Why is the launch site for the American space program in Florida?

If it’s favorable to locate your launch site as close to the equator as possible to take advantage of the rotation of the Earth, why was the Kennedy Cpace Center chosen to be built in Florida? It might be the southernmost region of the continental U.S., but there are regions that belong to the U.S. and are closer to the equator, such as Puerto Rico or Hawaii; and it would have been possible to contract with a foreign nation for some permanent base.
Was it a rather political decision to have the center in the homeland? Was it because of logistic advantages of being on the mainland?

I strongly suspect logistics – when you’re shipping big, heavy things like rocket boosters (sent from Morton Thiokol in Utah), you have enough problems getting it through bridges and tunnels without having to deal with putting the things on ships. Plus it’s easier to protect within the continental US borders.
It’s interesting to note that Jules Verne put his fictional launching site in From the Earth to the Moon in Florida, not far from Cape Canaveral. There was a disopute between Texas and Florida about who’d get it in the book, which, IIRC, wasn’t too dissimilar with what happened in real life. In real life, Houston got the Johnson Space Center as a compensation prize.

There’s no one reason, this being a case where a relatively small site grew over the decades based on a series of subsequent decisions. Most of these decisions were made on the basis of convenience, but politics occasionally intruded.
The full text of the official NASA 1978 institutional history Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations by Benson and Faherty is online and that thoroughly goes through the evolution of the Cape Canaveral site. (The first half, which is what is relevant here, is also published as a University Press of Florida paperback called Gateway to the Moon.)

Since that has far more detail than you probably want, a summary may be useful.
Cape Canaveral started as a missile range in 1947. Since they were testing sub-oribital designs only, the fact that it was nowhere near the equator made little difference. It was merely a nice site from which they could lob stuff out into the Atlantic.
Come 1958 the US had committed to a series of test launches for the Saturn I. At this stage the idea was proposed of using an equatorial site, probably Christmas Island. But the Cape Canaveral range already had plenty of infrastructure like tracking stations and so that was decided upon as the location for the tests. Various related test launches were also assigned to the Cape over the next couple of years.
An idea that was given much consideration in the late 50s was launching from artificial islands out at sea. These plans tended to envisage these being about 15 miles off the coast of the Cape.
By 1960 the complex is facing the prospect of having to outgrow its original scale and so the question of its longterm future comes up. At roughly the same time there was lobbying from Georgia to establish a replacement on Cumberland Island. The issue of where to locate the launch site for a manned lunar programme is then formally considered in July 1961, with a shortlist of 8 sites (including the offshore from the Cape option). Two of these were equatorial: Christmas Island and Hawaii. Both were ruled out on the grounds of cost. White Sands was attractive, but landlocked and it’s envisaged that they might want to ship stages to the launch site by water. Brownsville in Texas involved too many people living under the flight paths. Cumberland Island gets ruled out for a number of reasons. The decision is taken that the simplest course is to buy up the additional land near the Cape and use that to expand.

Which is why the Apollo missions were launched from the Cape. I suspect the issue was at least raised by someone in the period between those and the start of Shuttle operations, but the basic argument is presumably still the same. The US has decades of investment incorporated into the site and that, together with sheer inertia, is justification enough.

Exactly. Why spend the enormous amount of money to build a new VAB and launch site when there’s a perfectly usable one right there?

Interesting bit of trivia:

While the Air Force’s missle range was in Cape Canaveral, the Navy had a missle range on Top Sail Island in North Carolina.

You can still see the big observatin towers dotted up and down Highway 50 on the island.

Related question: Does anyone know the history behind the Air Force’s choice of Vandenburg AFB as a launch site?

Isn’t it supposed to be capable of launching a space shuttle, but never has done so?

Vandenberg was chosen for similar reasons as the Cape. It already had launch complexes set up from the Manned Orbital Laboratory project and was also already being used as a missile test site. The reason they didn’t just use the Cape for the polar orbits was that a DoD report found the Florida site wasn’t very suitable and that Vandenberg would offer far fewer difficulties of achieving polar orbits for spy satellites.

Plus, I think the AF just wanted to use their own facilities for secrecy’s sake.

