Launch Facilities

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Launch Facilities

In years past, ships about to sail gathered in port to be fitted and take on their crew and provisions for voyages of exploration or commerce. Today's space-ports have facilities to perform many of these same functions. Of course, launch facilities include the platform from which a rocket is launched, but the most sophisticated facilities also allow state-of-the-art payload processing, including fueling and encapsulation of satellites and integrating a payload with a launch vehicle. Launch facilities can serve civil, scientific, commercial, and/or military functions.

Facilities in the United States

The United States has a number of launch sites and associated facilities, located primarily on the East and West Coasts. Perhaps the best known is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Kennedy Space Center (KSC), where the space shuttle is processed and launched. At KSC are Launch Complex 39's Pad A and Pad B, which were originally built to support Apollo missions but which have been modified for space shuttle launches. Major changes since Apollo include the additions of a Fixed Service Structure (FSS) and a Rotating Service Structure (RSS). Pads A and B are virtually identical and stand almost 106 meters (348 feet) high. At their base are flame trenches, 13 meters (43 feet) deep and 137 meters (449 feet) long, to carry away the flames and exhaust of the shuttle at liftoff.

Because the shuttle stands upright on the launch pad, the RSS is mounted on a semicircular track, which rotates through an arc of 120 degrees and allows payloads to be loaded vertically. The RSS pivots from a hinge on the FSS until the spacecraft changeout room on the RSS fits flush with the orbiter's cargo bay. This room allows payloads to be installed or serviced under contamination-free or "clean room" conditions. A separate Orbiter Access Arm swings out to the orbiter crew hatch. At the end of the arm is the environmentally controlled "White Room" where the ground crew assists astronauts entering the orbiter.

Fuel,oxidizer , high-pressure gas, electrical, and pneumatic lines connecting the shuttle with ground-support equipment are routed through the RSS and FSS. There are approximately 400,000 meters (1.3 million feet) of tubing and piping at Launch Complex 39, enough to reach from Orlando to Miami. Not far from Pads A and B are large ball-shaped liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen storage tanks used to store supercold propellants for the shuttle's external tank.

The shuttle is transported to Launch Complex 39 aboard the Mobile Launcher Platform (MLP), a giant crawler with eight trackseach 2 meters (6.5 feet) by 13 meters (43 feet)with cleats that weigh a ton each. Mounted on these eight tracks is a platform, bigger than a baseball diamond, on which the shuttle rides to the launch pad at 1.6 kilometers per hour (1 mile per hour). Once there, six permanent and four extensible pedestals are used to provide support. The MLP starts its trek to Launch Complex 39 from the giant cube-shaped Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where the shuttle is mated with its external tank and twin solid rocket boosters (SRB). The VAB was originally built for assembly of Apollo/Saturn vehicles and is one of the largest buildings in the world, enclosing 3.6 million cubic meters (4.7 million cubic yards) of space.

Inside the VAB, integrated SRB segments are hoisted onto the MLP and mated together to form two complete SRBs. The external tank is inspected, checked out, and attached to the SRBs already in place. Next, the orbiter, which is refurbished inside the Orbiter Processing Facility, is towed to the VAB where it is raised to a vertical position, lowered onto the MLP, and mated to the rest of the stack. When assembly and checkout is complete, the crawler-transporter picks up the platform and the shuttle and carries them to the pad.

Adjacent to the VAB is the Launch Control Center, a four-story building that acts as the "brain" of Launch Complex 39. Here are housed four "firing rooms," in addition to telemetry and tracking equipment, plus computers of the Launch Processing System (LPS), a highly automated, computer-controlled system that oversees the entire checkout and launch process. The LPS continually monitors the space shuttle and its ground components, including its environmental controls and propellant loading equipment.

While KSC is widely recognized for its shuttle connection, launch facilities for expendable launch vehicles (ELVs) are located at the Cape Canaveral Air Station, south of Launch Complex 39, and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Cape Canaveral Air Station contains NASA, U.S. Air Force, and contractor facilities for processing ELV hardware and payloads. In addition, Launch Complex 36 is used to launch Atlas II vehicles. This complex has two launch pads (Pads A and B), a blockhouse, and a launch support building and equipment needed to prepare, service, and launch the Atlas vehicles. Pad 36A is used for military launches, and Pad 36B is for commercial launches. Just south of these facilities is Launch Complex 17, which is designed to support Delta II and Delta III launch vehicles.

The primary missions of launch facilities on Vandenberg Air Force Base include military and scientific launchings, and the conducting of missile test flights. There are facilities to support Delta launch vehicles and the Titan rocket, America's largest ELV. The United States also maintains smaller launch facilities, such as the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, which typically support scientific research and orbital and suborbital payloads.

