Florida: Cape Canaveral Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Cape Canaveral is the term commonly used to refer to U.S. space exploration facilities on the cape and on Merritt Island, which lies between the cape and the mainland. Merritt Island is the site of the John F. Kennedy Space Center, which houses the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Launch Operations Center, the central site of the U.S. space program. It was constructed as the launch center for missions to the Moon; since 1981 it has been the launch base for the Space Shuttle. On the cape itself is Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, site of the start of the space program, including the satellite projects Vanguard and Explorer, and all manned flight projects before Apollo. It remains active as a facility for launches of unmanned private payloads into Earth’s orbit.

Site Office

NASA Kennedy Space Center Spaceport USA

Route 405

NASA Causeway

Kennedy Space Center, FL 32899

ph.: (407) 452-2121

fax: (407) 452-3043

Web site: www.ksc.nasa.gov

The cape that was named cañaveral by the Spanish to describe its original appearance, a “place of reeds,” or a reedbed, was little more than a stretch of uninhabited, barren scrubland until the middle of the twentieth century, when it quickly became the center for U.S. space program initiatives. Today it is home to a vast complex covering an area of 125 square miles that attracts more than two million visitors a year.

Early Development

The development of the cape is closely linked to the state of affairs between the two superpowers after World War II. The cape’s original function had been military in nature. As in the case of the major launch centers of the former Soviet Union, the space vehicle launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center are an extension of facilities built during the Cold War for the testing of long-range missiles.

At the end of World War II, the United States was conducting its long-range ballistic development out of five centers. Three of these, the Goldstone and Pendleton Ranges and the Naval Ordnance Test Station, were in California; the Hueco Range was in Texas, and the Allegheny Ballistics Laboratory in West Virginia. Missiles test-fired from these centers had a maximum range of not quite nine miles. The postwar period of wariness and hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union–an era known as the Cold War–called for missile capabilities of a longer range, and three new centers were constructed in the second half of 1945: Wallops Station in Virginia, Point Mugu in California, and the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. White Sands benefited greatly from the work of Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket experts, who had developed the original V-2 (also known as the A-4) in Germany during World War II. This rocket became the basis of modern U.S. and Soviet long-range missiles and space vehicles, and Braun figured prominently in the U.S. space program.

Maximum Missile Ranges

The maximum ranges of these new testing sites did not exceed one hundred miles. This meant that A-4/V-2 rockets, predecessors to the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), had to be fired below their maximum range of around two hundred miles. The next generation of missiles was intended to have an intercontinental range, from five thousand to seven thousand miles. None of the three existing long-range facilities could cater to this expanding need. A new site had to be found, and this need for a longer-range missile launch site accounts for the initial development of Cape Canaveral.

Cape Canaveral was one of three potential facilities considered by the Committee on Long Range Missile Proving Grounds of the Joint Research and Development Board of the U.S. War Department. There were three requirements for the new site: favorable weather conditions, a seaside location, and a nearby, separate land mass, like a chain of islands. A coastal location meant that missiles of much longer range could be launched over the sea without compromising populated areas. Because the technology of the time did not allow the tracking of missiles from the moving decks of ships, tracking facilities had to be land-based.

One of the three sites, in Washington State with tracking stations along the Aleutian Islands, was eliminated because of its unfavorable climate. What had been the committee’s first choice, El Centro Naval Air Station in California, was eliminated when sovereignty rights for tracking stations based in Mexico could not be secured. This left Cape Canaveral, which, with British agreement to allow tracking facilities on the British-ruled Bahamas, became the chosen site. The facility, named the Joint Long Range Proving Ground Base, was to be operated by the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Army. The Air Force took on sole responsibility for the base in 1950, and the facility was renamed Patrick Air Force Base. Still operational today, it is located at the southern tip of the cape.

The First Launches

Missile launches from Cape Canaveral began in July, 1950, with the launch of an A-4/WAC-Corporal. In 1953 came the launch of the first Redstone missile, which was to play an important part in space vehicle propulsion. In that same year, Braun, at the time based with the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, proposed the use of an enlarged version of the Redstone to place in orbit the first Earth satellite. The propulsion capability–needed after the initial liftoff stage–to make this possible became available in September, 1956, date of the first Jupiter launch. This was not going to be the rocket, however, that would propel the first satellite into orbit; it was to remain dedicated to warhead testing. This was a decision based on policy.

