July 20, 1969. Over 50 years ago, 2 men, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin, embarked on the Apollo 11, a spaceflight that would take the first human beings to the moon. Apollo 11 was launched by the Saturn V rocket. The NASA Kennedy Space Center was its launching center.
Space rocket launches are often associated with Cape Canaveral. And while launches have been made from Cape Canaveral, the Apollo 11 mission was launched not from Cape Canaveral, but Merritt Island, just west of Cape Canaveral.
Either way, both Cape Canaveral and Merritt Island are part of Florida’s Space Coast. There is reason the launches have taken place here.
There is a history of rocket launches in the region. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was a major test site for missiles as far back as 1949. The Joint Long Range Proving Ground was founded in Cape Canaveral in 1949. In 1956, sub-orbital rocket launches were conducted at Cape Canaveral. Sub-orbital launches had been conducted in New Mexico a year prior. When NASA was founded in 1958, Cape Canaveral AFS would be the site where missiles would be launched for NASA. The first manned spaceflight by NASA took place at Cape Canaveral under Project Mercury. Alan B. Shepard became the first American to be launched into space in 1961.
Why so many rockets being launched from Florida’s Space Coast? Florida’s geography is favorable for the rocket launches. Consider where the Space Coast is located.
-Cape Canaveral and Merritt Island are located quite far south within the continental United States of America. The further south one goes on the Earth, the higher the linear velocity is. And this is highest towards the Equator. The Earth rotates in an easterly direction. Any rockets being launched from Cape Canaveral or Merritt Island will have the advantage of being launched eastward. The rotation of the Earth gives the rockets some extra velocity. There is also another advantage. The area was chosen for launches at the time due to where its downrange is.
-Downrange is the horizontal range that a spacecraft travels. When a rocket is being launched, the downrange is its path being traveled. It is important to have the downrange area thinly populated or not populated at all. Florida’s Space Coast, and notably Cape Canaveral/Merritt Island, is located next to the Atlantic Ocean. An easterly launch gives a spacecraft an downrange towards the ocean. If any accidents were to take place, it would take place over the ocean instead of over a populated area.
Geography is what made Merrit Island and Cape Canaveral advantageous locations to launch spaceflights. It is why the Apollo 11 mission was launched there in 1969. 50 years later, spaceflights continue to be launched there. Spaceport Florida Launch Complex 46 is located in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, as of 1987. Its last launch occurred on July 2, 2019, the Orion Launch Abort System.
Geography helped this region become not only Florida’s Space Coast, but America’s Space Coast.