Cape Canaveral: Launch Pad for U.S. Space Program

aerial image of launch pad at cape canaveral amongst green nature scenery and the coast to the left.
Home to Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida's Space Coast is at the forefront of the U.S. space program. (Image credit: felixmizioznikov via Getty Images)

Since the 1950s, Cape Canaveral, Florida, has been at the heart of the United States' space efforts. The cape, located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Orlando on the Atlantic coast, has given this part of the state the nickname Florida's Space Coast.

Cape Canaveral is home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS). KSC is situated off the cape on Merritt Island, while CCSFS is located to the southeast. The two centers are connected by a number of bridges and causeways. 

In October 1949, President Harry S. Truman established the Joint Long Range Proving Grounds as a test site for long-range V2 missiles at Cape Canaveral, according to NASA. The area was ideal because it was undeveloped at the time, meaning testing would carry no risk to surrounding communities, and Cape Canaveral's climate would allow operations to continue year-round. 

Islands around the cape would be utilized to track the progress of missiles, and then rockets, from the cape. Because NASA planned 100 rocket launches a year and the Cape Canaveral Air Force station could accommodate no more than 12 at the time, in 1962 the agency selected Merritt Island as the site for what would become KSC, according to Spaceline.org

Since then, Cape Canaveral and its space launch locations have undergone numerous name changes. Cape Canaveral Space Force Station was known as Cape Kennedy Air Force Station from 1964 to 1974 and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from 1974 to 1994 and from 2000 to 2020, when it was renamed as Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to coincide with the re-establishment of the U.S. Space Force. The cape itself was known as Cape Kennedy between 1963 and 1973 in honor of President John F. Kennedy, who had a major effect on the U.S. space program. (In 1961, he famously urged the nation to claim a leadership role in space endeavors and land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.)

What happens at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station?

The Delta IV Heavy lifted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Thursday at 5:18 a.m. EDT (0918 GMT), on a mission for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) called NROL-68. (Image credit: ULA)

CCSFS is owned by the U.S. Department of Defense and operated by the U.S. Space Force unit Space Launch Delta 45. The station currently operates as the primary launch site of the Eastern Range spaceport. 

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the facility currently has four active launchpads and two active landing pads, including Space Launch Complexes (SLC) 37, 40 and 41. Three inactive launchpads have been leased to four commercial customers for future use. Near its launch complexes, the base features a 10,000-foot (3,000-meter) runway that can be used by military aircraft and for the delivery of large payloads to the cape.

Currently, SLC 37B is used by United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Delta IV rocket program, but it has served an important role in space history. Four years after the construction of the launchpad began in 1959, SLC 37B became part of the Apollo program, with eight Saturn rocket launches staged there. Its fellow launchpad, SLC 37A, was never used and remains inactive, according to Spaceline.org

The first suborbital rocket launch from CCSFS occurred in 1956, with Jupiter A launching on July 19 from Launch Complex 5.

CCSFS is responsible for a number of firsts. In February 1958, the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, launched atop the Juno booster from Launch Complex 26 at the base, which, in 1964, was developed into USAF Space Museum, now the Cape Canaveral Space Force Museum. In 1961, as part of the Project Mercury program, Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space, blasting off from Launch Pad 5 in the Freedom 7 spacecraft atop the Redstone rocket.

Other Cape Canaveral launch milestones include the following firsts:

  • First U.S. two-person and three-person missions (Gemini 3, in 1965, and Apollo 7, in 1968, respectively)
  • First crewed mission to land on the moon (Apollo 11, in 1969)
  • First craft to orbit Mars (Mariner 9, in 1971)
  • First spacecraft to orbit Saturn (Cassini, launched in 1997 and arrived in 2004)
  • First spacecraft to orbit Mercury (MESSENGER, launched in 2004 and entered orbit in 2011) 
  • First craft to leave the solar system (Voyager 1, launched in 1977 and left the solar system in 2012). 

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida the night of Sept. 21, 2014, carrying supplies and experiments aboard a Dragon spacecraft to astronauts on the International Space Station. (Image credit: SpaceX)

What happens at Kennedy Space Center?

Kennedy Space Center is located on Merritt Island, Florida, just north of Cape Canaveral, and is operated by NASA. In addition to serving as NASA's main launch site, KSC is home to facilities that conduct research and development needed for the next era of space exploration, which will see human crews working and living on the surface of the moon and possibly other bodies in the solar system.

According to the FAA, as of 2021, there are two orbital-class launchpads supporting heavy to super-heavy launch vehicles at KSC: Launch Complex 39A, currently operated by SpaceX, and Launch Complex 39B, operated by NASA. Launch Complexes 48 and 49 are both inactive, with SpaceX having requested use of the latter, according to NASA.

