In other words, why didn't NASA make their main space launch area in Texas? It has a point below the 30th parallel, which means that it is close enough to the equator. Why did NASA pick Florida?


7 Answers 7


Basically, the most prominent reason is so that if something happens during launch, it happens over the Atlantic and not someone else.

Anything launching over the Gulf of Mexico will probably cross over land a couple of times before going over the Atlantic. As geoffc pointed out in the comments, the Atlantic is a lot wider than the Gulf. Once the rocket has crossed the Gulf it will still be low enough that anything that falls over land could still cause damage. Once the rocket has crossed the Atlantic, it should already be high enough that this is not really much of an issue (stuff burns up in the atmosphere as it falls).

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    $\begingroup$ @emory The gulf is wide, but the rocket is still low enough that debris could land in Florida or Bahamas, or Cuba. The Atlantic is wide enough, that by the next major landfall (spain?) the rocket is high enough that debris is mostly reentering and burning up. Or at least so disperesed it is a minimal risk. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Dec 8, 2016 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ @emory There are not very many people living in the Atlantic. There are a lot living in Florida. Any launch that fail may end up spattering Florida with pieces of Launch vehicle. Additionally, depending on the launch azimuth,a launch from Texas may have a lot of land underneath it. A lot more than just Florida. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Vonn
    Dec 8, 2016 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ @drewbenn Still a lot less risk $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Dec 8, 2016 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ For one thing, you don't launch due east unless you're on the equator, you launch on a great circle - that is, the possible trajectories are defined by planes passing though the launch site and the center of the Earth. (And for a lunar launch, this has to be from a latitude less than about 30 degrees N or S.) Many launches from KSC (Shuttles in particular) go pretty much northeast along the East Coast. A similar launch from Texas would take it over much of the populated eastern US. Florida gives the widest range of launch angles that pass over ocean. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 9, 2016 at 4:44
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    $\begingroup$ Also, @jamesfq, if you want the biggest bang for your buck, you do launch east, regardless of latitude. This is why so many standalone Shuttle flights had an inclination of 28.5 degrees. They launched straight east. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2016 at 12:45

Until 1949, the U.S. launched rockets from Wallops Island in Virginia and the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico. The Rockets launched from Wallops were of American origin while the rockets launched from White Sands were V-2s, supported by a hundred or so German rocket scientists who had been smuggled out of Germany (along with some V-2s) via Operation Paperclip.

Then this happened:

The most spectacular flight in the annals of WSMR occurred May 29, 1947, when an experimental V-2, weighing four and a half tons, headed south after liftoff instead of north and landed, some five minutes later, a mile and a half south of Juarez, Mexico. Though no damage was done, the rocket narrowly missed an ammunition dump where Mexican mining companies stored powder and dynamite.
Source: https://history.msfc.nasa.gov/german/v-2_whitesands.html

Raining rockets down on U.S. civilians is one thing. Raining them down on other countries is quite another. There were a number of near misses prior to that incident. A search for a better launch site was already underway.

In October, 1946 the Joint Research and Development Board under the Joint Chiefs of Staff established the Committee on the Long Range Proving Ground to analyze possible locations for a new missile range to be shared by the various branches of the military.

Three potential sites emerged. One was based on the coast of northern Washington, with a range along the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. A second was based at El Centro, California, with a range along the coast of Baja, Mexico. A third was based at the Banana River Naval Air Station, with launches from Cape Canaveral and a range over the Atlantic Ocean.

In September, 1947 the Committee on the Long Range Proving Ground announced its decision to recommend the establishment of a missile proving ground at the California site, with Cape Canaveral offered as the second choice. The Washington site had been quickly rejected due to its isolation and poor weather.

The project was officially designated the Joint Long Range Proving Ground, with development responsibility granted to the Joint Long Range Proving Ground Group. Although plans continued initially for the establishment of a missile range based in California, political problems arose in 1948.

