Can't NASA Find a Better Launch Site?

After bad weather foiled several launch attempts, the Space Shuttle Endeavour finally took off last night from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida’s Cape Canaveral. With stormy weather so typical there, why does NASA continue to use it as a launch site? Because it’s close to the equator, which helps a launching spacecraft more quickly escape Earth’s gravity; because shuttle debris drops in the ocean, not on people; because moving it would cost too much; and besides, there’s bad weather everywhere, explains space historian Roger Launius in a Scientific American article. [%comments]


Back in the 80s, a shuttle pad was constructed out at Vanderburg AFB. I think it was so that they could have an alternate pad, although it might also have been for military launches which use Vandenburg as I believe it's better for getting into a geosyncronous orbit (think stationary satellites). However, after the Challenger tragedy in '86, I heard they decided against ever using this pad for a shuttle.


I would imagine that they also keep it there because of a lack of snow. It does rain nearly every day in central FL during the summer (I know, I live here), so it surprises me they don't do more launches in the winter when it doesn't rain as much.


Money. My dad has worked in satellite telecommunications for decades. He explained to me one time that the tax laws in Florida made launching from there cheaper. This is one time when the parts are worth less than the whole. The parts are made all over the place and shipped to Florida for assembly. The last part is put on just before launch so that the whole cannot be taxed for more than a few minutes.
When the launch is scrubbed, however, it gets very expensive. The rocket or shuttle is complete and can now be taxed as a whole.


As an aside, there is a company (or partnership, I don't know the exact business model) called SeaLaunch that, as the name implies, launches rockets from a modified oil platform. They can move it as close to the equator as they like, and avoid bad weather unlike a land based launch site, although they are still constrained by weather in many ways of course.


Sunk costs ...
(couldn't resist)

Another David

It would appear the private industry has asked the same question. Spaceports are being built in Hawaii, Oklahoma, and New Mexico in hopes of the development of a space tourism industry.


I always thought they should move the launchpad in the city wth the fewest airport closures. That was also the plan for FedEx when it was formed.


1. While post 4 is correct, the recently filed Chapter 11, so I wouldn't be counting on them.

2. In order to Launch from Vandenberg you are launching against the rotation of the Earth. Not exactly what most launch's want. They are good for retrograde orbits and higher inclination orbits but not what is needed for the Space Station.

3. True that other States are developing launch complexes, but they need to work with hazardous debris zones and on launch days, no fly/drive zones. They also need approval from the FAA.

4. I would think that Hawaii and Oklahoma would have issues of their own with hurricanes and tornados. Who would want their $500M satellite on the pad when a tornado could strike?


JeremyN, one of the reasons Nasa does not do as many launches in winter is that the colder weather affects performance of many space system components. This is particularly true on the Space Shuttle, and the cold weather on the morning Challenger was launched was sited as a major cause of the O ring breakage and subsequent disaster. Nasa knew about it and still launched, and has regretted it since.


"While post 4 is correct, the recently filed Chapter 11, so I wouldn't be counting on them."

I hadn't heard that, too bad. I always thought it was a nifty method. Oh well.

In any event, regardless of where they launch from, I certainly hope NASA starts using more commercial services. I'm not very plugged into the sector, but from what I've read I think the EELV approach would have been preferable to building brand new launch vehicles.

Wiley Hodges

I'm not necessarily a Cape cheerleader, but I am a avid student of NASA history.

Cape Canaveral has relatively good weather when compared to other US areas, but more importantly, it's one of the Southernmost points on the Eastern seaboard with ready access to transportation via the Gulf Intra-Coastal Waterway. That was a key criterion for the Apollo program. Remember that having Easterly downrange (meaning lots of empty space to the East) and being as far South as possible are both important for the kinds of equitorial orbits that NASA has used for manned missions.

Only Hawaii has the same characteristic in the 50 US states, and the costs of transporting spacecraft and basing personnel there would be astronomical (pun intended).

Donald Simmons

The book "Apollo: The Race to the Moon" has a nice little history of the selection of the Cape as the NASA launch site. The committee ultimately decided is wasn't a great site, but everywhere else was worse.

Mark M

Being as far south as possible isn't just about "speed" to orbit or convenience.

You lose lift capability with every degree you are off of the equator. Ariane launches from Kourou in French Guiana, at 5 deg. N. Apparently it is "not nice" but orbit mechanics rules all.

Your latitude also limits your available orbits. Generally speaking, your minimum angle to the equator equals your launch latitude.

Having empty water downrange is also vital. China launches from an inland facility. A few years ago a rocket failed and debris rained down on people living to the East. Many were killed.


Vandenburg is used mostly for polar orbit launches, which are the better raoute for military and spy satellites.

The treatise on taxes (#3) has some truthiness in that Florida is certainly one of the least taxed states in the country, and we have the schools and public infrastructure to prove it. But no taxation system would be applied to anything NASA did as the federal government. Everything federal is tax exempt in every state.

i'm not familiar with how private communications satellites are taxed. That would be interesting to know, if they are taxed on the ground before launch. Certainly everything (voice and data) passing through them in orbit is taxed as state and federal taxes on internet connections and phones, but what about the assembled hardware on the ground?


Stop with all the "scientific" nonsense. Being a New Yorker (Brooklynite to be specific), it should be moved to Floyd Bennet Field! Forget all the reason why not, just move the launches there!

RM Petric


I'm surprised that no one here or at SciAm has mentioned that nearly one hundred years before the Apollo program began, Jules Verne predicted that Florida would be the spot from which America would stage a moon mission. His launch vehicle was a huge cannon, rather than a huge rocket, but his geographical reasoning (that the further South the better) was sound.


I love the Freakonomics guys, but at least think 5 minutes before you make posts as this one is one of the few innane ones that you have made. Its totally un-postworthy. Cape Canaveral is so perfect that Jules Verne predicted it almost or over 100 years ago! Mr. Hodges nailed the reasons why so no need to restate.