If you've ever been to Florida during hurricane season, you know how unforgiving the weather can be. So why do we launch rockets from Florida, a place that has a reputation for savage storms and inhospitable wildlife? The Kennedy Space Center, located in Cape Canaveral, is NASA's most active launch site in the United States. Even though the space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA's flight programs continue to roll out rockets, and the exciting new Mars Rover is scheduled to launch aboard a rocket from Cape Canaveral in 2020. But why is NASA in Florida, and how did they choose that location in the first place?
As it turns out, there are actually lots of very good reasons to for NASA to launch their rockets from the sandy coasts of Florida. Despite all the hurricanes, it is still the best location in the country to launch a rocket into orbit. Economic incentives, unique geography, and nearby government installations come together to help the Space Coast live up to its name. That's why companies like SpaceX and Boeing are flocking to the sunshine state in order to take advantage of the existing infrastructure and make their marks on the stars above.
Being Near The Equator Comes With An Energy Boost
One of the most important reasons that NASA has so many launches in Florida is the state's proximity to the equator. The closer a launch site is to the equator, the less energy a rocket has to expend to overcome gravity and makes its way into orbit. There is a lot of math involved when it comes to determining the physics behind a rocket launch, but one thing is clear: rocket launches take advantage of every factor they can, including the Earth's rotation. Luckily for the astronauts in Cape Canaveral, the Earth actually rotates at a higher speed at the equator than it does at the poles. This extra push is enough to drastically reduce the amount of energy required for a successful launch.
- Photo: Capt. John Peltier, USAF / Wikimedia Commons
Failed Takeoffs Near The Ocean Are Far Less Destructive
A big advantage to launching a spacecraft near the ocean is that fewer people are at risk of being hurt in the event of a catastrophic event. As all the crafts launching out of Cape Canaveral head east, that puts the rockets directly over the Atlantic ocean. This allows multistage rockets to safely drop back to Earth without fear of hurting anyone. When a spacecraft malfunctions, it's critical that no debris falls in an area that is populated by humans. The ocean is basically a massive airbag that's ready to take the brunt force of an impact so that any civilians on the ground don't.
It Decreases The Cost Of The Space Missions
Launching anything into space is extremely expensive. At our current technological level, a rocket launch costs roughly $10,000 per pound. That's crazy expensive considering that the space shuttle carried roughly 1.6 million pounds of fuel alone, which means the total to launch a rocket comes to about $450 million after building the thing! Luckily, taking advantage of the increased speed of rotation near the equator can incur significant fiscal savings per launch compared to launch sites in other parts of the country. NASA and private companies like SpaceX are working on bringing down the cost of spaceflight, but for now it remains an extremely expensive endeavor.
- Photo: Thomas Moore / Wikimedia Commons
Earlier Test Sites Weren't Working Out Because The Desert Wasn't Big Enough
Cape Canaveral wasn't the first NASA launch site in the country, but over the years it has become the most popular and most reliable. Before the Space Coast was born, NASA was launching rockets in the heart of New Mexico. This was just after the conclusion of World War II, so rocket technology was just starting to be used to its potential. The New Mexico launch site, known as White Sands, was only a hundred miles in size. This proved to be insufficient for the needs of rocket scientists who were testing technologies that could clear a hundred miles in mere moments. Florida made much more sense, as the ocean was a far more forgiving testing ground.
Launching From The East Coast Takes Advantage Of The Earth's Rotation
It's not just the equator's effect on the Earth's rotation that makes Florida such a prime location for space travel. The actual direction of the rotation itself is crucial in allowing launches to be performed cheaply and more smoothly than elsewhere in America. When a rocket travels east from Cape Canaveral, it is taking advantage of the counter-clockwise rotation of the Earth. Rockets heading east get a boost because they are traveling with the rotation of the Earth, not against it. So it's always easier to head east, which makes Florida the perfect candidate for space travel.
At The Time Of Its Creation, Cape Canaveral Was Relatively Unpopulated
Florida's eastern coastline is one of the most populated regions in the country, but that wasn't always the case. During the 1940s, Cape Canaveral was little more than a barren sandbar. The area was pockmarked with orchards, far from the urban beaches of today. This was ideal for NASA as they were still working with experimental technologies that had a high chance for catastrophic failure. No one was around to be injured in the event of a mission failure. On top of that, the low population density meant that the programs could be kept relatively secret and away from prying eyes.