Merritt Island (MILA), Florida
After tracking every shuttle, MILA antenna is shut down
Historic station at Kennedy Space Center kept eye on NASA launches since 1966
By Robert Z. Pearlman
With no more radio signals to relay from space shuttles in flight, NASA
parked a radio dish used to track launching and landing orbiters for the
The antenna is one of two steerable 30-foot dish antennas at NASA's
Merritt Island Launch Annex, or MILA, tracking and data station at the
Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Its final reorientation from the
horizontal to the vertical on July 28 came as part of a ceremony to
close the station after 45 years of service.
With that final move, the MILA station which was first established for
the Apollo program and was responsible for tracking radio transmissions
from every shuttle launch for 30 years became a part of space history.
"I understand MILA is going to be decommissioned after this flight,"
Chris Ferguson, commander of the final shuttle mission, STS-135, radioed
through MILA's antennas on July 16, five days before landing the winged
spacecraft for the last time. "For all the folks who work there and for
all the shuttle missions that you've supported throughout the years, we
thank you very much."
With that in mind, senior NASA officials came together on Thursday with
many of the current and past MILA workers to mark the station's closing.
In addition to pointing the dish antenna away from Kennedy's landing
facility where Ferguson landed shuttle Atlantis on July 21, the ceremony
included remarks delivered by representatives from NASA Headquarters,
Kennedy and Goddard Space Flight Center, as well as the lowering of the
U.S. flag that flew over the station for a final time.
MILA's mission for Apollo
Although MILA is located at the Kennedy Space Center, for most of its
history it served as a Goddard Space Flight Center operation.
The tracking station was originally established in 1966 by Goddard,
which itself is located in Maryland, as part of a global, ground-based
data network of 17 tracking stations that provided support to the Apollo
moon landing program and Earth-orbiting scientific satellites.
MILA's first active mission support was the reception of television
signals from the Apollo/Saturn-203 (AS-203) mission launched July 5,
1966. An unmanned flight of the Saturn IB, the mission studied the
performance of the liquid hydrogen fuel in the rocket's S-IVB stage to
verify its on-orbit restart capability.
Shortly afterward, the station was provided a complete set of
remote-site flight controller consoles in order to train Manned
Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) engineers from Houston
during prelaunch tests of Apollo command and service modules and lunar
modules. These consoles were used until the end of the Apollo program in
With the transition to the shuttle and the deployment of the Tracking
and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) network of communication satellites, the
use of most of the ground stations was gradually phased out. But MILA
remained operational, serving the 30 years of the shuttle program.
7 1/2 minutes for 135 missions
From the very first space shuttle mission (STS-1) in 1981 through the
final flight (STS-135) last month, the MILA station served as the
primary voice, data and telemetry communications link between the
shuttle and the ground from launch until 7 1/2 minutes into the flight.
"It's a combined effort between the Mission Control Center (in Houston)
and the Launch Control Center (in Florida) getting together. The
interface to those facilities is MILA, because it gets them their data
they need to make (their) decisions," said Gary Morse, station director
for MILA, in an interview published by NASA the day before the final
mission launched. "We're getting command to the space shuttle, we're
getting telemetry from the space shuttle, we're getting TV from the
external tank, which is looking down at the leading edges of the wing
surfaces to see if any foam or ice comes off. We are getting tracking
data as soon as we lift off from our signal and sharing that with the
flight dynamics facility at Goddard as well as the Mission Control
Center in Houston."
MILA was activated when the shuttles landed at Kennedy, relaying
communications beginning about 13 minutes prior to touchdown.
The most dramatic change for MILA in the years since STS-1 was from
improvements in technology. The station transitioned to computerized
workstations and its analog recorders and data tapes gave way to digital
systems and fiber optics improving their reliability and bandwidth. As a
result of these upgrades, MILA supported the missions of several
scientific satellites, including the Hubble Space Telescope.
But some things remained the same up until the end as they did for
STS-1. The same pair of 30-foot, S-band dish antennas still tracked
Atlantis as it launched on STS-135. These antennas also supported
Atlantis' landing 13 days later. Live on-orbit television was frequently
provided from these same antennas.
In addition to providing support during launch, MILA helped the Kennedy,
Johnson and Goddard space centers as well as the Jet Propulsion Lab in
California in making sure that communication systems on the orbiters,
space station elements, scientific spacecraft and other payloads
received and transmitted information correctly through their antennas
before launch. In a typical year, the MILA station provided through
Kennedy more than 10,000 hours of data between spacecraft and data users.
Clearing the way for the future
Located behind Kennedy Space Center, west of its visitor complex the
tracking station's need for a clear line of site sometimes affecting the
shape of the visitor center's facilities MILA's unassuming small
building and field of antennas and arrays are now slated for demolition.
"The end of MILA is officially six weeks from wheel stop. That's it. We
hand the keys back to Kennedy Space Center and we walk away," said MILA
station manager Martyn Thomas in a NASA interview. "The MILA mission ends."
The tracking station is scheduled to close permanently on Sept. 1.
NASA plans for a new, state-of-the-art tracking station to replace MILA
on the other side of the visitor center. The new station will support
launches of the space agency's planned heavy-lift rocket for crewed
missions beyond low Earth orbit.
Visit collectSpace.com for more photos of the MILA tracking station and
its closing ceremony.