Why the Apollo missions made Florida synonymous with space

Launch safety and orbital dynamics played key roles in turning a sleepy 72-mile stretch east of Orlando into the nation's Space Coast.

By Catherine Zuckerman
photographs by Robert Ormerod
Published 17 Jul 2019, 15:12 BST
At the Atlantis exhibit inside the Visitor Complex at Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, people ...
At the Atlantis exhibit inside the Visitor Complex at Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, people gather to watch a film about the shuttle. Atlantis made its first voyage to space in 1985 and continued to run trips off-world over the next 30 years. Its final mission—to the International Space Station in 2011—marked the end of NASA's space shuttle program.
Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic

In 1961, a sleepy strip of Florida’s eastern coastline got a wake-up call. President John F. Kennedy had just delivered a stirring speech to Congress extolling the importance of sending an astronaut to the moon before the decade's end, and NASA had announced it would be building a state-of-the-art launch facility to support this mission. The chosen location? Merritt Island, just a hop away from Cape Canaveral.

NASA selected Merritt Island for a couple of reasons. First, its East Coast position on the Florida peninsula means that spacecraft can be launched over open water—a safer alternative to launching over populated areas. Second, its proximity to the Equator means that Earth's spin there is slightly stronger, giving an extra boost to spacecraft as they lift off into orbit. 

Alicja Brandt (left) and Karl Brandt (centre) stand for a portrait with Karl's rocket collection on Melbourne Beach, Florida, alongside their children (from left), Ania, Olek, and Adam. The Brandts are all members of the Boy Scouts of America.

By 1963, the federal government had acquired roughly 140,000 acres on which to build what would be called the Kennedy Space Centre. And by 1969, Apollo 11 was blasting off to fulfill President Kennedy's moon-shot goal.

Since then, the space industry has grown, and tourism has followed suit. Now known as Florida's Space Coast, the 72-mile-stretch between Cape Canaveral and Palm Bay, just east of Orlando, has become a destination for rocket lovers, shuttle nerds, and astronaut wannabes. Visitors to the Kennedy Space Centre can learn about the progress—and failures—of space exploration, while local museums, restaurants, and events offer an endless buffet of space- and Apollo-themed experiences.

Players pause during football practice at Astronaut High School in Titusville, Florida.

The Apollo project sparked a boom for aerospace contractors in the region, transforming a quiet region of mostly orange groves into a technology and engineering hub. For the people who live year-round on the Space Coast, astronaut sightings are normal, and rocket launches are practically quotidian. And for kids growing up on the shores of Titusville, going to school may mean attending Apollo Elementary or Astronaut High.

Perhaps surprisingly, humans aren’t the only local residents that benefited from the region’s focus on space. That’s because only a portion of the land that NASA owns on Merritt Island is used for spacefaring activity.

"It’s a rather small part that's developed for our operational area," says Tom Engler, director of centre planning and development at Kennedy Space Center. The rest of that land, which includes the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which maintains a close working relationship with NASA.

Tourists go for a spin on the Astro Orbiter ride at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The theme park is a common first stop for many people traveling to the Space Coast, a strip of shoreline that lies about 60 miles east of Orlando and is home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center. (The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)


"NASA owns the property," says Kim King-Wrenn, the refuge's visitor services manager, "and we manage it—everything that is not mission critical."

The refuge protects 14 threatened or endangered species, including sea turtles and endemic Florida scrub jays. The ecosystem is incredibly special, King-Wrenn says, because it’s where animals from the temperate northern biome and the southern subtropical biome meet.

Spectators track a rocket launch at an amateur rocketry gathering in Palm Bay, Florida.

"If the Kennedy Space Centre had not been established, none of the lands that surround the operational heart of the United States space program would have been preserved," says Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge biologist James Lyon. "Like much of the rest of coastal Florida, where development pressures have been immense, this area would have become a sea of tourist amenities and vacation homes, much to the detriment of the Florida scrub-jay, as well as a number of other threatened and endangered species." 

Rocket launches don't seem to disturb the local fauna, which tend to hide out during blast off and then resume daily lives. Humans, on the other hand, tend to flock to the refuge during launches, King-Wrenn says, because it offers prime viewing opportunities.

Charlie Mars, the chairman of the board of the American Space Museum in Titusville, sits for a portait at the museum, which he helped found. Mars was involved with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions and was the chief project engineer for launch operations for Apollo.

"When there's a rocket launch, we’re swamped."

And with private spaceflight companies such as Blue Origin, Space X, and Boeing all developing rockets and plans to send people to space, Kennedy Space Centre—and the Florida Space Coast—is expanding apace.

"There is more history coming that we’re going to be writing," Engler says. That includes pushing the limits of human space exploration by sending people to Mars, and pushing the limits of our understanding of the universe by making the space center a future NASA hub for deep-space exploration.

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