Skip to main content

Why Do Rockets Launch from Florida?

Sixty years ago this week, Florida's "Space Coast" was born with the launch of a rocket called Bumper 8 on July 24, 1960, from what was then called Long Range Proving Ground Base on Cape Canaveral.

Today, Cape Canaveral is America's gateway to the cosmos, but it wasn't the first place from which rockets were launched in the United States. [Photo: Florida's first rocket launch.]

After World War II, when military rocket technology was in its infancy, rockets were launched from White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. But the technology was, literally, outgrowing the test range there.

"The total length of range at White Sands was about 100 miles," said Stan Starr, chief of the Applied Physics Branch at Kennedy Space Center. "Everything they launched had to go straight up, and slightly to the north so the radar and telemetry stations would be able to see the rockets to track them."

But to achieve great distances and there were a number of military programs at the time had exactly that goal they need a long range and the ability to track the rocket throughout the range, Starr said. Should something go wrong , rocket engineers also wanted to be sure that rockets would land benignly, preferably in an ocean.

"The Cape had a big advantage," Starr said over other locations. It was selected for two reasons: the fact that it is relatively near to the equator compared to other U.S. locations, and the fact that it is on the East Coast.

An East Coast location was desirable because any rockets leaving Earth's surface and traveling eastward get a boost from the Earth's spin. A West Coast location would either send rockets over populated areas or have to contend with launching against the direction of the spin.

"Any object on the Earth's surface is already moving east very fast," Starr said.

And, the rate of spin is at its highest on the equator and slowest at the poles, so the Cape's southern location also gave it a boost, Starr said. Cape Canaveral is about 28 degrees latitude above the equator.

The Bumper rockets that were tested in 1950 were the first two-stage rockets to be developed, Starr said. Two-stage rockets involve one rocket that launches from the ground, and a second rocket that launches from the first in flight, during a separation.

There were eight Bumper rockets in total, and the first six were launched from White Sands. But Bumper 5 soared to an altitude of 244 miles, which is higher than the International Space Station orbiting the Earth today, and heightened the need to find a larger launching range, Starr said.

The Air Force installation on Cape Canaveral was renamed Patrick Air Force Base on Aug.1 1950.

Today, the Base is adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center, and in the years since the Bumper rockets, Cape Canaveral hosted more than 3,000 rocket launches.

Got a question? Email it to Life's Little Mysteries and we'll try to answer it. Due to the volume of questions, we unfortunately can't reply individually, but we will publish answers to the most intriguing questions, so check back soon.