Every time people get excited to watch a rocket launch only to have their hopes dashed with a weather delay, it begs the question: why on Earth do we launch rockets from Florida? It’s regularly pummeled by hurricanes, and it gets more thunderstorms than any other state. Couldn’t we launch from somewhere milder, like Southern California? No, and there’s a good reason. Three good reasons, in fact.
IT’S CLOSE TO THE EQUATOR
To understand why launching near the equator is important, think back to the last time you were at a playground and rode a merry-go-round. If a merry-go-round was spinning fast enough, you probably felt an outward pull that got stronger the further from the center you stood. That pull is what you call tangential velocity, and it also affects us on this big merry-go-round we call the Earth. Because the equator is the furthest point from Earth’s axis of rotation, going north or south from the equator is akin to walking inward on the merry-go-round platform. You get less tangential velocity from the spinning object the further from its outermost point you go.
Launching rockets from Earth, then, is like flinging your little sister from a spinning merry-go-round: it’s easier to do the further out they are. That extra little push from the Earth’s spin means NASA needs less fuel to launch things into space.
IT’S BY THE OCEAN
When you’re launching a rocket, you want to make sure it doesn’t have the chance to drop debris — or explode, God forbid — over a populated area. What goes up must come down, as they say. When you launch over the ocean, falling objects and aborted missions can land in the water where they have less chance of harming civilians.
But again, you might ask, why not California? Some launches do happen there, in fact. But Cape Canaveral, Florida, where NASA launches most of its spacecraft, has another location-based benefit: it’s on the East Coast. Earth rotates west to east, so that merry-go-round fling we get from our spinning planet goes eastward. Having an ocean to the east just makes sense.
When NASA bought the land that would become Kennedy Space Center in 1961, it was exactly what they needed. It was sparsely populated, which made it easier to build huge facilities without bothering the locals. But it also had roads and other infrastructure, since it was close to military bases.
“So you could build what you wanted, but it had decent roads because of the military, and that was important,” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum senior curator Roger Launius told Scientific American, “This is one of the problems that [the Soviet Union] had with Baikonur [Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan], their launch site. I mean, it is in the middle of nowhere. They had to build a whole infrastructure to run rail out there, to build highways, to bring in all of the water and power and everything else that was necessary to make that place habitable.”
Florida hits all the right notes for NASA, bad weather or no. As any real estate expert will tell you, when it comes to launching rockets, it’s all about location, location, location.