The Debunker: Do NASA Missions Launch From Cape Canaveral?

by Ken Jennings

 

As NASA’s Curiosity rover continues to inch across the red planet’s dusty Gale Crater, America’s interest in space exploration inches upward as well. Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings is a bit of space nerd himself, and this month he’ll be navigating us through an asteroid belt of misconceptions about the exploration of the cosmos. Even if you’re not one of the 6 percent of Americans who believes that the moon landing was a hoax, you might have been fleeced by one or more of these fallacies about the final frontier.

Space Myth #2: American Space Missions Launch from Cape Canaveral.

If we’re using “Cape Canaveral” as an example of what your English teacher used to call metonymy—representing some thing or concept with the name of something else—then yes, NASA launches from the Cape. It’s the same way we might refer to the movie industry as “Hollywood,” even though only one major studio (Paramount) is actually headquartered in the Hollywood district these days—they’re all elsewhere in Los Angeles. The same is true of NASA: in strict geographical terms, it hasn’t launched manned missions from the Cape itself in over forty years.

Cape Canaveral is a dangly sand headland jutting southward off the Florida coast, and has been used by the Air Force as a missile testing ground since 1949. It was ideally suited for the nascent space program because it had the wide Atlantic Ocean downrange—a big safety plus—and was one of the southernmost bits of the continental United States, which gives launches the added oomph of the Earth’s faster rotation near the Equator. Way back in 1865, a Jules Verne novel had predicted that the first moon launch would take place in Florida. Most of America’s early rocket launches did indeed take place near the tip of the cape, where the Air Force still maintains a space installation.

Since 1968, however, all manned civilian launches have taken place a few miles north of the cape, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The launch complex, including the pads where every moon mission and Space Shuttle launch took place, aren’t really on Cape Canaveral itself, but on an adjacent peninsula called Merritt Island. Unmanned NASA launches—probes and the like—still use the Cape, since they typically catch a ride on Air Force rockets. But no astronaut has taken off from Cape Canaveral proper since Gemini 12, when newspapers still cost a dime and Bonanza was America’s top-rated TV show. Of course, NASA isn’t launching astronauts at all anymore since the shuttle program was shuttered, but when we put a man or woman back in space again—and it will happen someday—it probably won’t be from Cape Canaveral.

Quick Quiz: Since 1999, what has been the telephone area code of Brevard County, Florida, in honor of its history of space launches?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.