Gateways to Space

by Jeanette Cain

More articles in Rockets

Without launch centers, sending spacecraft into orbit would be hindered. The launch centers may be on small acreage or they may be very large, covering several acres. The biggest spaceports contain several launchpads. Assembling the launch area is the job of the engineers. Many weeks before the launch the engineers begin assembling the launch vehicle before transporting this huge platform to the launching pad. Mission specialists, who are in control of the final countdown, work in the control room's surrounding area that holds large tanks of propellant, tracking stations, and weather stations. The tracking station provides monitoring of the early stage of space entry. The weather stations will check atmospheric stability and other conditions of launch day.

In choosing a launch location one must consider several influences. The first is to place launch sites as far away from populated centers as possible. During the early years of the program, accidents that occurred showed the need to keep onlookers and sight-seers far enough away to prevent injury. Secondly, whatever site is chosen, will need to have easy access for transporting launch equipment to the launching pad. Europe and the United States chose to locate in coastal areas and have the launch begin over the ocean. Geography plays a major factor in launch locations. The engineers prefer launching pads on the East Coast, because of the Earth's eastward rotation, and they prefer a site close to the equator, since that is where Earth's rotation is greatest.

Launching sites are extremely expensive. Investors choose not to invest since the small profit is outweighed by the large expense. The four companies from the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and Norway, have worked together to create the Zenit Sea Launch platform. It is placed in an equatorial site in mid-ocean after being towed to the site. Reaching its destination, it will be raised to a firing position with the ability to launch a 5,800 kg satellite into GEO (geostationary orbit).

The world's largest and oldest launch center is Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan. In 1955, United States spy planes discovered the construction. It was from this site that Sputnik was launched in 1957, and Russian rockets sending supplies to the ISS (International Space Station) are also launched from this site. Kourou Space Center in French Guiana and owned by France, is where Arianespace and the European Space Agency launch their satellites. Arianespace sends over half of the world's largest commercial satellites into space. It is close to the equator and allows conditions suitable for placing the satellites into GEO directly above the equator. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral is NASA's launching site. This 140,000 acreage with a 4.5 km runway is the space shuttle's launching site. NASA personnel keep checks on any unwanted surprises, such as, alligators or bobcats.

World Launch Centers include: Alcantara in Brazil; Baikonur in Kazakhstan; Jiuquan in China; Kagoshima and Tanegashima in Japan; Kapustin Yar in Russia; Kennedy in Florida and Vandenberg in California, US; Kourou in French Guiana; Plesetsk in Russia; San Marco in Italy; Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh; Xichang in Sichuan; and the sea site of Zenit.

1. Editors. Secrets of the Universe. International Master Publishing: US. 1999

2. Couper, Heather and Nigel Henbest. Space Encyclopedia DK Publishing Book: NY, 1999