Wernher von Braun’s work was not with the Air Force, and it was the Air Force that was supposed to build missiles with intercontinental range. The Air Force’s Vanguard, developed from a sounding rocket, was to make this first attempt into space. This choice resulted in the first-ever artificial satellite being Soviet. Its name was Sputnik, weighing 184 pounds and launched into orbit on October 4, 1957. Two weeks later Sputnik II, weighing 1,120 pounds and carrying a dog named Laika, also was orbited successfully. This second satellite was doubly ominous: The Soviets had developed large ballistic missiles and also had shown their intent to put humans in space vehicles.

Early Failures

The United States launched Vanguard on December 6, 1957. A live television audience watched the liftoff from Launch Complex 18 at the Cape: Vanguard rose four feet into the air, lost thrust, fell back onto the launch pad and exploded. The satellite it was carrying weighed 3.5 pounds. Wernher von Braun’s team was given the go-ahead to proceed with preparations for a Redstone-propelled launch. This was Explorer I, which was successfully put into orbit January 31, 1958, from Launch Complex 26. This event established Canaveral’s principal role in the U.S. space program. Although it had not been part of the selection criteria for Cape Canaveral a decade earlier, the site proved itself to be particularly well suited for satellite launches in that eastward launches could take advantage of the Earth’s rotation to achieve orbit. This advantage had not been available at El Centro.

The failure of Vanguard was a major embarrassment to the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. For the first time in the history of superpower rivalry, the Soviet Union had shown itself to be technologically superior. The administration’s marginal interest in rocket technology quickly gained in intensity, which in turn led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on October 1, 1958. On the day of its creation, Keith Glennan, NASA’s first administrator, declared that the United States would put a man into space. This had been the Soviets’ openly pursued aim, and the United States did not wish to be outdone again. A small task force was formed for this purpose on November 5, 1958, named the Space Task Group, made up of thirty-seven engineers and eight secretaries and led by Robert Gilruth. In the same year, NASA chose Cape Canaveral as the site for the U.S. space program.

NASA Begins Using the Cape

NASA’s presence at the cape had a modest start. On June 9, 1959, a Space Task Group team arrived at the cape. Their project was to launch an Atlas missile carrying the first Mercury capsule, referred to as “Big Joe,” with the purpose of establishing whether the heat shield could ensure bearable cabin temperatures during reentry into the atmosphere. Minimal resources had been allotted to the project. The Space Task Group did not yet have its own facilities at the Cape and had to rely on the Air Force to provide them. It was a rudimentary arrangement and a far cry from the sophisticated infrastructure in place today. The office space provided was a narrow area with one window in which the desks barely fitted end to end. Each time the draftsman had to get out from behind his desk by the window–he needed the light–all the other engineers had to get up, push their chairs into their desks and walk out into the corridor to let him pass. The team’s work area was a roped-off section of Hangar S, which had to be shared with a team of Navy technicians working on its missiles. The Mercury capsule stood on the concrete floor while technicians in overalls worked on it.

When the time came to launch, the capsule was driven to the launch site in the back of a pickup truck on top of mattresses. “Big Joe” was launched, with accidental success, in September, 1959. Liftoff went well, but the second stage of the flight did not proceed as intended when the outboard booster engines did not separate from the rocket. As a result, the capsule was not released at the correct angle for reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Despite this mishap, the heat shield experiment was concluded successfully. The design and center of gravity of “Big Joe” were such that the capsule eventually righted itself and reentered the atmosphere as originally planned. However, the haphazard aspects of this experiment had underlined the failure of the transporter rocket. Two months later, President Eisenhower signed an executive order to transfer Braun’s team of rocket experts from Huntsville to NASA, greatly boosting the new agency’s capabilities. He had not done so earlier because he had been determined to maintain NASA as an entirely civilian organization. Wernher von Braun’s team, with its links to the U.S. Army, had not fulfilled this criterion.

