Vehicle Assembly Building, John F. Kennedy Space Center

Merritt Island, Florida

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded in 1958 with a brief to plan and conduct nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities and to develop international space programs. The 140,000-acre (56,658-hectare) John F. Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island near Cape Canaveral, Florida, was originally established to support the Apollo lunar landing project. It is now operated by NASA as the main U.S. launching site for satellites and spaceflights. In terms of volume, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Space Center is the second largest building in the world, exceeded only by Boeing’s 747 aircraft factory in Seattle, Washington. Originally used to assemble Apollo and Saturn space vehicles, it was later modified to serve space-shuttle operations. It is an architectural feat because of its overwhelming size, but more because it was a building type without historic precedent. The new and difficult architectural design problems it presented (and addressed) have been clearly stated:

The design of the assembly building had to allow for stacking the (110-meter) Apollo-Saturn space vehicle on top of its 14-meter-high movable launch platform…. To handle the stages of the vehicle, bridge cranes had to span 45 meters and lift 121 metric tons to a height of 60 meters. The architect-engineers faced complex problems, particularly since the structure had to be capable of withstanding hurricane winds. To make room for … three or four vehicles of this size simultaneously required an enormous building [with] four high bays or checkout areas, each big enough to handle all stages of the Saturn V and the spacecraft … assembled in an upright position ready for launch…. Additional low bays would accommodate preliminary work on single stages.

(Benson and Faherty 1978, chapter 11).

In August 1962 URSAM, a New York consortium (architect Max Urbahn; structural engineers Roberts and Schaefer; mechanical and electrical engineers Seelye, Stevenson, Value and Knecht; and foundation specialists Moran, Proctor, Mueser and Rutledge) was commissioned to undertake design studies for what was then called the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB). They employed retired Col. William Alexander as project manager, and by the end of October preliminary designs were submitted.

The VAB—the acronym now indicates Vehicle Assembly Building—covers 8 acres (3.25 hectares). It is 716 feet (218 meters) long and 518 feet (158 meters) wide and consists of a 525-foot-tall (160-meter) “high-bay” section with four vehicle assembly and checkout bays; a 210-foot-tall (64-meter) “low-bay” section with eight stage-preparation and checkout cells; and a four-story Launch Control Center that houses