as I was trying to fall asleep, my mind awoke and began presenting me with ideas for the project I’m currently working on. Despite my decided preference for sleep, I finally gave up and went to my desk to get some thoughts down in code.

VSCode

That’s when I ran into a roadblock. I’m using VSCode to create a web app. And the extension that allows you to see your changes instantly had decided, without my approval, not to work. Instead of showing my site, it through up an error I’d never seen before. Instead of letting the creativity flow, I had to stop and try to figure out how to fix the problem.
In these situations, I always jump immediately into a google search. Errors and problems like this are rarely unique. But, in this case, the suggested answers were in a language I don’t speak well: gibberish.

I’m not bad at deciphering technobabble, but this was over my head. None of it made sense to me. The error code, as is usually the base, offered little direction, referring to components and actions I don’t comprehend. After struggling to make sense of it, I finally gave up, left a bug report in a hopefully appropriate Github location, and went back to bed.

This morning, I went through the rather drastic steps of uninstalling and reinstalling VSCode. That didn’t solve the problem. I had to google “completely uninstall VSCode” to figure out how to get VSCode entirely off my system. I followed the steps provided by Google, reinstalled, and now everything works as it should. I still have no idea what I might have done to cause the problem, which means I’ll have a hard time avoiding it in the future.

This type of frustration is quite common, especially for people like me who are learning it as I go along. But the key is to solve the problem and move forward — any way you can.

P.S. Just to irritate me, my keyboard suddenly began lagging this afternoon. Apparently Microsoft decided I need to have the “Filter Keys” setting turned on. I only figured that out after an hour of searching Google for answers. Suck it hard, Microsoft.

The Mercury 13

In 1960, Dr. William Lovelace invited female aviator Jerrie Cobb to undergo the same series of tests he had designed for the screening of the NASA’s Mercury astronauts. She first flew at the age of 12. By the time she was 29, Cobb was a highly experienced pilot, with more than seven thousand hours in the air and held three aviation world records. She readily accepted Lovelace’s offer.

Jerrie Cobb

Nineteen other women were recruited to also undergo the testing. Eventually thirteen, including Cobb, passed the first phase of physical testing. They were called the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, but were better known as the Mercury 13. Cobb and two others went through Phase II, which consisted of psychological evaluations and an isolation tank test. Phase III involved medical testing using Navy jets and equipment. Cobb passed, but the tests were shut down. The Navy refused to allow the unofficial and unsanctioned tests to continue.  But Cobb has passed all three phases with flying colors, ranking among the top two percent of all the men and women who underwent the tests.[1]

Cobb didn’t give up, going to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the continuation of the testing program. In May 1961, NASA Administrator James Webb appointed her as a special consultant. A year later, in July of 1962, she testified before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronauts on the qualifications of astronauts. In her opening remarks, she said, “We hope that you ladies and gentlemen will, after these hearings and due consideration, help implement the inclusion of qualified women in the U.S. manned space program.”[2]

NASA stood its ground. Chief of Manned Space Flight George Low, along with John Glenn and Scott Carpenter defended NASA’s selection criteria. They explained that NASAQ had no bias against women, but the no women were qualified. Glenn told the subcommittee: “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design an build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”

The hearings ended and so did the official discussion of women as astronauts. Meanwhile, the first woman to fly in space was already in training. She just wasn’t an American.

The first American woman in space was Sally Ride, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, twenty-two years after Alan Shepard’s first flight.  Ride was selected as part of NASA’s Astronaut Group 8 in 1978. Group 8 was the first new astronaut class since 1969. The thirty-five selected included the first six women, three African-Americans[3] and Asian-American to become astronauts.


[1] https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasacommons/9457843321/in/photolist-fpKVja-r8qWwg-cubwDj

[2] https://www.scribd.com/document/81825267/Qualifications-for-Astronauts-Hearing-1962

[3] Major Robert Lawrence, an African-American, was selected by the Air Force in 1967 to become an astronaut in their Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, but he was died after ejecting from an F-104 jet at Edwards Air Force Base in December of 1967. The MOL program was cancelled in 1969, and seven of the astronauts in the program transferred to NASA and flew during the Space Shuttle program. Lawrence could easily have been one of them.