Although it would have been a suitable site very close to existing missile manufacturers, the California site had to be rejected when Mexican President Aleman refused to agree to allow missiles to fly over the Baja region. This was largely a result of bad timing, since a wayward V-2 rocket launched from White Sands, New Mexico had recently crashed near Juarez, Mexico.

The British, however, were quick to express their willingness to allow missiles to fly over the Bahamas. They also were willing to lease island land to the U.S. military for the establishment of tracking stations. That, coupled with inherent strengths of Cape Canaveral, sealed its selection as the first U.S. long range missile proving ground.
Source: http://www.spaceline.org/capehistory/2a.html

Shortly after this selection, those German rocket scientists were moved from Fort Bliss to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama. Ten years later, those German rocket scientists, along with thousands of American rocket scientists would be transferred once again, but this time the transfer distance was short. NASA's Marshall Space Center is located within Redstone Arsenal.

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    $\begingroup$ Consider an alternative universe in which those German scientists had focused primarily on controllability and range safety instead of payload capacity, In that universe, perhaps the area around Kingsville Texas would now be known as the Space Coast as opposed to the area around Titusville Florida. Kingsville and nearby Corpus Christi have two Naval Air Stations that could have been have been transferred to the Army/Air Force, similar to the transfer of the Banana River Naval Air Station in our universe. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2016 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen: You really think that Penemünde engineers skimped on controllability and range safety with the Aggregat 4 / V2, when it was intended to deliver explosive ordinance to a target over hundreds of kilometers away? $\endgroup$
    – DevSolar
    Dec 9, 2016 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ To be clear, rockets are still launched regularly from Wallops. $\endgroup$
    – Adrien
    Dec 9, 2016 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ As an interesting sidenote, the British concessions regarding the Bahamas were later extended to the island of Ascension (situated in the middle of nowhere on the mid-Atlantic), which was to act as emergency landing site for the shuttles. (As Ascension is also a hub for trans-atlantic cables, there are also other US institutions besides NASA present there) $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2016 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ @SpehroPefhany Asked to leave never has been followed through by Cuba in an serious international way, so obviously not "serious". So far, the lease remains enforceable; but protests certainly affected ongoing growth of prisoner population and probably of humane treatment of prisoners. We'll see what Trump Administration does in absence of Fidel Castro (and probably Raul, soon). Regardless, Cuba has never sought legally to terminate the lease. It's only been common political rhetoric... so far. No doubt very different from missile overflight approval. $\endgroup$ Dec 12, 2016 at 8:15

The whole operation was supposed to be based in Florida. Houston got mission control because of some pork barrel bill in congress, IIRC.

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    $\begingroup$ @isanae a "pork barrel bill" refers to legislations passed with the intent of distributing federal project money or other benefits to the state or district where the legislator that proposed it is based. $\endgroup$
    – zeta-band
    Dec 8, 2016 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ I'll give you one clue as to who's responsible for that: The name of the site where mission control is located is "Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center" $\endgroup$
    – Ben Voigt
    Dec 8, 2016 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ While I find this answer credible, a citation would significantly improve it in my eyes. $\endgroup$ Dec 8, 2016 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ Suddenly Tomorrow (free online book at jsc.nasa.gov) discusses this at length. See chapter 3 for details. $\endgroup$ Dec 8, 2016 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ I know you don't have enough rep to post a comment yet, but this does not answer the OP's question. $\endgroup$
    – CJ Dennis
    Dec 8, 2016 at 23:06

If launching into a low-inclination orbit, you want to launch due east from the lowest latitude possible. This gives you the advantage of starting the flight with the speed of the Earth's rotation at your launch latitude; that is "free" speed that the rocket does not need to impart. Furthermore, you want to avoid overflying land masses so malfunctioning rockets to do not land on people's heads, which can have negative budget implications. When launching into higher inclination orbits you adjust your launch azimuth accordingly. Your launch azimuth determines your ground track and thus which land masses you might hit with rocket debris. Typically the launch azimuth for an orbital flight is going to be between due North and due South, on the right-hand side of the compass (0 to +180 deg). Launching to the east from the Texas coast would result in overlying lots of land mass (US, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, S.America). Launching from Florida mitigates this for easterly launches. Polar orbit launches are commonly done from Vandenberg AFB in CA, flying south over the Pacific. High-inclination and polar launches are conducted from Wallops VA. Johnson Space Center's Houston location is a result of politics (President Johnson was from Texas).


