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.