Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations

A Saturn Launch Site

With better than 20 years' experience, the von Braun team preached and practiced that rocket and launch pad must be mated on the drawing board, if they were to be compatible at the launching. The new rocket went hand in hand with its launching facility. The short-lived plan to transport the Saturn by air was prompted by ABMA's interest in launching a rocket into equatorial orbit from a site near the Equator; Christmas Island in the Central Pacific was a likely choice. Equatorial launch sites offered certain advantages over facilities within the continental United States. A launching due east from a site on the Equator could take advantage of the earth's maximum rotational velocity (460 meters per second) to achieve orbital speed. The more frequent overhead passage of the orbiting vehicle above an equatorial base would facilitate tracking and communications. Most important, an equatorial launch site would avoid the costly dogleg technique, a prerequisite for placing rockets into equatorial orbit from sites such as Cape Canaveral, Florida (28 degrees north latitude). The necessary correction in the space vehicle's trajectory could be very expensive - engineers estimated that doglegging a Saturn vehicle into a low-altitude equatorial orbit from Cape Canaveral used enough extra propellant to reduce the payload by as much as 80%. In higher orbits, the penalty was less severe but still involved at least a 20% loss of payload. There were also significant disadvantages to an equatorial launch base: higher construction costs (about 100% greater), logistics problems, and the hazards of setting up an American base on foreign soil. Moreover in 1959 there was a question as to how many U.S. space missions would require equatorial orbits. The only definite plans for equatorial orbits were in connection with communications and meteorological satellites operating at 35,000 kilometers. 6

While there was disagreement over the merits of an equatorial base for future Saturn operations, the Atlantic Missile Range was the clear choice for the developmental launchings. At the range's launch site, Cape Canaveral, the Air Force Missile Test Center provided administrative and logistical support. The range's ten tracking stations, stretching into the South Atlantic, gave good coverage of test flights. Moreover, ABMA's launch team, the Missile Firing Laboratory (MFL), had launched missiles from Cape Canaveral since 1953. Cost and time considerations agreed. As an MFL study noted, the Atlantic Missile Range met "the established [launch] criteria in the most efficient, timely manner at a minimum cost.7

6. NASA Special Committee on Space Technology, Recommendations Regarding a National Civil Space Program (Stever Committee Report), Washington, 28 Oct. 1958; ABMA, Juno V Development, pp. 19-20, 65; Army Ordnance Missile Command (hereafter cited as AOMC), Saturn Systems Study, by H. H. Koelle, F. L. Williams, and W. C. Huber, report DSP-TM-1-59 (Redstone Arsenal, AL, 13 Mar. 1959), pp. 16-19, 61- 63. 183-89; House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Equatorial Launch Sites - Mobile Sea Launch Capability, report 710, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 12 July 1961, pp. 1-5 (see hearings of same committee and topic, 15-16 May 1961, for fuller discussion): Mrazek interview. The debate over the merits of an equatorial launch site or a mobile sea launch capability continued for several years with congressional hearings in the spring of 1961. Vice Adm. John T. Hayward was a leading advocate of shipboard launches.

7. Missile Firing Laboratory, "Project Saturn, Facilities for Launch Site," n.d.