The In-Flight Menu: Food in the Space Race

An excerpt from Before This Decade is Out

Yuri Gagarin was the first man in orbit, and the first man to attempt eating and drinking in space. Soviet and American doctors weren’t sure if it could even be done, so it was a priority to find out as soon as possible. During his flight, Gagarin sampled from a toothpaste-style tube containing meat paste and one containing chocolate sauce. Other foods used in the early Soviet missions included soups, cottage cheese and coffee, all of which were stored in the tube containers.

John Glenn became the first American to eat in space. He, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper were treated to an unappetizing diet consisting of pureed foods sucked with a straw out of aluminum tubes. They proved that humans could chew and swallow, as well as drink, while in orbit. The menu included things like apple sauce and pureed beef and vegetables.  There were also cubes of dehydrated foods packed in plastic. These would be rehydrated as they were chewed.

For the longer duration Gemini missions, NASA introduced freeze-dried, pre-cooked foods. These were usually coated with oil or gelatin to prevent crumbling and packed in a thick plastic bag with a valve for water at one end. Cold water from the spacecraft was used to rehydrate the food for consumption and the bag would be cut open with scissors. The menu included shrimp cocktail, beef stew, chicken and rice, and turkey with gravy. Fruit flavored drinks and cocoa were available Three meals were provided per day and the menu was repeated every four days. One example breakfast meal included peaches, bacon squares, cinnamon toast bread cubes, grape drink, and orange drink.[1] Each day, the diet provided for 2,500 calories.

Things improved on Apollo. The meal plan provided the astronauts with 2,800 calories per day. The variety of freeze-dried foods increased. The Command Module provided hot water as well as cold. The packaging was easier to open and the food could be eaten with a spoon. In addition, food could also be stored in Wet Packs that didn’t need to be rehydrated. The selection of drinks expanded to include coffee, tea and lemonade. Over the course of the program, the astronauts were given more freedom to choose their own meals. New items were added to the menus, including hot dogs and ham. Free flowing salt and pepper would have created a terrible mess, so liquid alternatives were provided. If the Command Module was depressurized for any reason, the astronauts would be able to eat liquid foods through a port built into their helmets.

For the cosmonauts, the tubes remained in use but were bolstered can canned foods and foods contained in plastic pouches. Bread was baked in one-bite rolls to prevent crumbs. Meat, including veal, ham, and steak was prepared just before launch. The Soviets didn’t begin experimenting with dehydrated foods until 1974 aboard Salyut 3.[2] The Soviets also allowed cosmonauts small rations of vodka and brandy.

Oh, before I forget. Two notes about famous space foods.

John Glenn did drink Tang on his orbital mission. It was also carried aboard some Gemini flights. It was not, however, created by or for NASA. William Mitchell created it for General Foods, who began marketing it in 1957. Mitchell is the same clever guy who gave us Cool Whip and Pop Rocks candy.

And that freeze-dried Astronaut Ice Cream people loved to buy at souvenir stores? NASA had mistakenly included it on a list of foods aboard the Apollo 7 mission, but it didn’t actually make the cut. Because of its crumbly nature, it would have created too much of a mess in microgravity.


[1] https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/143163main_Space.Food.and.Nutrition.pdf

[2] Comparison Of Soviet And U.S. Space Food And Nutrition Programs, Page 1-8, https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19890010688.pdf

Writing Space History – Part I

I am wrapping up my first week of working full time on a book I’m called “Before This Decade Is Out.” It’s a history of the Space Race, of the American Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs; the Soviet Vostok, Voshkod and Soyuz missions; and the memories of the people who worked on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center. As I prepared to publish my father’s memoirs, I realized that there were thousands of other people with their own perspective of life at the Cape. I’ve read the books about and by the astronauts and other key figures, but I wanted to know more about what the grunts doing the work on the ground to make the programs a success.

John Glenn boarding Friendship 7 before becoming the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962.

Hence, the new book. I’m seeking out those eyewitnesses who are still with us to find out what their experiences were from the time. I’ve had to figure out how best to record telephone or video chats (OBS Studio is my friend), and how to efficiently transcribe them. While I’m searching for more interviews, I’ve created the basic structure of the book. It’s organized chronologically, with a series of entries about the missions, the astronauts and the key events that took place from 1958 to 1973.

Apollo 12 Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon orbiting the moon aboard the Yankee Clipper.

