Space shuttle Endeavour remains on the launch pad today after a series of weather delays nixed launch attempts Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Much of the country is balmy and dry this time of year but precipitation, wind and lightning are a mainstay along Florida's Atlantic coast, home to Kennedy Space Center.
Many satellite launches, including some for NASA, lift off from elsewhere in the U.S., namely Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. And the space agency utilizes other arid sites for shuttle operations, as well, landing the orbiter at Edwards Air Force Base in California when the weather over Kennedy is poor and even once easing it down at New Mexico's White Sands Space Harbor.
All of which begs the question: Why did NASA pick Cape Canaveral for its launch site, not only for the space shuttle program but also for the manned missions of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs?
We contacted space historian Roger Launius, a senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, to find out why NASA settled on lifting off from the Cape.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Why do we launch space shuttles from a place where the weather is such a constant source of trouble?
Well, is there any place where the weather is not an issue? You do it in the middle of the country and you get Tornado Alley. You do it in the South and you get hurricanes. On and on and on. There are always those issues.
Florida was chosen for several major reasons. One was, it's close to the equator. [The linear velocity of Earth's surface is greatest at the equator, much as a ceiling fan blade slices through the air faster at its tip than at its center hub, conferring a fuel-saving boost to spacecraft attempting to escape Earth's gravity.—Editor's Note]
The second reason was it had to be on the east coast, over the ocean, so you wouldn't fly over people that might get killed as stuff dropped off or blew up.
And the location that they chose in Florida had a lot to do with the fact that there wasn't anything there. You go there today and you don't see it, but Brevard County in the 1940s was a bunch of orchards and hardly anything else. And this island that they're on [Merritt Island] had good logistics, because there was a navy base and an army base not too far away. But there was no population density whatsoever. It was just a beach, essentially.
So you could build what you wanted, but it had decent roads because of the military, and that was important. This is one of the problems that [the Soviet Union] had with Baikonur [Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan], their launch site. I mean, it is in the middle of nowhere. They had to build a whole infrastructure to run rail out there, to build highways, to bring in all of the water and power and everything else that was necessary to make that place habitable.
You mention that it had to be on the east coast so the launch would climb over the ocean. Why do launches have to go east rather than, say, west from California?
When you launch headed east, you gain the rotation of the Earth in terms of acceleration. And so you don't have to have quite as powerful a rocket.
And that's a benefit related to the one conferred by being close to the equator.
That's right. The best place to launch is the spaceport that the European Space Agency has in French Guiana [five degrees north of the equator].