The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

book cover

Review: Rocket Ranch

Bookmark and Share

Rocket Ranch: The Nuts and Bolts of the Apollo Moon Program at Kennedy Space Center
by Jonathan H. Ward
Springer, 2015
paperback, 331 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-3-319-17788-5

The Kennedy Space Center is going through its biggest transformation in decades. Launch Complex 39B has been cleared of the gantries and infrastructure used during the shuttle program, turned into a basic pad to host launches of the Space Launch System and, possibly, other vehicles. SpaceX, which signed a lease last year for neighboring Launch Complex 39A, is completing its renovations of the site to support Falcon Heavy launches starting as soon as next spring, with crewed Falcon 9 launches to follow in 2017. A large hangar now sits near the base of the pad, on top of the crawlerway previously used to transport Saturn V and Space Shuttles. The three Orbiter Processing Facilities have also been handed over to Boeing; two are used for the Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane, and the third for the company’s CST-100 Starliner (see “A one-year recap of CCtCap”, The Space Review, September 14, 2015).

These and other changes, all part of NASA’s effort to convert KSC from a shuttle-specific facility to a multi-user spaceport, are the biggest changes to the site since at least the 1970s, if not since its original construction a half-century ago. The original development of those key facilities, including the Launch Complex 39 pads and the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), are at the heart of Jonathan Ward’s new book Rocket Ranch, a reminder of the challenges—and dangers—involved with building the operating the facilities that would send men to the Moon.

Ward interweaves the recollections of those who worked there, who tell the stories of life there during the Apollo era. Their stories humanize the technology with KSC’s facilities.

Ward’s focus in Rocket Ranch is on the effort to build the facilities, primarily at KSC, used for the Apollo missions. (An early section of the book looks at Launch Complexes 34 and 37, used for initial Saturn I launches, which were located on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station property.) “The book’s intent is to provide a glimpse of what it was like to work at Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center during the Apollo era,” he writes in the book’s introduction.

The book is part technical history, and part stories of the people who worked at KSC. Ward dives deeply at times into the details of how the center’s facilities were built and operated, including a comprehensive listing of who was in the firing rooms at the Launch Control Center, console by console. At times the density of technical details threatens to overwhelm all but the most dedicated reader.

It doesn’t, though, as Ward interweaves the recollections of those who worked there, who tell the stories of life there during the Apollo era. Most of the people interviewed by Ward were people on the front lines: engineers in the firing room and technicians at the pad. Managers and even astronauts make, at most, cameo appearances here.

Their stories humanize the technology with KSC’s facilities. Many of their anecdotes are about when things went wrong: a person pressing what he thought was an elevator call button, only to active a fire suppression system; efforts to track leaking liquid oxygen on the pad that raised the ire of a key manager; and malfunctions in various other tests there. Reading through them might make wonder how anything worked, but of course such events are the more compelling—or, at least, the most memorable—stories to come out events there nearly a half-century ago. And, they remind us of the limits of technology when it comes to flawed humans, and how humans overcome the flaws of technology.

That mix of anecdotal and technical history of KSC’s Apollo-era facilities works out well overall. There is enough of each to provide a balance to the story of how facilities we take for granted now were built and run during the heat of the Space Race. Those buildings and pads were built in an era of nearly unlimited funding, and with little thought of how they would be used after achieving President Kennedy’s goal of a human lunar landing by the end of the 1960s. Many of those structures have endured: the VAB will soon support its third generation of launch vehicles (Saturn, Space Shuttle, and soon SLS), and is virtually irreplaceable. That the VAB and other facilities at KSC endure to this day, through the ups and downs of the successors to Apollo, is in many respects a testament to the men and women included in Rocket Ranch who created and used them in the 1960s.