So why not launch from a U.S. territory that's even closer to the equator, such as Hawaii or Puerto Rico?
I think NASA viewed those as too far removed.
You mentioned Russia's launch site in Kazakhstan. How are they able to lift off from such a high latitude?
Well, they've got a big rocket. You have to have a larger booster that can muscle you into orbit.
[The U.S.S.R.] wanted their launch site in territory that they controlled. They didn't necessarily care perhaps in the same way about people that might be overflown, but that was a concern at some level. And they wanted to keep it very, very secret. That launch site was virtually unknown until the U.S. started tracking their satellites and figured out where it was located.
If you want a more equatorial orbit, you want to be farther south. And the [Soviets] would have liked that, I think, but they just didn't have a place to launch from.
So the space station is put in an orbit where Russia can reach it easily. And in fact, I would contend that that was the fatal decision that made the space station not really useful to us to go to the moon.
Why is the International Space Station a bad way station on the way to the moon?
Because its orbit is highly inclined [tilted with respect to the equator]. That high inclination means it goes very high to the north and very far to the south as it goes over the Earth. Which means that you lose a lot of the gain that you would have by launching from a space station to go to the moon. All of the scenarios that people had developed before the Space Age for going to the moon involved a reusable vehicle that goes to and from Earth orbit and a space station as a jumping-off place to go to the moon. It's the base camp at the bottom of the mountain.
So what orbit should the station be in?
In an orbit that was more equatorial, where you could maximize your fuel savings by launching from there. You can't use the station in that way very readily with the orbit that it's in now. And that decision was made when we brought the Russians into the program.
Does that inclination make the space station harder to reach from Kennedy Space Center?
Oh yeah. What you'll see whenever you see a launch with a shuttle going to the station is it gets up a few miles and then you see it turn to get into a high-inclination orbit. It basically drives up I-95.
With so much under review at NASA right now in terms of human spaceflight, are there any other sites on the table that are being looked at for launches?
I think Kennedy is it for the foreseeable future. The infrastructure that's in place there would be so expensive to replicate somewhere else. That's one important reason it's stayed there all this time.