Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Ye Olde Spaceport
By David G. Young
Cape Canaveral, Florida, January 26, 2021 --
Cape Canaveral's aging infrastructure has long lost its romance. Yet the now gritty spaceport manages to get the job done.
The buildings lining the roads of this Florida city have a penchant for concrete with right angles. Post-World War II minimalism serves as a ubiquitous monument to the boom times from when Harry Truman created the Joint Long Range Proving Ground from this desolate island in 1948. That act brought the first paved roads to the enormous sand bar jutting out into the Atlantic from Florida's otherwise straight Atlantic coastline. The rockets soon followed starting with boosters repurposed Nazi V2 rockets in the summer of 1950.1
Most people around the world know the area as the home of Kennedy Space Center which sent men to the moon atop the Saturn V rocket in 1969. That NASA facility still shares the sandbar with a number of 70-year-old military bases, recently re-christened by Vice President Pence last December as part of America's fledgling Space Force.
As a result of that renaming, the road signs referring to the old names of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Patrick Air Force Base are outdated, much like the cracked concrete, rectangular buildings, mid-20th century radio masts and water towers that mar the landscape. As dated as it looks, the aging infrastructure is still in heavy use. Last year, there were more successful launches into orbit from Cape Canaveral launchpads than in any year in history.2
But the bulk of those launches did not belong to Space Force, let alone the Air Force or NASA. The launches were from a private company, Space X, using one of the old launchpads for its commercial operations. And most of those Space X launches -- 14 in total -- are for its StarLink constellation. Each of these launches sends up 60 micro satellites at a time intended to provide commercial broadband internet access. As impressive as that venture is, it is a far cry from sending men to the moon, something that that the facilities have not done in over 35 years.
While less glamorous than sending astronauts to other worlds, the business of launching satellites cheaply is well-suited to Cape Canaveral. Earth's rotation means that sites closer to the equator spin faster than those in the north, giving rockets launched from topical areas a significant boost toward the target velocity needed to get into orbit. This allows launching bigger payloads with the same engine.
And it's not just its southern location that makes Cape Canaveral so suited to launches. The bank of sand that sticks out into the ocean means there is no flyover of populated areas for malfunctioning rockets to threaten. And 70 years worth of developing transportation infrastructure -- rail lines, interstate highways and container port facilities, means that it is relatively cheap and easy to get stuff to the launch pads. Given these advantages, the space industry won't be leaving Cape Canaveral any time soon.
Today's Cape Canaveral projects less of a vision of the future than a monument to the past with a heavy dose of utilitarianism thrown in. Its gritty launch facilities and industrial sites are where the day to day work of lobbing objects into orbit simply gets done. In this way, it's not much different than Greece's old sea port of Piraeus or London's East End, which have both lived through booms and busts over thousands of years.
As America's oldest spaceport approaches the end of its first century of use, it joins its forbearers across the ocean in its workhorse role. It may not be glamorous, but it gets the job done.
Related Web Columns:
Stuck in the Past, December 23, 2014
End the Gravy Train, July 26, 2011
The Cheapest Rocket, June 22, 2004
An Acceptable Risk
An Astronomical Failure, October 31, 2000
The $50 Million Carnival Ride, October 6, 1998
Notes: 1. Wired, July 24, 1950: America Gets a Spaceport, July 24, 2009 2. Florida Today, Florida Just Had Its Busiest Orbital Rocket Launch Year in Decades, January 1, 2021