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Is there any reason why we can't launch from other primary locations other than Cape Canaveral? I know we have begun launching some rockets from Virginia, but is the Space Coast really the ideal location for launches in the US? Florida is a lot closer to the equator than say New Jersey and the launch facilities are more established at Cape Canaveral. The reason I ask is with the new commercial space launch initiatives, many in Congress are pushing for their States to get a piece of the space action because it creates and nurtures jobs, with Space Florida aggressively trying to build on past successes to encourage more users of existing launch facilities.

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4 Answers 4

This is a bit odd question. Cape Canaveral (I imagine you mean both the Patrick Air Force Base and the Kennedy Space Center with it?) is hardly the only launch site in the US, but it makes sense to launch prograde from it, since the groundtrack then puts launches over the Atlantic. In case of retrograde or highly inclined launches, it makes more sense to launch from US West Coast (e.g. Vandenberg Air Force Base) where the ground track puts them over the Pacific.

Ideal? For most launches I'd say yes, since prograde launches are far more frequent than retrograde (or hushed purpose ones, where launching over mainland US could keep its early flight away from prying eyes, but those are even rarer). Cape Canaveral launch sites are also closer to the equator and with it launch vehicles receive a slight additional boost by Earth's rotation, again, if launched prograde. I discuss this a bit more in my answer to Are there any benefits to launching from Vandenberg AFB instead of Cape Canaveral?

But even brushing aside with politics or pressure from the space launch industry in Florida, I'd have to concur, it makes sense. You're soon after launch over the ocean, there's not any heavy traffic shipping lanes close by that can't be rerouted for the duration of the launch window, and it avoids the heavy traffic North Atlantic Tracks air routes. It is also one of the major US space flight centers, with lots of the space flight industry and their facilities at disposal.

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I suppose most of my exposure has been to launches on the Space Coast since I grew up there. Launches at Vandenburg or Wallops Island aren't expressed in the news enough in Florida and seemed few/far between. –  staticx Mar 25 at 14:14
    
If it helps, here's a launch schedule. CC is most frequent US based launch site yes, but then again, there's Atlas 5 / DMSP F19 launch from Vandenberg in April, Antares / Orb-2 from Wallops in May, even Sea Launch is back in business with Zenit 3SL / Eutelsat 3B in mid April and launching from the Pacific, but operates from West Coast US. ;) –  Noordung Mar 25 at 14:20
    
Thanks.. looks like most are from CC. –  staticx Mar 25 at 14:24

The space coast is one of the best locations for launches to equatorial orbit in the US:

  • It's as far south as you can get and still be in the US, so it can still take advantage of the US' infrastructure. And as you point out the closer to the equator the better
  • It's right next to an ocean, which is good for safety as downrange is unpopulated
  • You can launch to the east without endangering life - launching to orbit to the east is preferable due to the rotation of the earth

Launching to the west or polar orbits is done from the west coast, again for safety reasons.

Of course there's much more to the space industry than assembly and launch facilities. Rockets must be designed and tested, modules must be built - things which can happen just about anywhere.

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To hammer in the point about polar orbits: to launch into a polar orbit you need to launch either north or south. If you launch from KSC in either direction, you will fly over land before too long, potentially endangering people on the ground if something goes wrong with the rocket. In the US, polar launches take place from Vandenburg, CA, and launch towards the south, which is just ocean. –  Nickolai Mar 25 at 15:29

Another way to think about this question might be "What US territory is closest to the equator." There are definately better options that Florida, but they are outside the continental US. Obviously using these sites is a bit of a trade-off since it's not as convenient to the rest of the industrial base.

Here are the latitudes of some possible alternate sites:

Cape Canaveral: 28 degrees N.
Hawaii: 21 degrees N.
Marshall Islands: 9 degrees N.
Baker Island: 0.11 degrees N.

Baker island looks best on paper, but it is just a tiny nature preserve, not really practical for rocket operations.

I'm willing to be corrected on this, but I don't believe the Marshall Islands are a US territory.

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Or Jarvis Island. –  Mark Adler Mar 26 at 3:55
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Technically speaking, it is correct that the Marshall Islands are no longer a U.S. territory. They were a U.S. territory from WWII until 1986, when they were granted independence. Having said that, they do have a Compact of Free Association with the U.S. and the U.S. provides for their defense. –  reirab Mar 26 at 6:01
    
Guam is a U.S. territory at about 13 degrees N, but it's very far from the U.S. mainland, making it impractical for the same reasons as the other sites you've listed. –  reirab Mar 26 at 6:05

In addition to the optimal latitude for equatorial prograde launches, let me explain a few other reasons why Flordia is a good location.

  1. It is easily accessible by land, allowing for the transportation of rocket parts. Islands are much more difficult to access.
  2. You can't go much further to the south in Florida without being over major islands, which would cause problems with potential loss of life if something happened.
  3. As mentioned, there aren't any major shipping lanes/ aicraft flight lanes overhead, that can't be diverted. The numbers are reasonable.

Wallops Island in Virginia is an increasingly attractive option, especially for getting to the International Space Station, as it's slightly easier to achieve that orbit from Wallops than the Cape. But due to the large amount of infrastructure at the Cape, I'm confident it will remain the primary launch site for many missions based out of the United States.

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Why is it easier to achieve the orbit to ISS from Wallops vs the Cape? –  staticx Mar 26 at 11:56
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The ISS has an inclination of about 52 degrees. The minimum fuel to orbit depends on the latitude of the location. Wallops's minimum inclination orbit is around 40 degrees, which is pretty close to the ISS. –  PearsonArtPhoto Mar 26 at 12:43

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