To some extent, the fame of
Cape Canaveral is misleading. Technically, the Space Shuttles fly from
Kennedy Space Centre on Merritt Island, which is north of the Cape. But
this confusion is not surprising, since the names of the various areas and
the government agencies that are responsible for them have changed several
times during the space age.
The swampy marshland of
Cape Canaveral and Merritt Island to the north was known primarily for its
mosquitoes well into the 20th century. Most local industry was centred
upon fishing and lobster as well as cattle ranching and orange growing.
But Cape Canaveral itself has one of the oldest names in North America,
having first been named by famed Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. During
World War II the U.S. Navy established a pilot training facility on the
island called the Banana River Naval Air Station. It was closed down after
the war. In the late 1940s, following a search for a missile test range
that included sites in Alaska and California, the military services
selected Florida. In 1949 the Army, Navy and Air Force established the
Joint Long Range Proving Ground at the facility. The services took over
the abandoned buildings and began cutting new roads through the swamps,
chasing off alligators, snakes and wild pigs and building missile launch
The location was excellent
for early missile launches because the military services could fire their
rockets out over the Atlantic Ocean along trajectories that kept them in
range of radar tracking stations located on various islands such as
Bermuda. The first Cape launch was an A4/WAC-Corporal rocket (essentially
a souped-up V-2) as part of Project Bumper, which took place from a
primitive pad on July 24, 1950. This pad was later renamed Launch Complex
3. In 1950 the Air Force took over the entire facility. It is managed by a
headquarters facility located to the south of nearby Cocoa Beach named
Patrick Air Force Base.
By the late 1950s, as the
Thor and Atlas ballistic missile programs heated up, the Air Force began
constructing numerous launch pads for the missiles. These facilities were
generally “heavy” pads, with large concrete launch pads, steel towers for
erecting and supporting the missiles, and various additional facilities.
Occasionally the pads suffered significant damage from missile explosions
and had to be rebuilt. As the launch towers sprung up along a relatively
small section of the coast, this area was nicknamed “Missile Row.”
In 1961, Alan Shepard and
Gus Grissom launched into space atop Mercury Redstone rockets from Launch
Complexes 5/ 6. Soon more Mercury astronauts were roaring into space from
Launch Complex 14. NASA launched all ten Gemini missions atop converted
Titan II ICBMs from Launch Complex 19 during 1965-1966.
Complex 39 reflection shot of the
Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) under construction in 1965 with the Launch
Control Centre (LCC) and Service Towers as seen from across the Turning
In 1963, NASA started
construction of the massive Apollo-Saturn facilities. These included a
huge Vertical (later Vehicle) Assembly Building, or VAB, for stacking the
rockets, two large launch pads called Launch Complex 39, and dozens of
other support buildings and other facilities. The Saturn rockets were
carried to their launch pads atop giant moving vehicles travelling along
gravel crawlerways. Originally NASA planned to build three Saturn V pads,
known as LC-39A, 39B, and 39C, but this was scaled back to two. Additional
pads for the smaller Saturn I and IB rockets were also constructed and it
was at one of these, Launch Complex 34, where the tragic Apollo 1 fire
took place in January 1967.
When the VAB was finally
completed in 1966, it towered over the landscape and could be seen many
miles away. But because it sits in isolation on a relatively flat
marshland, its size is deceiving—a person cannot grasp how huge it is
until getting close to it. The VAB was originally intended to prepare up
to four Saturn V rockets for flight at a single time, but one of its large
“high bays” was never completed, and it has never housed more than two
Saturn V or Space Shuttles at once.
Apollo 10 rollout from the Vehicle
Assembly Building (VAB) to Complex 39B in 1969.
Starting in the mid 1970s,
the two Saturn V pads were converted to launch the Space Shuttle. Their
launch towers were reduced in size and the Mobile Service Structures that
served the Saturns and sat on their own mobile pads were sawed off and
attached to the launch pads on giant hinges that allow them to swing into
place to protect a Space Shuttle on the pad. All Saturn V launches except
for Apollo 10 took place at LC-39A along with the first 24 Space Shuttle
launches and it is the primary launch pad for the Shuttle. NASA has
considered mothballing LC-39B at several periods in its history.
In 1962, the overall land
mass was generally referred to as Cape Canaveral, containing the Air
Force's Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex and NASA's Launch Operations
Centre on Merritt Island. After President John F. Kennedy was
assassinated, the two facilities were combined into the John F. Kennedy
Space Centre and the land mass was renamed Cape Kennedy. In 1973-1974,
after protests by local residents who noted the name's long history, the
land mass was again renamed Cape Canaveral, and the U.S. Air Force
facility became the Cape Canaveral Air Station.
STS-3 rollout from the Vehicle
Assembly Building to Launch Complex. 39A, February 1982.
As the number of launches
from the Eastern Test Range (later renamed the Eastern Range) was reduced
in the 1970s, several pads were mothballed and their towers torn down. The
towers along Missile Row all came down. The active pads, in addition to
the two Shuttle pads at LC-39, were the two Titan pads at LC-40 and LC-41
and the LC-36A and B Atlas pads, and LC-17A and B Delta launch pads. The
Titan launch tower at LC-41 was torn down and replaced with launch
facilities for the Atlas V. An old Saturn IB pad, LC-37, has recently been
refurbished for launching the Atlas V as well.
Just south of Cape
Canaveral is the town of Cocoa Beach, where many space workers lived and
which for many years relied heavily on the space program for its survival.
After massive job cutbacks during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the town
embraced tourism with only moderate success (Florida's east coast beaches
are narrow and the Atlantic water is often cold). In the 1990s, the local
economy picked up as cruise ships were based at Port Canaveral. But the
area still relies heavily on space-related business and has dubbed itself
the Space Coast.