Writing history requires accurate sources, and here I’m eternally grateful to the work of the early NASA historians, whose comprehensive works are available online. Other sources were written by historians or the participants themselves. Notable among them so far is flight controller Gene Kranz’s autobiography Failure Is Not an Option, Andrew Chaikan’s A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, and Moon Shot, which includes memories from astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. The writing requires a measure of precision. Not all of the sources agree on the details, which becomes a distraction and requires additional research. Finding just the right words to explain concepts, like orbital maneuvering, takes time and requires frequent rewrites.

The ascent stage of a Lunar Module being prepared for flight.

The first draft is going to take at least several more weeks, but this is a passion project for me. And when all is said and done, I hope you’ll enjoy the amazing story I’m trying to tell!


Cape Canaveral: A Brief History of America’s Spacecoast.

The Cape was named by the Spanish explorers sailing the Atlantic coast in the 16th century. It was located halfway between the settlement at Saint Augustine, which was founded in 1565, and the mission built in what is now Miami in 1567.  Some called it the Cape of Currents, but the name Cabo Cañareal was first used during the explorations of Francisco Gordillo in the 1520s and began appearing on maps forty years later.  What we now know as the Indian River was originally named Rio de Ais, named after the native Ais tribe.

Cape Canaveral from orbit. Taken by the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis during STS-43 in August of 1991.

The French and Spanish both attempted to settle the area, unsuccessfully, and the Spanish built small fortifications on the Cape. But, the first settlers didn’t arrive until after Florida had become a U.S. territory.

One of the first permanent settlements in the area was Dummitt Grove. Located on the northern end of Merritt Island, it was founded by Captain Douglas Dummitt.[1][2][3] Dummitt grafted buds from sweet orange trees onto his sour orange trees, establishing the popular Indian River brand that exists today.

Florida became a state in 1845. In 1855, the Cape area became part of Brevard County.[4] After the Civil War, farmers began planting pineapple and sugar cane. Ranchers raised cattle on Merritt Island.  As more people moved into the region, new communities were founded.[5]

The railroad depot in Titusville, from a 1905 postcard.

Sand Point was founded in 1859, but it wasn’t developed until Henry Titus arrived in 1867. He set about creating a town, laying out roads and donating land for a courthouse and churches. Legend has it that Titus won a game of dominoes to win the right to rename the town, which became Titusville in 1873. It was incorporated in 1887, at about the same time the railroads were built through the area. In the early part of the 20th century, the population began to grow. The 1950 census shows 2,604 people lived in Titusville. That number reached 6,410 in 1960 and 30,515 by 1970.

The area that is now Melbourne was first settled in the late 1860s. Originally known as Crane Creek, the settlement was named Melbourne when it was incorporated in 1888. Home to 2,677 people in 1950, the population had shot up to 40,236 by 1970.  Eau Gallie, which was founded in 1860, became part of Melbourne in 1969.

The town of Cocoa, located between Titusville and Melbourne on the Indian River, was settled by fisherman in about 1860. It was originally called Indian River City, but the U.S. Post Office rejected the name, saying it was too long to use on a postmark. In 1884, the name was changed to Cocoa and it was incorporated as such eleven years later. Its population was 3,098 in 1940, and rose to 12,244 in 1960.[6]

Cocoa Beach. Courtesy: Dennis Adams, Federal Highways Administration.

Cocoa Beach is on the Atlantic coast, east of Cocoa. It was originally known as Oceanus, and settled by freed slaves.[7] It remained undeveloped for decades. In 1925, it became known as Cocoa Beach, but it wasn’t incorporated for another thirty-one years. The 1930 census revealed the town had a population of 31. In 1950, it was 246 people. A decade later, it had shot up to 3,475, and by 1970 there were almost ten thousand people living in Cocoa Beach.

A lighthouse was first built at the Cape in 1848. It was relocated to its present site in 1894, where it stands today. At a distance, some people would later confuse it with one of the missiles being launched nearby.

The Banana River Naval Air Station circa 1947. US Navy photo.

In the late 1930s, with the threat of war growing, the U.S. Navy established the Banana River Naval Air Station. It was commissioned in 1940. Its primary mission was sending out coastal patrol planes, necessary because German U-Boats prowled the East Coast. In fact, two ships were torpedoed in 1942 off the coast of the Cape. The Navy deactivated the station in 1947, and it was transferred to the Air Force. It became the Joint Long Range Proving Ground in 1949, and then three months later was renamed Patrick Air Force Base in 1950.