I agree with the other answers that point out that there is no land east of Florida, while there is significant populated land east of Texas. But I think it is work pointing out that Texas has no advantage over Florida in terms of latitude.

The southernmost point of Texas is Brownsville (Lat 26 deg N) Which by the way, shares a border with Mexico, with which the USA sometimes has less than perfect relations. On the one hand the USA might feel there are some security issues. On the other, Mexico would be quite justified in complaining if an out of control rocket landed in their territory. Houston / Johnson is at Lat 29.5 deg N.

Canaveral / Kennedy is at Lat 28.5 deg N. The southermost tip of Florida is at 25 deg N, but is very close to the population of Miami and the sovereign nation of the Bahamas.

It is worth checking the advantage that would be obtained by launching from the southern tip of Florida instead of the existing site:

Equatorial peripheral speed: 40000km / 24h = 1666km/h, 0.462km/s

Peripheral Speed at Canaveral 28.5 deg: 1666 cos 28.5 = 1464km/h, 0.405km/s

Peripheral Speed at 25 deg: 1666 cos 25 = 1509km/h, 0.419km/s

In summary the lowest latitude point on the US mainland is in Florida, not Texas and the advantage compared with the current location would be just 45km/h (28mph.)

Hawaii's big island has a latitude ranging from 19 to 20 degrees, but again the advantage is small and probably does not outweigh the logistical issues.


Besides these other answers, there was a great post-WW2 effort to develop the American South.

So the space program was spread between the southern states, e.g, New Mexico, Texas and Florida.

So the command centre is in Texas, the launch site in Florida and the landing strips in Florida and New Mexico, among other sites.

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    $\begingroup$ to develop the american south., im not so sure about that... The main reason it was south was because it was both in American soil but also below the 30th parrallel, which means it was close enough to the equator. $\endgroup$
    – Dat Ha
    Dec 8, 2016 at 21:38
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    $\begingroup$ Could you elaborate a little more on the "below the 30th parallel" comment please? I can see that for a geostationary target orbit it would be more efficient though there seems nothing special about the 30th parallel particularly. Also, I think CCAFS was sited there long before the specific aspiration to launch to geostationary orbits arose. Any thoughts? $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    Dec 8, 2016 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon (written in 1865!) beautifully explains why the launch site for a Moon shot should be either Florida or Texas. It even has a chapter titled "Florida and Texas". (In the end, they pick Florida because there are fewer rival towns there. As always, politics wins the day.) $\endgroup$ Dec 8, 2016 at 23:53
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    $\begingroup$ @ViktorToth, thats what picked my curiosity of knowing why NASA picked Florida. Jule Verne has many great ideas, but in the end of the day, its the Apollo missions that brought man to the moon, not his human canon shooting mecanism... $\endgroup$
    – Dat Ha
    Dec 9, 2016 at 0:43
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    $\begingroup$ @DatHa Hawaii is the most Southern state. American Samoa is even farther South (Southern hemisphere.) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Dec 9, 2016 at 5:43

As many others have stated Florida is a great place to launch rockets because if the rocket suffers an issue during launch debris from it will land in the Atlantic ocean rather than crashing down into inhabited land, possibly damaging property or killing civilians. Another reason that i don't think has been brought up but bears mentioning is that in 1949 swampland in Florida was considerably cheaper to buy in bulk than the alternative sites they were considering.

Source: Heard this on tour of Kennedy Space Centre.


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