Does NASA Need A Better Launch Site?

Photo: Ken Thomsley/NASA

Storm clouds loom over Atlantis before last month’s liftoff.

The space shuttle Atlantis finally lifted off its launchpad to tend to its space-station construction duties. But the launch delays brought on by concerns that tropical storm Ernesto might turn into a hurricane and wreak havoc on the spacecraft raise the question: Why is NASA’s premier launch facility, and the only NASA facility that conducts manned launches, located in such a disaster-prone region?

Hurricane-related problems have become more frequent at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in recent years, as the east coast of the United States transitions from a decades-long period of historically low storm activity. In 2004 Hurricane Frances prompted NASA to evacuate Kennedy, tore hundreds of panels off the Vehicle Assembly Building, and damaged other structures. In 2005 Hurricane Wilma forced another evacuation of Kennedy. With the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warning that we can expect more hurricanes with higher winds in the future, there is a real fear that Kennedy may get hit by a storm that its buildings simply can’t handle. Irreplaceable facilities and hardware--including spacecraft--could be lost.

Hurricanes aren’t the only drawback to Kennedy’s location--salt coming from the nearby Atlantic Ocean makes corrosion a constant worry, and oppressive humidity for much of the year makes working conditions difficult.

The old-saw answer to the launch-site question often heard at Kennedy around launch time goes ”Cape Canaveral is the worst launch site in America, except for all the rest.”

The reason? Kennedy’s southerly location means it is closer to the equator than the United States’ other launch sites, so it can pick up more of a boost from Earth’s rotation when it launches rockets in an easterly direction. This translates into more payload for the same amount of fuel. The Atlantic Ocean provides a large handy patch of uninhabited planet for spent or malfunctioning booster stages to fall onto. The Russians, who launch over the steppes of Kazakhstan, have problems with spent stages, still carrying residual amounts of toxic propellants, landing near human outposts. And Kennedy’s coastal location means that large structures, such as the shuttle’s external tank, can be brought in by barge.

There is interest outside NASA in exploring alternative launch locations, especially in desert areas, where the population density is low, the weather more predictable, and corrosion is not a problem because of the dry air. California’s Mojave Desert--where NASA has its backup shuttle landing site and where test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in October 1947--is one such place. In 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration certified the Mojave Airport as a spaceport, allowing horizontally launched reusable spacecraft to take off from there. So far only Burt Rutan’s Anasari X-Prize winning SpaceShipOne has managed to actually leave the atmosphere from the Mojave site. Private interests are also attempting to establish a new suborbital and orbital launch site along the Cape Breton coast of Nova Scotia, Canada.

It is unlikely that NASA will ever willingly relocate from Kennedy to somewhere like the Mojave--if nothing else, there is simply too much infrastructure, aging though it is, which the agency can’t afford to replace with its normal operating budgets. But if a really big hurricane ever made a direct hit on Cape Canaveral, the U.S. Congress would be forced to pay for replacing much of this infrastructure anyway. If it lacked the political will to do so, the U.S. manned space program might be abandoned altogether. Before such a disaster ever befalls NASA, it should think again about whether Cape Canaveral really is the worst location in America, except for all the rest. Newly appointed director of the Kennedy Space Center, William Parsons, should consider making the investigation of new manned space-flight launch sites a priority of his administration.

The editorial content of IEEE Spectrum magazine does not reflect official positions of the IEEE or its organizational units. Please address comments to Forum atn.hantman@ieee.org

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