The FAA adds that Launch Complex 48 is the third orbital-to-suborbital-class launchpad at KSC that can support small- to medium-class launch vehicles. The Shuttle Landing Facility is currently operated by Space Florida (Florida's aerospace economic development agency) and provides a horizontal launch capability.

Launch Complex 39 consists of three launchpads — 39A, 39B and 39C — and is one of the most important launch sites in the history of U.S. space endeavors. The site was part of the Apollo program; 39A staged the Apollo 4 mission and the first flight of the 363-foot-tall (111 m) Saturn V rocket on Nov. 9, 1967. 

Less than two years later, the Apollo 11 mission would also blast off from 39A, carrying the first humans to land on the moon: Neil Armstrong, “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins. The last Saturn V launch took place at launchpad 39A on May 14, 1973, lifting the first U.S. space station, Skylab, to orbit. 

Myriad other historic space missions have been staged at KSC. These include those in the space shuttle program, in which the shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour performed 135  journeys of human crews and cargo to orbit between 1981 and 2011. This effort was integral to the construction of the International Space Station and ended when Atlantis landed at KSC on July 21, 2011. 

Not all of the history associated with KSC is so fondly remembered. Jan. 28, 1986, became a dark day for the space shuttle program when the Challenger vehicle disintegrated in a fireball 73 seconds after launching from Launch Complex 39B, killing the seven crewmembers, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. The mission, officially designated STS-51-L, was the 10th flight of the space shuttle Challenger and became the first fatal accident involving an American spacecraft while in flight.

Roughly 17 years later, another mission launched from KSC would end in tragedy. Space shuttle Columbia, which lifted off from KSC's Launch Pad 39B on Jan. 16, 2003, broke apart on reentry over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, killing the seven astronauts on board.

Today, KSC is at the heart of the Artemis program, which will return humans to the lunar surface. In addition to placing the first woman and person of color on the moon, Artemis will eventually send the first humans to the surface of Mars.

On Nov. 16, 2022, the first major step in these operations took place when NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket launched the Artemis 1 mission from KSC Launch Complex 39B. Work that will be vital to the launch and operation of Gateway, the first space station to be placed around the moon, is also underway at KSC. 

Can you visit Cape Canaveral?

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 10:10 a.m. EST, carrying a Dragon capsule filled with cargo to orbit. The SpaceX Dragon capsule is making its third trip to the International Space Station, following a demonstration flight in May 2012 and the first resupply mission in October 2012. (Image credit: NASA)

Tourists can visit the KSC Visitor Complex, which has a variety of attractions for the public. These include the Rocket Garden, which features vehicles from NASA's Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs; an "astronaut encounter," where you can see a live presentation and meet a NASA astronaut; and the Journey to Mars exhibit, which explains NASA's activities on the Red Planet. You can also see space equipment up close, including the Saturn V rocket and the space shuttle Atlantis. KSC Visitor Complex tickets and packages are available online.

However, because CCSFS is an active military site, most of it is off-limits to the general public. While the Cape Canaveral Space Force Museum and some historical sites permit access only to certified tours, the Sands Space History Center is open to everyone.

There are also guided tours that offer views of current and historical launch complexes and stop at the sites of launch complexes and landmarks that celebrate Mercury and early Apollo missions. 

What is the launch schedule at Cape Canaveral, and what is the weather like?

If you plan to visit KSC, you could coincide your trip with a rocket launch to watch the full spectacle up close. The best views of launches from either CCSFS or KSC are from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. 

According to NASA, the distances from this viewing area are 7.5 miles (12.1 kilometers) to SpaceX Launch Complex 39A; 7.1 miles (11.4 km) to Atlas V Launch Complex 41; 7 miles (11.3 km) to Launch Complex 37, where the Delta IV rockets lift off; and 6.7 miles (10.8 km) to Falcon 9 Launch Complex SLC-40. 

Additionally, NASA says the following viewing locations may be open and available for certain launches: the LC-39 Observation Gantry, the Banana Creek Launch Viewing Area (adjacent to the Apollo/Saturn V Center) and the Apollo/Saturn V Center lawn. On the day of the launch, visitors should arrive early and expect a high volume of attendance and traffic in the local area both before and after the launch. There are alternative viewing locations, such as Space View Park, Marina Park, Kennedy Point Park and Cocoa Beach Pier. 

You can check NASA's up-to-date launch schedule; KSC launches are also listed on the KSC visitor site. The SpaceX launch schedule is available on RocketLaunch.Live.

Before you go, make sure to check the weather, which can affect rocket launches. The coldest month in Florida and at Cape Canaveral is in January, according to Weather U.S., but the temperatures are still comfortable, with an average high of 68.4 degrees Fahrenheit (20.2 degrees Celsius) and an average low of 59.4 F (15.2 C).

March tends to be the driest month at Cape Canaveral, while August is typically the rainiest month, with the summers in Cape Canaveral described as “long, hot, oppressive, wet, and mostly cloudy” by Weather Spark. 

