DNA double strand break (DSB) repair by non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) is initiated by DSB detection by Ku70/80 (Ku) and DNA-dependent protein kinase catalytic subunit (DNA-PKcs) recruitment, which promotes pathway progression through poorly defined mechanisms. Here, Ku and DNA-PKcs solution structures alone and in complex with DNA, defined by x-ray scattering, reveal major structural reorganizations that choreograph NHEJ initiation. The Ku80 C-terminal region forms a flexible arm that extends from the DNA-binding core to recruit and retain DNA-PKcs at DSBs. Furthermore, Ku- and DNA-promoted assembly of a DNA-PKcs dimer facilitates trans-autophosphorylation at the DSB. The resulting site-specific autophosphorylation induces a large conformational change that opens DNA-PKcs and promotes its release from DNA ends. These results show how protein and DNA interactions initiate large Ku and DNA-PKcs rearrangements to control DNA-PK biological functions as a macromolecular machine orchestrating assembly and disassembly of the initial NHEJ complex on DNA.