[1] https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Merritt_Island/Early_History.html.aspx

[2] https://fshs.org/proceedings-o/1926-vol-39/234-237%20(BASS).pdf

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/01/us/01citrus.html

[4] Brevard County Landmark Guide 2016, https://www.brevardfl.gov/docs/default-source/Files/index-and-historic-markers/landmark-guide-2016.pdf

[5] https://www.spaceline.org/capehistory/1a.html

[6] http://www.cocoafl.org/908/History-Culture

[7] Parrish, Ada Edmiston; Field, Alma Clyde; Harrell, George Leland (2001). Merritt Island and Cocoa Beach. Charleston, SC: Arcadia. ISBN 0738506680.

The First Launch from Florida

It all began on a lazy summer morning in 1950. There were a few scattered clouds in the sky. The temperature was a balmy 85 degrees, and there was a light wind blowing in from the southeast at ten miles an hour1. Only a handful of people knew what was happening that morning. It was the beginning of a new era.

The Launch of Bumper WAC 8 on July 24, 1950 from Cape Canaveral.

Witnesses from miles away saw it before they heard it. A point of light, trailing wisps of smoke. And then came the sound. A low rumbling roar.2 It was a noise that would become familiar to residents of Brevard County. It was the sound of a rocket engine.

It was the first launch from Cape Canaveral. July 24, 1950.

The rocket was called Bumper WAC 8. Not a particularly auspicious name, the Bumper WAC was a combination of a German V-2 rocket first stage, and a WAC Corporal second stage. They were designed to test two-stage rocket flight and extend the range of guided missiles.

The Bumper WAC program got underway in the summer of 1947, and the first test flight was held at the White Sands Missile Proving Grounds in New Mexico on May 13, 1948. Bumper 1 reached an altitude of 79 miles, but the WAC Corporal second stage cut off early. Three more tests were held in 1948. All of them were failures.

The fifth Bumper WAC test was conducted on February 24, 1949. This time everything worked well. The first stage worked flawlessly and the second stage separated and ignited at an altitude of 20 miles. It reached a maximum altitude of 244 miles, setting the record at the time.

A sixth test in April of that year failed.

At this point, the tests were moved to the new Joint Long Range Proving Ground at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Here, the rockets would be fired out over the Atlantic Ocean, allowing researchers to safely test for range instead of altitude.

Bumper 7 was scheduled for launch on July 19, 1950. But it failed to build enough thrust to lift-off. The humid air had corroded a fuel valve. It was removed from the launch stand and returned to Patrick Air Force Base for repairs.3

Bumper 8 was moved into its place, and was launched on July 24.

This time the launch was successful. The film of the launch shows the missile gaining altitude and arcing over into horizontal flight. Despite the fact the V-2 exploded mid-flight, the WAC Corporal separated cleanly.

Five days later, Bumper 7 was launched again. The test was a success, as the second stage set a speed record, flying just under 200 miles at an altitude of about 22 miles.

That was the end of the Bumper program. But, the stage had been set, and thousands of launches (and quite a few explosions) would follow in the decades afterward.

The First Man Into Space

Yuri Gagarin was short man with a big smile.  He was born in Klushino, a village about 140 miles west of Moscow, in March of 1934. His parents worked on a collective farm, his father as a carpenter and bricklayer and his mother as a milkmaid. The family survived the German occupation that began in November of 1941, living for 21 months in a mud hut behind their house, which had been occupied by a German officer.

When he was 16, Gagarin became an apprentice foundryman at a steel plant near Moscow, while continuing to take classes. He learned to fly while working at the Saratov Industrial Technical school.  After graduation, he was drafted by the Soviet Army and sent to Orenburg for training in the MiG-15. By November of 1959, he had been promoted to Senior Lieutenant.

Gagarin on a visit to Sweden in October 1964. Courtesy SAS Scandinavian Airlines

Gagarin was chosen for the Soviet space program in 1960.  He and 19 others underwent physical testing and training similar to the Mercury 7, but unlike the Americans, it was all conducted in strict secrecy.

