Why is Cape Canaveral a launch site? It’s the ideal location to maximize rocket speed and keep the public safe and operations efficient.
In total, there are 6 main reasons why NASA loves Cape Canaveral as a rocket launch site. I’ll discuss each reason in close detail. In return, you can better appreciate the complexities of launching a rocket.
To point out, the first rocket launch from Cape Canaveral was on July 24, 1950. And still today, this remote marshland is one of the primary locations for U.S. rocket launches. We’ve traveled to the Moon, planets, and beyond from this now famous small city in Florida.
#1 Proximity to the equator for a speed boost
It’s no mystery it costs A LOT of money to launch a rocket into space. So it makes sense to squeeze out every last advantage the Earth gives us. And one huge hidden advantage is how fast objects on Earth’s surface already move.
More specifically, the speed of objects increases the closer you are to the equator. Because angular momentum increases. In return, a rocket receives a substantial speed boost.
To illustrate, on the surface of Earth at the equator, objects move at 1,038 Miles Per Hour (mph). So a rocket prior to launch from the equator will have a speed of 1,038 mph. This allows a rocket to reach escape velocity while using minimal fuel.
In other words, the closer a rocket is to the equator, the greater the kinetic energy it’ll start with. As a result, a rocket will use less energy to reach orbit. And every 0.1% in energy savings is HUGE.
According to Harry W. Jones‘ paper, the cost of a rocket launch today is still tremendous:
NASA’s space shuttle had a cost of about $1.5 billion to launch 27,500 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), $54,500/kg. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 now advertises a cost of $62 million to launch 22,800 kg to LEO, $2,720/kg.
Cost savings you’ll find is a constant theme with rocket launches.
With that out of the way, Cape Canaveral is roughly 1,960 miles north of the equator. Also, it’s one of the farthest points south in the continental United States. As a perspective, the following table shows the distance of popular U.S. cities from the equator:
|U.S. City||Distance from equator|
|Cape Canaveral, FL||1,961 miles|
|Houston, TX||2,056 miles|
|Austin, TX||2,091 miles|
|Phoenix, AZ||2,311 miles|
|Los Angeles, CA||2,352 miles|
|San Francisco, CA||2,610 miles|
|Manhattan, NY||2,813 miles|
|Philadelphia, PA||2,813 miles|
|Chicago, IL||2,891 miles|
Now, to visualize this speed boost, think of a record player. Place a coin near the center and one at the edge of the record. Both coins will orbit the center of the record at the same revolutions per minute. BUT, the coin at the edge has to travel a much farther distance in the same amount of time. Thus, at the edge, the coin travels faster.
In the same vein, every part of Earth rotates at the same angular velocity. So the change in angle over time is the same. But the linear speed of different surface spots varies at different latitudes. This is the speed in a straight line. Similarly, spin a basketball on your finger. At the poles, there’s no movement, while the movement is greatest at the equator.
This is why countries locate their launch facilities near the equator. The following table shows the proximity of other launch sites to the equator:
|Famous rocket launch sites||Country||Distance from equator||Angle of inclination (North)|
|Guiana Space Center at Kourou||French Guiana||357 miles||5°|
|Satish Dhawan Space Centre||India||910 miles||13°|
|Cape Canaveral Air Force Station||United States||1,960 miles||28°|
|Palmachim Airbase||Israel||2,170 miles||31°|
|Tanegashima Space Center||Japan||2,170 miles||31°|
|Vandenberg Air Force Base||United States||2,450 miles||35°|
|Wallops Flight Facility||United States||2,660 miles||38°|
|Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center||China||2,745 miles||41°|
|Baikonur Cosmodrome||Russia||3,155 miles||45°|
|Yasny Launch Base||Russia||3,570 miles||51°|
Important Note: Elon Musk chose Texas for SpaceX launches too. For one, the southern tip of Texas is closer to the Equator than even Cape Canaveral. Also, on the east side of Texas sits the Gulf of Mexico, a large body of water.
#2 Orbital spaceflight flexibility for satellites
Rockets launched near the equator have greater flexibility over common desired orbital paths. A rocket launched near the equator can orbit east to west. But a rocket launched near the poles of Earth requires more energy to reach east to west orbit.
At Cape Canaveral, eastward launches are for prograde orbits. These launches are for geosynchronous or geostationary orbits. Most North, South, and West launches aren’t made at Cape Canaveral though. This is because of rocket flight restrictions over land.
A quick calculation will illustrate why prograde orbits are common at Cape Canaveral. First though, to reach orbit around Earth, you need to travel 17,600 mph. And if you want to completely escape’s Earth gravity you need to travel 25,000 mph.
