Why did NASA decide to launch space shuttles from weatherbeaten Florida?

Space historian Roger D. Launius, a senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, provides an answer (as told to John Matson):

Florida was chosen as the starting point for U.S. manned missions—which began with the 1961 Project Mercury flights—for several reasons. One was that the location had to be on the coast, over the ocean, so falling debris or spent rocket boosters would not drop on inhabited places during ascent. The Atlantic coast is preferable because blasting off in an easterly direction allows the spacecraft to harness the rotation of the earth rather than fighting against it, which saves a lot of fuel for a rocket attempting to escape terrestrial gravity.

The second reason was that Florida is close to the equator, where the velocity of the earth’s spinning surface is the greatest. The best launch site in the world right now is the spaceport that the European Space Agency has in French Guiana, about five degrees north of the equator.

Merritt Island, where the Kennedy Space Center stands, already had good logistics when the spaceport was built. It had decent roads because there was already a navy and an army base nearby. But the population density was basically nonexistent, so you could build what you wanted. The U.S. did have lower-latitude options such as Puerto Rico and Hawaii, but those places are more difficult to reach, which may have diminished their appeal.

Last, it is important to remember that even though Florida has the turbulent climate of the subtropics, weather is an issue in most places. The middle of the country has Tornado Alley. In the South there are hurricanes. Wherever you go, there are always issues.

Now that it is in place, I think Kennedy is it for the foreseeable future in terms of manned spaceflight in the U.S. The infrastructure that has been built there would be very expensive to replicate somewhere else.

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