On April 12, 1961, Gagarin became the first human being in space and the first to orbit the Earth. The flight of Vostok 1 began just after nine in the morning local time on April 12, 1961. “Let’s roll,” he told controllers after liftoff. It would take ten minutes for the Vostok to reach orbit and loft Gagarin into the history books. He would circle the Earth once in a flight that lasted 108 minutes. As he crossed the coast of Africa, his retrorockets fired, bringing him down in a rocky reentry caused in part when the equipment module didn’t separate cleanly from the descent module.

Courtesy Reubenbarton / Wikimedia Commons.

At about 23,000 feet, Gagarin ejected from the Vostok as planned and he parachuted safely to the ground. After landing, he told a startled farmer not to be afraid, and that he needed to find a telephone to call Moscow.

It was only after Gagarin was safely in orbit that the Soviet’s announced the mission publicly.

Gagarin on the cover of Time’s April. 21, 1961 issue. Courtesy Time Magazine.

After returning safely to Earth, Gagarin became an international celebrity, touring the world to celebrate the Soviet accomplishment. But, much like John Glenn, the Soviets wanted to keep Gagarin out of harm’s way. He was the backup pilot to Vladimir Komarov on the first flight of the Soyuz spacecraft in April of 1967. The flight completed 18 orbits in just under 27 hours, but with a series of technical problems that forced controllers to abort the mission. After re-entering the atmosphere, the main parachute and the reserve parachutes both failed, and Komarov began the first in-flight casualty of the Space Race when the Soyuz capsule crashed to the ground. After that Gagarin was banned from participating directly in the Soviet space program. He became the deputy director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre, which was later renamed in his honor.

Less than a year later, Gagarin was killed in what was called a routine training flight in March of 1968. The cause of the crash of the Mig-15UTI was investigated several times, but there’s never been a definitive answer to what caused the crash.

Gagarin’s Vostok 1 Capsule on display at the RKK Energiya Museum near Moscow. Photo courtesy SiefkinDR/Wikimedia Commons.

Big Rockets, Bigger Building

It is one of the enduring symbols of the U.S. Space Program, clearly visible from miles away as you approach the Kennedy Space Center. It’s the Vehicle Assembly Building, commonly known as the VAB, of of the largest buildings in the world. In the decades since it was built, it housed the enormous Saturn V, the Space Shuttles and soon, the Space Launch System.

The VAB was necessary because of the size of the Saturn V and the complex work necessary to put the elements of an Apollo mission together. Designed by Morrison-Knudsen, construction began in August of 1963. More than four thousand pilings were driven into the Florida bedrock, and 30,000 cubic yards of concrete were poured to create the foundation.

The massive facility was completed in 1965. It stands 526 feet tall and covers eight acres. The doors on each side are the largest in the world, at 456 feet high, and taken 45 minutes to completely open or close. They lead to the four high bays, where the Saturn V could be erected.

Apollo 14 rolls out of the VAB, headed for Pad 39A, on November 9, 1970.

Humidity can be a serious problem, so the building has a massive air conditioning system. Because the inside of the building is so large, rain clouds can actually form just below the ceiling on human days. And those big, flat walls had to be reinforced against wind, especially the powerful winds generated by hurricanes. The building was designed to withstand winds of up to 120 miles an hour.

The first stage of Apollo 8 inside the VAB on February 1st, 1968.

“I’d never seen a building that big before,” my father tells me. “The Lunar Module team had an office on the 14th or 15th floor. Windows in the office looked out over the interior, including the ground far below. I tried to keep my distance from the windows; they made me real nervous.”

Mating the Apollo 8 Command and Service module to the top of the Saturn V stack. October 1, 1968.

To accomplish the task of building the Saturn V, the building had 71 cranes and hoists, including two 250-ton bridge cranes. The VAB is 3.5 miles from Launch Pad 39A and 4.2 miles from Launch Pad 39B.  The trip aboard one of the two crawler-transports would take up to five hours.

After Skylab, the VAB was renovated to handle operations on the Space Shuttle. These days, it’s providing a home for the new Space Launch System.

For more on the effort to achieve John F. Kennedy’s challenge of putting a man on the moon, please check out my father’s memoirs. Missile Man: One Man’s Memories of Life on the Front Lines of the Space Race is now for sale on Amazon.com. The Kindle Edition is available now, and a Print-On-Demand version is coming soon.