Launch Sites

views updated

Launch Sites

For centuries, ships have set sail from ports that bordered the sea. Today, launch sites around the world serve as the point of departure for rockets about to be launched into space. The United States possesses a number of launch sites, located primarily on the East and West Coasts. Perhaps the most widely recognized is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Kennedy Space Center (KSC), which is situated on a strip of land off the coast of Florida. The major launch sites at KSC are Launch Complex 39's Pad A and Pad B, which were originally built to support Apollo missions, but have been modified for the space shuttle. Pads 39A and 39B are virtually identical and roughly octagonal in shape.

The Kennedy Space Center is dotted with a number of supporting launch facilities. Between missions the shuttle orbiter is refurbished in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF). Here previous mission payloads are removed and the vehicle is fully inspected, tested, and readied for its next mission. The orbiter is mated with its External Tank and twin Solid Rocket Boosters in the giant cube-shaped Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) located east of the OPF. Adjacent to the VAB is the Launch Control Center (LCC), a four-story building that acts as the "brain" of Launch Complex 39. The LCC houses four "firing rooms," in addition to telemetry and tracking equipment, plus computers that oversee the checkout and launch process.

The Kennedy Space Center has been America's exclusive launch site for human spaceflights since 1968. Prior to that, Mercury and Gemini missions were launched from Cape Canaveral just south of KSC. Today, this strip of land serves as the launch site of expendable launch vehicles (ELVs) from the Cape Canaveral Air Station. Many famous launch pads are located on Cape Canaveral, including Launch Complex 36A and 36B used to launch military and commercial Atlas vehicles. Just south of these facilities is Launch Complex 17A and 17B, which support Delta II and Delta III launch vehicles. The 45th Space Wing of the U.S. Air Force operates the Eastern Range from Cape Canaveral. Spaceport Florida, the first commercial space launch facility in the United States, also operates from Cape Canaveral.

Thousands of kilometers to the north, off the Eastern Shore of Virginia lies NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. Established in 1945 under NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Wallops is one of the oldest launch sites in the world and supports scientific research and orbital and sub-orbital payloads for NASA. Wallops Flight Facility focuses on providing fast, low cost, and highly flexible support for aerospace technology and science projects.

On the other side of the continent, the U.S. Air Force's thirtieth Space Wing maintains launch sites at Vandenberg Air Force Base on California's Central Coast. The Wing launches a variety of expendable vehicles including the Delta II, Pegasus, Taurus, Atlas, Titan II and Titan IV. All U.S. satellites destined for near polar orbit are launched from Vandenberg. Co-located on the base is Spaceport Systems International's Commercial Space-port, which provides commercial payload processing and launch alternatives to polar or ballistic space launch programs.

Another commercial spaceport had been built by the Alaska Aerospace Development Corporation at Narrow Cape on Kodiak Island, about 400 kilometers south of Anchorage. The Kodiak Launch Complex contains all-weather processing adaptable to all current small launch vehicles, and is the only commercial launch range in the United States not co-located with a federal facility.

Major Launch Sites Outside of the United States


Outside of the United States, the Guiana Space Center, operated by the European consortium Arianespace, is strategically located on the French Guiana coastline to support commercial launches. The spaceport was deliberately built close to the equator at 5.3° North latitude to reduce the energy required for orbit plane change maneuvers for missions to geo-stationary orbit . The spaceport's ELA-2 Launch Complex supports the Ariane 4 vehicle while the ELA-3 Launch Complex was built specifically to serve the new Ariane 5 heavy-lift vehicle. It is designed to handle a launch rate of up to ten Ariane 5 missions per year.


Russia launches all its human space missions as well as all geo-stationary, lunar, and planetary missions from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. In reality, the Baikonur launch site is located more than 320 kilometers away from a town of that name. Instead, the Baikonur Cosmodrome is situated north of the village of Tyuratam on the Syr Darya River (45.9° North attitude and 63.3° East longitude). The Baikonur name is a relic of Cold War deception. Despite the potential confusion, the Baikonur Cosmodrome is the site where Sputnik 1, Earth's first artificial satellite, was launched. Today, it is the only Russian site capable of launching the Proton launch vehicle, and was used for several International Space Station missions. The Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia's northernmost launch complex, is used to launch satellites into high inclination, polar, and highly elliptical orbits.


The Tanegashima Space Center is Japan's largest launch facility. Located on Tanegashima Island, 115 kilometers south of Kyushu, this 8.6 million square meter complex plays a central role in pre-launch countdown and post-launch tracking operations. On-site facilities include the Osaki Range that supports J-I and H-IIA launch vehicles, tracking and communications stations, and several radar stations and optical observation facilities. There are also related developmental facilities for firing of liquid-and solid-fuel rocket engines.


The Chinese have several launch facilitiesJiuquan, Taiyuan, and Xichangthough the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, located in southern China, supports all geostationary missions and is the site from which many U.S.-manufactured satellites are launched. Two separate launch pads support flight operations, and a command and control center is located 7 kilometers from the launch site. The nominal launching azimuth is 97°, with downrange safety constraints limiting launch azimuths to 94° to 104°.

One of the most unusual launch sites is the floating Sea Launch facility managed by Boeing. 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 semi-submersible vessel that is one of the world's largest oceangoing launch platforms. Homeport for Sea Launch is in Long Beach, California.

see also External Tank (volume 3); Launch Management (volume 3); Modules (volume 3); Rocket Engines (volume 1); Rockets (volume 3); Solid Rocket Boosters (volume 3); Space Shuttle (volume 3); Vehicle Assembly Building (volume 3).

John F. Kross


Cortright, Edgar M, eds. Apollo Expeditions to the Moon. Washington, DC: NASA Historical Series (NASA SP-350), 1975.

Kross, John F. "Fields of Dreams. America's Growing Commercial Spaceports." Ad Astra (January/February 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

Alaska Aerospace Development Corporation. <>.

Arianespace. <>.

Eastern Test Range. <>.

Federation of American Scientists World Space Guide. <>.

NASA Kennedy Space Center. <>.

Russian Space Agency. <>.

Sea Launch. <>.

Spaceport Systems International. <>.

Tanegashima Space Center. <>.

Wallops Flight Facility. <>.