The John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is the U.S. government installation that manages and operates America's astronaut launch facilities. Serving as the base for the country's three space shuttles, the NASA field center also conducts unmanned civilian launches from adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (operated by the 45th Space Wing). KSC has been the launch site for every U.S. human space flight since December 1968. Its iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is the fourth-largest structure in the world by volume and was the largest when completed in 1965.
Located on Merritt Island, Florida, the center is north-northwest of Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic Ocean, midway between Miami and Jacksonville on Florida's Space Coast. It is 34 miles (55 km) long and roughly 6 miles (10 km) wide, covering 219 square miles (570 km2). A total of 13,500 people worked at the center as of 2008.
All launch operations are conducted at Launch Complex 39 (LC-39), where the shuttle's major components (orbiter, external fuel tank and booster rockets) arrive, are stacked (mated) and checked out inside the VAB; then moved to Pad 39A for launch. Shuttles were also launched from adjoining Pad 39B until 2007, when it was modified for the 2009 Ares I-X launch. Both pads are on the ocean, 3 miles (5 km) east of the VAB. The Shuttle Landing Facility, among the longest runways in the world, is just to the north. From 1969–1972, LC-39 was the departure point for all six Apollo manned Moon landing missions using the Saturn V, the largest and most powerful operational launch vehicle in history.
The KSC Industrial Area, where many of the center's support facilities are located, is 5 miles (8 km) south of LC-39. It includes the Headquarters Building, the Operations and Checkout Building and the Central Instrumentation Facility. KSC is also home to the Merritt Island Spaceflight Tracking and Data Network station (MILA), a key radio communications and spacecraft tracking complex. The center operates its own short-line railroad.
KSC is a major Central Florida tourist destination and is approximately one hour's drive from Walt Disney World and other theme parks in the Orlando area. The Visitor Complex offers public tours of the center and adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Because much of the installation is a restricted area and only nine percent of the land is developed, the site also serves as an important wildlife sanctuary; Mosquito Lagoon, Indian River, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore are other features of the area. Center workers can encounter Bald Eagles, American alligators, wild boars, Eastern Diamondback rattlesnakes, Florida panthers and Florida manatees. KSC is one of ten major NASA field centers, and has several facilities listed on the National Register of Historic Places.