rocket history
Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy
Hermann Oberth
Robert H. Goddard
Wernher von Braun
Sergei P. Korolev
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Cape Canaveral
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Cape Canaveral

Cape Canaveral is the most famous of American launch sites. It is the place where America's first satellite attempt, Vanguard 1, crumpled and exploded so embarrassingly on December 6, 1957, that newspapers labeled it “Kaflopnik.” It is where Explorer I was launched and helped to reclaim some American pride on January 31, 1958. It is where Alan Shepard and John Glenn first flew into space and where the mighty Saturn V pushed Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon. Today it is most known for its regular Space Shuttle launches, but many other commercial and military satellites are launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as well.

To some extent, the fame of Cape Canaveral is misleading. Technically, the Space Shuttles fly from Kennedy Space Centre on Merritt Island, which is north of the Cape. But this confusion is not surprising, since the names of the various areas and the government agencies that are responsible for them have changed several times during the space age.

The swampy marshland of Cape Canaveral and Merritt Island to the north was known primarily for its mosquitoes well into the 20th century. Most local industry was centred upon fishing and lobster as well as cattle ranching and orange growing. But Cape Canaveral itself has one of the oldest names in North America, having first been named by famed Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. During World War II the U.S. Navy established a pilot training facility on the island called the Banana River Naval Air Station. It was closed down after the war. In the late 1940s, following a search for a missile test range that included sites in Alaska and California, the military services selected Florida. In 1949 the Army, Navy and Air Force established the Joint Long Range Proving Ground at the facility. The services took over the abandoned buildings and began cutting new roads through the swamps, chasing off alligators, snakes and wild pigs and building missile launch pads.

The location was excellent for early missile launches because the military services could fire their rockets out over the Atlantic Ocean along trajectories that kept them in range of radar tracking stations located on various islands such as Bermuda. The first Cape launch was an A4/WAC-Corporal rocket (essentially a souped-up V-2) as part of Project Bumper, which took place from a primitive pad on July 24, 1950. This pad was later renamed Launch Complex 3. In 1950 the Air Force took over the entire facility. It is managed by a headquarters facility located to the south of nearby Cocoa Beach named Patrick Air Force Base.

By the late 1950s, as the Thor and Atlas ballistic missile programs heated up, the Air Force began constructing numerous launch pads for the missiles. These facilities were generally “heavy” pads, with large concrete launch pads, steel towers for erecting and supporting the missiles, and various additional facilities. Occasionally the pads suffered significant damage from missile explosions and had to be rebuilt. As the launch towers sprung up along a relatively small section of the coast, this area was nicknamed “Missile Row.”

In 1961, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom launched into space atop Mercury Redstone rockets from Launch Complexes 5/ 6. Soon more Mercury astronauts were roaring into space from Launch Complex 14. NASA launched all ten Gemini missions atop converted Titan II ICBMs from Launch Complex 19 during 1965-1966.

Complex 39 reflection shot of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) under construction in 1965 with the Launch Control Centre (LCC) and Service Towers as seen from across the Turning Basin.

In 1963, NASA started construction of the massive Apollo-Saturn facilities. These included a huge Vertical (later Vehicle) Assembly Building, or VAB, for stacking the rockets, two large launch pads called Launch Complex 39, and dozens of other support buildings and other facilities. The Saturn rockets were carried to their launch pads atop giant moving vehicles travelling along gravel crawlerways. Originally NASA planned to build three Saturn V pads, known as LC-39A, 39B, and 39C, but this was scaled back to two. Additional pads for the smaller Saturn I and IB rockets were also constructed and it was at one of these, Launch Complex 34, where the tragic Apollo 1 fire took place in January 1967.

When the VAB was finally completed in 1966, it towered over the landscape and could be seen many miles away. But because it sits in isolation on a relatively flat marshland, its size is deceiving—a person cannot grasp how huge it is until getting close to it. The VAB was originally intended to prepare up to four Saturn V rockets for flight at a single time, but one of its large “high bays” was never completed, and it has never housed more than two Saturn V or Space Shuttles at once.

Apollo 10 rollout from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to Complex 39B in 1969.

Starting in the mid 1970s, the two Saturn V pads were converted to launch the Space Shuttle. Their launch towers were reduced in size and the Mobile Service Structures that served the Saturns and sat on their own mobile pads were sawed off and attached to the launch pads on giant hinges that allow them to swing into place to protect a Space Shuttle on the pad. All Saturn V launches except for Apollo 10 took place at LC-39A along with the first 24 Space Shuttle launches and it is the primary launch pad for the Shuttle. NASA has considered mothballing LC-39B at several periods in its history.

In 1962, the overall land mass was generally referred to as Cape Canaveral, containing the Air Force's Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex and NASA's Launch Operations Centre on Merritt Island. After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the two facilities were combined into the John F. Kennedy Space Centre and the land mass was renamed Cape Kennedy. In 1973-1974, after protests by local residents who noted the name's long history, the land mass was again renamed Cape Canaveral, and the U.S. Air Force facility became the Cape Canaveral Air Station.

STS-3 rollout from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Complex. 39A, February 1982.

As the number of launches from the Eastern Test Range (later renamed the Eastern Range) was reduced in the 1970s, several pads were mothballed and their towers torn down. The towers along Missile Row all came down. The active pads, in addition to the two Shuttle pads at LC-39, were the two Titan pads at LC-40 and LC-41 and the LC-36A and B Atlas pads, and LC-17A and B Delta launch pads. The Titan launch tower at LC-41 was torn down and replaced with launch facilities for the Atlas V. An old Saturn IB pad, LC-37, has recently been refurbished for launching the Atlas V as well.

Just south of Cape Canaveral is the town of Cocoa Beach, where many space workers lived and which for many years relied heavily on the space program for its survival. After massive job cutbacks during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the town embraced tourism with only moderate success (Florida's east coast beaches are narrow and the Atlantic water is often cold). In the 1990s, the local economy picked up as cruise ships were based at Port Canaveral. But the area still relies heavily on space-related business and has dubbed itself the Space Coast.