The other consideration is that most spacecraft are launched towards the east, also to take advantage of the rotation of the earth. So a launch site needs a large uninhabited area towards the east for safety, and Florida is the only place on mainland US that meets the criteria. The exception is spacecraft launched into polar orbits, which are mostly launched from Vandenburg.

Not sure wevets got a direct answer, but no, the shuttle has never been launched from Vandenberg AFB.

There have been 114 shuttle missions to date (including STS-114, which ended a few days ago). 63 of those missions launched from pad 39A, 50 from pad 39B, both of which are at the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral.

Some news reports said that STS-114 was the 50th to land at Edwards AFB in California, but I don’t know where they got that number. I count 48 missions that returned to Edwards, 63 that returned to Kennedy, one that returned to the White Sands facility in New Mexico, and 2 that did not return at all.

For a full detailed list of shuttle missions, see the NASA website or a good overview from wikipedia

That should be 63 launched from 39A and 51 from 39B.

Sorry for the bad math. I went to public schools.

bonzer, fascinating summary. I would have assumed that part of the decision was political. I’ve always assumed that the Johnson Space Center in Houston was a gift to LBJ and his constituents and that Cape Canaveral was treated the same way, just with someone I never heard of. It’s nice to be pointed in the right direction to learn the truth. Thanks!

Vandenberg is on a south-facing coast with land to the east, so the only orbits it can launch into without going over land are polar ones. It has a shuttle launch complex, named SLC-6, that was intended for shuttles to be flown exclusively by USAF, the civilian ones staying at the Cape, but of course that never happened - SLC-6 is still there, rotting away.

The inclination of orbits that can be reached from the Cape is limited by the general shape of the North American east coast. It can’t be used for polar orbits without going over land and causing excessive risk to people.

The Arianespace launch site in French Guiana is just about perfectly situated, giving it a competitive advantage - near the equator for maximum earth-rotational boost, minimal fuel required to reach geostationary orbit over the equator, and on a northeast-facing coast that works fine for any orbital inclination including polar.

I think it’s also true that Vandenberg is considered especially suitable for polar orbit launches because there’s no major landmass to the south until you reach Antarctica. They don’t have to worry about a malfunctioning rocket landing on someone’s house.

Boeing rebuilt SLC-6 to launch the Delta IV. It was rededicated in April of this year. The first scheduled launch is NROL-22, which is going to happen…well, I can’t exactly tell you, but soon. :cool:

As well as the sake of budget manipulation. If an Air Force program launches out of Vandenberg they pay Launch Operations the standard launch rate (minus, perhaps, the Preferred Customer Discount ::wink-wink::slight_smile: but then that’s just a matter of shifting money from one Air Force program to another, so they get twice the dollar’s worth of their budget after actual operational costs; whereas if they fly out of a commercial or NASA site, they just pay the launch fees and the money is gone. This is not an insignificant consideration, especially as Air Force rocketry programs have been much reduced since we stopped littering the countryside with ICBM silos. There are a lot of jobs–and careers–dependant upon supporting launch operations out of VAFB.


I’ve read that three sites were considered for a missile test range. The requirements were to launch from land, over water (for safety), with but with available locations downrange for tracking stations. This was all before the prospects for putting things in orbit (and the advantages of being close to the equator) were being considered.

The three sites were in Western Washington (launching west with tracking stations on the Canadian coast and Aleutian Islands; not selected because of the weather), Southern California (launching south with tracking stations along the Baja Peninsula) and Florida (launching east with tracking stations on islands in the Caribbean). When it came time to start putting things in orbit, we were lucky that our launch site had as much of an advantage as it did.

I’ve also heard that Mission Control was planned to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts; exactly where I now work. With Johnson becoming president after the Kennedy assassination, it wound up in Houston.


I believe the East Cambridge site the government had acquired, next to Draper Labs, was given to the Dept of Transportation for the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.

I can look out the window of my office and see the Volpe building and Draper Labs. I figured NASA’s whole Manned Spacecraft Center would be bigger than just that one lot; and I know that (almost) all the development around here is newer than the early-60’s. As I understand it, this area was rather run down before that, past-its-prime industrial and warehouses and such.