Space News

VAB architects honored: NASA's most famous building receives ‘Test of Time' award

Emilee Speck

Driving over the Indian River to the Brevard County barrier islands the Vehicle Assembly Building with its football-field size American flag and NASA meatball logo looms large to the east. What would become NASA's most notorious building began with a sketch created in a few hours by a 25-year-old architect.

More than 50 years after that first sketch, the design and project team behind the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, and Launch Control Center, will be recognized Saturday by the Florida Association of the American Institute of Architects for creating an architectural design that has stood the test of time through the Apollo and space shuttle programs and dozens of hurricanes.

In 1962, Richard Bergmann was 25 and working at a firm under architect Max O. Urbahn when he was tasked with sketching what would become the VAB.

"Mr. Urbahn came into my office and said that the meeting was this afternoon at two o'clock, and this is at nine o'clock in the morning, and if I could whip together a sketch," Bergmann said.

The young architect didn't have a lot of information about how the building would be used, but Urbahn told him it would house the Saturn V rocket. Before becoming an architect, Bergmann served in the U.S. Army and was familiar with rockets.

"I had some idea what was involved. I didn't realize the scale of it at the time," he said. "But when he explained it to me that the rocket was going to be 350 feet tall, and it would have to fit in the doors and all that kind of stuff, it kind of dawned on me that this is one big building."

In a few hours Bergmann made his design, then ordered an 8-foot-tall print to place in the meeting room where Urbahn would present the sketch to famed German aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun and other NASA officials.

The design was a hit, said Bergmann, but then the real work began for more than two years nonstop.

VAB project manager Philip Moyer, now 95, spoke to News 6 ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The War War II combat veteran returned after serving his country to study architecture and engineering and would serve as the project manager for the VAB build after arriving in Titusville in 1961.

“We started design immediately. I would say it was built in stages -- when we were ready with the piling,” Moyer said. “By '65, we had pretty much designed the whole building.”

On Saturday, Bergmann, family members of Urbahn, Moyer and NASA's Associate Technical Director Kelvin Manning will accept the AIA “Test of Time” award in Orlando at the Florida AIA 2019 Design and Honor Awards.

According to NASA, construction began with the first steel pilings on Aug. 2, 1963.

“The piles in this building go down 180 feet,” Moyer said. “There's a layer of lime rock down there and you're talking about hundreds of piles."

Completed in 1965, the VAB is 525 feet tall and 518 feet wide and was one of the largest buildings in the world for its time with 129,428,000 cubic feet of interior volume. The four doors in each high bay are among the largest in the world at 456 feet tall, which take about 45 minutes to open.

The huge American flag was later painted onto the VAB in 1976, according to NASA.

Bergmann also designed the Kennedy Space Center Launch Control Center which presented its own unique challenges.

The six-story building next to the VAB is where the firing room and launch operations team works and has giant windows facing the Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39A 3 1/2 miles away.  The building is longer than a football field and includes all the computers and control panels in it to launch the vehicle, Bergmann said.

Bergmann said NASA officials feared if the Saturn V exploded on the pad, the debris could fly 3 miles away.

"They were afraid from the blast that it would shatter all the windows," he said. "So we put on the big movers, they were like it airplane wings, over the glass, that could be slammed shut in a hurry" to protect the team inside the Launch Control Center.

Thankfully, the giant window shutters were never necessary.

Bergmann was at Kennedy Space Center on July 20, 1969 when the Saturn V launched sending Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin to the moon.

"The rumble from the rocket was all inspiring," Bergmann said. "A 500-foot long tunnel of flame coming out of the back while it was lifting off the ground. Very impressive to say the least."

Bergmann, now lives in Venice, Fla., with his wife, where he continues to take on projects and makes time for hobbies, including photography and creating stainless steel sculptures.

Since the space shuttle program ended in 2011, crews at the Kennedy Space Center have been preparing the VAB and Launch Control Center for the next launches to the moon with the Space Launch System under the Artemis program.

Moyer is proud of the legacy the VAB has and how it has continued to serve U.S. space programs through the years.

“The way that they've taken care of it, the addition of the American flag outside made it an icon and something that every citizen in the United States can be proud of,” Moyer said.

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