Major Launch Facilities outside of the United States

The Guiana Space Center, located on the French Guiana coastline, services and launches the European-built Ariane family of rockets. This spaceport was deliberately situated close to the equator to support flights to geostationary orbit , the destination of many commercial satellites. The space-port's ELA-2 Launch Complex supports the Ariane 4 vehicle and has been used for more ninety launches. More recently, Arianespace's ELA-3 Launch Complex was built specifically to serve the new Ariane 5 heavy-lift vehicle. Ariane 5 starts its assembly process at the 58-meter-tall (190-foot-tall) Launcher Integration Building where the main cryogenic stage is positioned over Ariane 5's mobile launch table. The Ariane 5 is then transferred to the Final Assembly Building. In this facility, the payload with its fairing is mated to the launcher, the attitude control system is loaded with fuel, and the launcher's upper stage is filled with storable propellant. After leaving ELA-3's Final Assembly Building, the completed Ariane 5 arrives at the launch zone, where it is positioned over a concrete foundation and readied for launch.

The Chinese have several launch facilitiesJiuquan, Taiyuan, and Xichangbut the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, which is located within a military installation, supports all geostationary missions from its location in southern China. Two separate launch pads support flight operations, and a command and control center is located several kilometers from the launch site. Other facilities include communication systems to provide telephone and data communications.

The Tanegashima Space Center is Japan's largest launch facility. Located on an island 115 kilometers (71 miles) south of Kyushu, this 8.6-square-kilometer (3.3-square-mile) complex plays a central role in prelaunch countdown and postlaunch tracking operations. On-site facilities include the Osaki Range, tracking and communication stations, several radar stations, and optical observation facilities. There are also related developmental facilities for firing of liquid-and solid-fuel rocket engines.

Russia launches all of its crewed missions as well as all geostationary, lunar, and planetary missions from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Baikonur is the launch complex where Sputnik 1, Earth's first artificial satellite, was launched in 1957. It is the only Russian launch site capable of launching the Proton launch vehicle and was used for several International Space Station missions. The Plesetsk Military Cosmodrome, Russia's northernmost launch complex, is used to launch satellites into high-inclination, polar, and highly elliptical orbits.

Unique among the world's launch facilities is the floating Sea Launch facility managed by the Boeing Company. Two unique ships form the marine infrastructure of the Sea Launch system. The first is a custom-built Assembly and Command Ship (ACS), and the second is the Launch Platform (LP), a semisubmersible vessel that is one of the world's largest ocean-going launch platforms. Both vessels are equipped with spacecraft handling and launch support systems.

The LPa former North Sea oil-drilling platformis equipped with a large, environmentally controlled hangar for storage of the Sea Launch rocket during transit, and with mobile transporter/erector equipment that is used to erect the rocket in launch position prior to fueling and launch. Special facilities onboard enable the storage of rocket fuels. Floating nearby is the ACS that serves as a floating rocket assembly factory while in port and also houses mission control facilities for launches at sea. Launch operations begin at home port in Long Beach, California, where satellites are fueled and encapsulated in a payload processing facility and then transferred to the ACS for integration with the launch vehicle.

Commercial Spaceports

Around the world, steps have been taken to develop commercial spaceports, some at sites of established launch facilities and others unrelated to existing facilities. For example, the Spaceport Florida Authority has created a commercial spaceport where missiles were once launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Station. Launch Complex 46 has been modified to accommodate Lockheed Martin Corporation's LMLV family of launch vehicles and Orbital Sciences Corporation's Taurus launcher.

California's Western Commercial Space Center is planned for Vandenberg Air Force Base. Thousands of kilometers up the coast, the Alaska Aerospace Development Corporation has built a commercial spaceport at Narrow Cape on Kodiak Island, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Anchorage. The Kodiak Launch Complex is a state-of-the-art launch facility containing all-weather processing adaptable to all current small launch vehicles, and it is the only commercial launch range in the United States not co-located with a federal facility. Other commercial launch facilities have been proposed at various locations around the world, including Australia and the Caribbean.

see also Launch Management (volume 3); Launch Sites (volume 3); Space Centers (volume 3); Space Industries (volume 4); Space Shuttle (volume 3); Traffic Control (volume 4).

John F. Kross


Cortright, Edgar M., ed. Apollo Expeditions to the Moon. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1975.

Kross, John F. "Fields of Dreams: America's Growing Commercial Spaceports."Ad Astra 8, no. 1 (1996):27-31.

Oberg, James E. The New Race for Space. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1984.

Shelton, William R. Man's Conquest of Space. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1975.

Internet Resources

Arianespace. <>.

Kennedy Space Center. <>.

Russian Space Agency. <>.

Sea Launch. <>.

World Space Guide. Federation of American Scientists.<>.