The Moon Race

Following the world’s first satellite launch in 1957, the two superpowers were racing each other to achieve the first manned space flight. On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union beat the United States again with the successful launch and recovery of Vostok I, carrying cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. This first perceived failure of President John F. Kennedy’s administration was compounded a week later with the disastrous outcome of the Bay of Pigs invasion, in which a contingent of Cubans failed in their aim to overthrow Castro. On May 5, Alan Shepard was launched on a Mercury Redstone from Canaveral’s Launch Complex 5. It was the first U.S. manned mission and it was concluded successfully with Shepard landing safely after a flight of fifteen minutes and twenty-two seconds. It was against this background that on May 25, encouraged by Shepard’s success and driven by the need to correct recent failures, President Kennedy stood before Congress to request the provision of funds to carry out a manned lunar landing and safe return within the decade. NASA bought 125 square miles of land on Merritt Island adjacent to Cape Canaveral to develop a new space launch center.

Construction was under way by January, 1962. Two of the most remarkable structures erected were the Vehicle Assembly Building and the crawler spacecraft transporter. The construction of an assembly site for the Saturn rockets posed a number of problems. The size of the Saturn rocket, more than 360 feet long–the size of a Navy destroyer–meant that it could not be assembled in a horizontal position, as was the practice with the smaller V-2s and Redstones. In addition, the crane to be used for lifting hardware during assembly needed sufficient clearance. The elements at the cape, namely salt water and winds up to twenty-five knots, called for an enclosed building that offered shelter and allowed the performance of delicate technical work. Also, the president’s declared goal of reaching the Moon by 1970 meant that the assembly site had to be large enough to enable the preparation of at least four Saturns at a time. These requirements were met in the huge Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), which dwarfs all other facilities at the space center. The building is 525 feet high and its floor covers eight acres. Each of the four doors is 456 feet high, tall enough for the Statue of Liberty to pass through. One popular myth about the gigantic scale of the VAB was that it had to be air-conditioned to prevent clouds from forming inside.

Once assembled, the Saturn had to be transported to the launch site. The launcher was ninety-five feet above the ground and three miles from the VAB. The space vehicle had to be transported for these three miles, come to a five-degree slope and climb the ninety-five feet. As the Saturn climbed, its transportation platform had to be raised hydraulically so that the vehicle remained level throughout the climb. This was achieved by a giant transporter crawler that moved at a speed of twenty feet per minute along four tanklike tracks supporting a platform the size of a professional baseball diamond.

Kennedy and the Space Center

On November 16, 1963, part of the way through construction of the new complex, President Kennedy visited what was by then known as the Launch Operations Center on Merritt Island, where he inspected the construction sites for the VAB and Pad 39, to be used for the Apollo launches and later for those of the Space Shuttle. Six days later, President Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. Six days after that, the center was renamed the John F. Kennedy Space Center. President Lyndon B. Johnson also extended the name change to Cape Canaveral itself, changing it to Cape Kennedy. The cape retained this name until 1973, when it returned to its original Spanish name, to the preference of Floridians. By May, 1966, the infrastructure needed for launching Apollo missions was in place.

First Americans in Space

Launches had continued during construction of the lunar mission facilities. Virgil “Gus” Grissom had replicated Shepard’s success in 1961. Another milestone was reached on February 20, 1962, as John Glenn completed three Earth orbits during a flight lasting nearly five hours. This was followed by the Gemini project, which consisted of twelve two-man missions, primarily during 1965 and 1966. The project’s aim was to gain knowledge regarding, among other things, long-duration flights, docking, and space rendezvous. These were highly successful missions that gave the United States a lead over the Soviet Union.

Use of the newly constructed facility began with the Apollo project in 1967. It was to use Saturn-propelled craft that could accommodate three astronauts over a two-week period. The project had a tragic start with Apollo 1. Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee died as a result of a fire that broke out in the command module during a launch rehearsal. The project was resumed after a one-year moratorium, with the next major milestone being reached with Apollo 8 in December, 1968, when Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders orbited the Moon ten times. Apollo 11, manned by Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin Aldrin, landed in the Moon’s Sea of Tranquillity on July 20, 1969. This event more than any other made Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center into household names around the world.


The cape has since been part of every major milestone in the history of U.S. space exploration. Skylab, the first U.S. space station, was launched unmanned May 14, 1973. Eleven days later, in another craft, its first crew–Charles Conrad, Dr. Joseph Kerwin, and Paul Weitz–made a rendezvous with the station. The first Skylab mission lasted twenty-eight days. The other two Skylab missions of July and November, 1973, lasted fifty-nine and eighty-four days, respectively.