Just as important, the Earth’s rotational speed at the equator is 1,038 mph. While Cape Canaveral has a latitude of about 28° North. Now given this information, we can calculate a rocket’s speed boost at Cape Canaveral.
1,038 mph x cos(28°) = 916.5 mph speed boost
So by flying eastward in the same direction Earth is spinning, you get a significant speed boost. This will reduce your fuel costs quite considerably.
On the flip side, if you try to achieve a polar orbit from the equator, you’ll need extra fuel. Because you still need to travel 17,600 mph, but also you need to counter your eastward momentum. This course correction is why polar orbit launches aren’t typically made from Cape Canaveral.
#3 Public safety from rocket launch mishaps
Rockets look amazingly awesome and simple. But they’re overly complex machines that travel hundreds of miles into space. Plus, they weigh hundreds of thousands of pounds. Not surprisingly, many things can go wrong. Especially when you consider at the most basic level, rockets are just one long controlled explosion.
Thus, people in charge take many contingencies into consideration to minimize risks. The largest risk is of course people getting hurt.
This then leads us to why Cape Canaveral makes such an awesome rocket launch site. It’s located on the east coast of Florida, facing the Atlantic Ocean. And the rocket launches leverage the Earth’s eastward rotation for a speed boost. As a result, the rockets will typically end up orbiting in the same direction Earth spins.
This trajectory then conveniently creates a safety zone for launches. In other words, the rocket travel paths fall over the ocean and not large population centers. So any falling debris from rockets will splash down into the Atlantic Ocean. Also, reusable rocket parts will safely parachute down into the ocean for later recovery.
#4 Easy site access for transportation
All around Cape Canaveral are easy to access waterways for transportation. This makes the transport of large heavy equipment to the site easy. Because it’s almost always easier to transport large objects by sea versus land.
For added perspective, think of land-based wind turbines. Engineers limit their physical size due to transportation limitations. For example, if a wind blade becomes too large, you can’t transport it under all bridges.
So as rockets become larger, the Cape Canaveral launch site will become even more popular.
What’s more, heavy-traffic shipping lanes aren’t near the launch area. And any ships that do enter under the launch area can have their routes easily changed.
#5 Existing rocket infrastructure
Cape Canaveral wasn’t always used to launch rockets into space. Back in 1949, the U.S. government tested missiles from the site. In fact, the close proximity to the equator and safety factor was a huge consideration, then as well.
As a result, Cape Canaveral had existing rocket infrastructure like rocket launch pads. So, NASA was able to recycle a lot of the infrastructure for their own rocket launches. And given how similar missiles are to rockets, this was a no-brainer. So the marriage of NASA with the existing infrastructure was a match made in heaven.
What’s more, when NASA chose the site, it was still a blank canvas. There were miles and miles of emptiness for expansion. Yet still, paved roads existed from the Air Force missile test facility operations. This limited the required work for NASA to get the site up and running for rocket launches.
On average, the year-round weather is great in Cape Canaveral. The below table shows the average temperature for every month of the year. This great weather allows for launches year-round. Because who wants space travel to be a seasonal activity?…
|Month||High temperature (Fahrenheit)||Low temperature (Fahrenheit)|
According to Weather Spark,
“In Cape Canaveral, the summers are long, hot, oppressive, wet, and mostly cloudy and the winters are short, cool, windy, and partly cloudy. Over the course of the year, the temperature typically varies from 54°F to 89°F and is rarely below 40°F or above 92°F.”
To point out, there are some thunderstorms, heavy rain, and hurricanes here and there. Overall though, the weather is ideal for rocket launches.
“Why is Cape Canaveral a launch site?” wrap up
Yes, there’s land closer to the equator than Cape Canaveral. But the question is, what U.S. territory is nearest to the equator? Florida, of course!
Also, almost all other land options aren’t on the continental U.S.
So, from a business-economic stance, there are tradeoffs. But all things considered, Cape Canaveral is the sweet spot for rocket launches. It’s as if Earth handed us this location, and said use it to springboard into the cosmos.
I just hope Cape Canaveral doesn’t disappear as oceans rise, in the near future. As that’d be the only reason we’d ever abandon this treasured launch site. Because the location is simply too awesome, checking off every box you’d want in a rocket launch site.
What do you think is the most important reason from the 6 discussed? Do you think Cape Canaveral is the best launch site in the U.S. for rockets?
Featured Image Photo Credit: NASA (image cropped)
SUBSCRIBE TO ENGINEER CALCS NEWSLETTER
Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.