Cape Canaveral FAQs answered by an expert

We asked Patti Bieling, news chief at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, some questions about the complexes on Florida's Space Coast.  

Patti Bieling

Patti Bieling is the news chief at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. 

What are the main launch complexes at Cape Canaveral?

On Kennedy property, historic Launch Complex 39A which now is leased to SpaceX, which launches its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket carrying payloads for NASA and other government and commercial customers.

 SpaceX has begun upgrading facilities at the pad to prepare for the launch of Starship and Super Heavy, which will support NASA's Artemis program. Launch Complex 39B supports NASA's Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft for the agency's Artemis missions. 

The "clean pad" concept at 39B also is intended to allow a variety of companies to launch rockets using their own towers and integrate with the pad's permanent infrastructure (electrical power, water system, flame trench, safe launch area). Launch Complex 48, completed in 2020, is the newest launch site at Kennedy. This clean pad is available for companies to test and operate launch vehicles generating 500,000 pounds of thrust or less. 

What is the difference between the work undertaken at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station?

Kennedy Space Center manages the above launch complexes on NASA property and the launches from those facilities. Kennedy also provides support for launches at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, including providing propellants (gaseous nitrogen and helium); weather data from the Tropospheric Doppler Radar Wind Profiler; weather personnel; and when requested, additional security and aviation support. 

Can the public visit these stations?

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex brings to life the epic story of the U.S. space program, offering multiple days of fun, inspiration and educational activities. Included with admission: The all-new Gateway: The Deep Space Launch Complex®, Heroes & Legends, featuring the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame®, presented by Boeing, Space Shuttle Atlantis®, Journey To Mars: Explorers Wanted, space films, the Rocket Garden, and Planet Play. A bus tour to the Apollo Saturn V Center is also included with daily admission, and on the way, guests can get a glimpse of the Vehicle Assembly Building and the LC-39 area facilities while listening to a more in-depth video tour hosted by renowned science communicator Emily Calandrelli.  

What are some of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's most important contributions to space science?

NASA launches science missions that tell us more about our planet, such as satellites that help track and predict severe weather, map the surface of the Earth, and collect data to understand the effects of climate change and preserve our planet for the future.

The agency also launches spacecraft that help explore our solar system and unlock the secrets of the universe. Another program that has had an incredible impact on humanity is the International Space Station, where humans have lived in orbit for more than 20 years. Over the life of the program, thousands of investigations have been performed, leading to radical advancement in fields like disease research, drug development, water purification, sustainability, low-resource agriculture, and so many other areas. NASA also is enabling the commercialization of space through the Commercial Crew Program. Building an economy in low Earth orbit has an economic impact on Earth, enabling even more scientific discoveries as we broaden access to space. 

NASA also launched the first integrated test mission of the Artemis program as we prepare for a return to the Moon with the first woman and person of color. There, NASA and its partners will build a lunar outpost to establish a long-term human presence on the Moon, using those resources and systems to support human exploration to Mars. 

Closer to home, Kennedy remains a responsible steward of our environment here in our center, where technology and nature coexist. More than 1,000 species of plants, 117 kinds of fish, 68 types of amphibians and reptiles, 330 species of birds, and 31 different types of mammals make their home on the spaceport, which shares a boundary with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, more protected species live on this property than any other federal property in the continental United States. Kennedy's sustainability plan outlines 10 goals that the center strives to meet, helping ensure mission success as the nation's gateway to space while preserving our natural environment. 

What role will Kennedy Space Center and the station play in future space exploration?

Together, Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station comprise the premier spaceport in the world. After a decade-long transformation, Kennedy is no longer a government-only facility. With nearly 250 partnership agreements with more than 90 partners, Kennedy is leading the way to a new era of space exploration. 

Four commercial companies (Boeing, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX) have facilities on Kennedy to support human-rated spacecraft — a concentration of space activity that occurs nowhere else in the world. Using innovative approaches, Kennedy's master plan focuses on maximizing capabilities — this includes supporting an increased launch cadence as well as developing infrastructure to support a wide range of commercial space enterprises. In addition to the launch complexes, Kennedy's master plan identifies various other parcels and facilities for lease, allowing commercial partners to develop, test, integrate, and launch from a single location. 

Kennedy Space Center, along with nearly Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, is launching humanity's future — enabling increased access to commercial space, supporting the advancement of science and innovation, and exploring the secrets of the universe for the benefit of all. 

Additional resources

A guide to seeing the launch of  U.S. space missions from Florida’s Space Coast is available. Details regarding the various areas from where rocket launches can be observed and information about how to get an up to date rocket launch schedule. The Kennedy Space Center Vistor Center has details on its website about upcoming events other than rocket launches. 

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Robert Lea
Contributing Writer

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.