After the last crew left in 1974, Skylab was to keep circling the Earth until the 1980’s, when a Space Shuttle would meet it and either maneuver it into safe orbit or let it fall into the Indian Ocean. This was not to be. An expansion of the Earth’s atmosphere, caused by sunspot activity during 1978-1979, meant that the gravitational pull on Skylab increased and dragged the station toward Earth. On July 11, 1979, after completing 34,981 orbits of the Earth, Skylab disintegrated over the Indian Ocean. Some debris landed in the Australian Outback without harming people or property.

The Space Shuttle

The next milestone of space exploration was the space shuttle program, which began in 1981 with the first orbital test flight of Columbia, manned by John Young and Robert Crippen. It lifted off from Launch Complex 39, which has been the launch site for all shuttle flights.

The space shuttle, known officially as the Space Transportation System (STS), is the first multipurpose reusable space vehicle. NASA engineers liken it to a truck, able to deliver satellites, pick them up or repair them on-site. It can also serve as a space laboratory. The space shuttle orbiters Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis performed all these functions since the space shuttle program began. In June, 1983, the seventh shuttle mission, STS-7, on Challenger, lifted off. On board was Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. The tenth shuttle mission of February, 1984, also on Challenger, was remarkable for the first untethered spacewalk, performed by Bruce McCandless and Robert Stewart with the aid of manned maneuvering units (MMUs).

The <i>Challenger</i> Disaster

The twenty-fifth space shuttle mission of January 28, 1986, is remembered for its abrupt and tragic end. Mission objectives had included the Teacher-in-Space project, in which Christa McAuliffe was to conduct two lessons from space to millions of pupils across the country. Instead, Gregory Jarvis, McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick, Francis Scobee, and Michael Smith lost their lives when the orbiter Challenger exploded seventy-three seconds after liftoff.

The flight took place in the middle of an unusual Florida cold snap. At liftoff, the temperature was 36 degrees Fahrenheit, 15 degrees colder than that of any previous launch. This cold temperature had affected the seals lining the joints between the rocket booster segments, which contain solid propellant. (The solid rocket boosters are placed on either side of the external tank. This is the large central cylindrical structure to which the shuttle remains attached during liftoff and which acts as a fuel tank to the shuttle’s main engines.) The function of these seals is to prevent the escape of hot gases through the joint while the propellant is burning. An ill-fitting seal in the joint between the two lower segments of the right-hand booster rocket failed to contain these hot gases, which ignited as they escaped. This rapidly growing flame was aimed at the surface of the central, external tank, which quickly began to leak liquid hydrogen, further adding to the flame from the booster rocket. It was this leak that eventually developed into the massive explosion witnessed by national television audiences.

Spaceport USA

The NASA complex is a secured area, with public access to the Kennedy Space Center restricted to Spaceport USA, the custom-built visitor center that stands on seventy acres within the complex. Visitors are taken around the facility by bus and are shown the Space Shuttle Launch Pads (Launch Complex 39, A and B), the Vehicle Assembly Building and a Saturn V rocket. An alternative tour takes visitors to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where the U.S. space program began. Spaceport USA also includes a series of museums displaying objects of space exploration history. Two IMAX theaters show spaceflight films. An Astronauts Memorial stands at Spaceport USA consisting of a 42.5-foot-high by 50-foot-wide “Space Mirror” that tracks the movement of the Sun to illuminate the names of sixteen astronauts who died in the cause of space exploration.

For Further Information
  • Bailey, John, ed. Quest for Space. Clearwater, Fla.: Belmont International, 1999. Recounts the history of NASA and the Kennedy Space Center, as well as the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Ames Research Center. Describes Project Apollo and spaceflight since then and offers astronaut biographies of such figures as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Sally Ride, Shannon Lucid, and Michael Collins.
  • Gaffney, Timothy R. Kennedy Space Center. Chicago: Childrens Press, 1985. A good introduction to the Kennedy Space Center for children, describing the surrounding area and history of the center with a concentration on the Space Shuttle program. Includes a glossary of common space travel terms.
  • Gatland, Kenneth. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Space Technology: A Comprehensive History of Space Exploration. Rev. ed. New York: Harmony Books, 1984. An excellent factbook with illustrations explaining the events and technological developments of global space travel history. It includes a glossary and chronology of space travel events up to 1984.
  • Murray, Charles, and Catherine Bly Cox. Apollo: The Race to the Moon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. An engaging account of the Apollo project told from a human-interest angle. It places the space program in its wider historical context and is full of entertaining anecdotes.
Categories: History Content