Spaceflight Insider

The Hangar / Cape Canaveral Air Force Station


Photo Credit: Michael Deep / SpaceFlight Insider


Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), America’s first orbital launch site, is located on Florida’s east coast, on an island variously referred to as Merritt Island or just Cape Canaveral, or even just The Cape.

The modern CCAFS sits on the southeastern portion of the island, connected to the rest of Merritt Island only by a thin strip of land to the north and the NASA Causeway to the west. It is connected to the civilian Port Canaveral to the South by a short bridge over a canal.


After Germany’s defeat in World War II, U.S. officials scrambled to gather up Germany’s top scientific and technical talent, especially the team responsible for the V-2 rocket. Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team were quickly found and brought to the United States under the auspices of Operation Paperclip. Several V-2 rockets, in various states of assembly, were also brought the U.S. for testing and examination.

The Army had conducted several experimental launches of captured V-2s from the New Mexican desert, but its desire to build and test longer range missiles required it to find a new launch site, where spent rocket stages or exploding missiles would not endanger human settlements.

Sleepy Cape Canaveral, a large island home to a small community of mostly orange growers, seemed like the perfect location. The few residents could be bought out cheaply, and rockets could be launched over the Atlantic Ocean with no risk to the residents of Titusville to the west or Cocoa and Merritt Island to the south. Additionally, Henry Flagler’s east coast railroad provided access for heavy cargo, and the area to the south could be dredged to create an excellent port. Road access was also available via U.S. Highway 1.

The first launch from the new launch facility was designated Bumper 8 and was a captured V-2 rocket with a U.S.-built upper stage, launched successfully on July 24, 1950.

Since then, hundreds of launches have started at Cape Canaveral, from small sounding rockets to the powerful Delta IV Heavy, from nuclear missile tests to commercial satellite launches, from unmanned interplanetary probes to piloted Apollo spacecraft. Cape Canaveral continues to be one of America’s most important launch sites.

Cape Canaveral was briefly renamed in the honor of assassinated President John F. Kennedy by his successor, President Lyndon Johnson. The Air Force facility on the Cape was known as Cape Kennedy Air Force Station from January 22, 1964, until it was changed back to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on April 1, 1974. While honoring President Kennedy was certainly something the local citizens understood, they were upset that they had not been consulted on the name change of the geographical feature of Cape Canaveral to Cape Kennedy. However, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center retained its new name to honor President Kennedy.


CCAFS includes 35 launch complexes, an unpaved landing strip (the Skid Strip), an industrial area, the Range Control Center, the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center and Launch Control Center, and the Delta Horizontal Integration Facility and Launch Control Center.

Space Launch Complex 37B (SLC-47B): Originally built for the Saturn I and IB, this pad was converted for use by the Delta IV launch vehicle. The first Delta IV was launched from this site on November 20, 2002. The Delta IV Heavy was first launched here on December 21, 2004. The Delta IV Operations Building and Delta IV Horizontal Integration Facility were constructed nearby to support Delta IV operations.

Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40): Originally built to support Titan III and IV launches, this pad was handed over to SpaceX for its Falcon 9 launch vehicle in 2010. This pad was badly damaged when a Falcon 9 exploded during a static test fire on September 1, 2016. SpaceX anticipates restoring the pad to functionality by November 2017.

Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41): Originally built to support Titan III and IV launches, this pad was converted for use by the Atlas V beginning in 1999, with the first Atlas V launch taking place on August 21, 2001. Historically, the Titan IV pad here supported launches of the historic Voyager and Viking spacecraft. The four-story Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center was also built 4 miles away from the launch pad itself and supports Atlas core check-out operations as well as hosting the launch control center for the Atlas V.

Space Launch Complex 46 (SLC-46): This complex was initially constructed to support test launches for the Trident II SLBM. After Trident II launches were concluded, the northern end of the complex was modified to support commercial launches through the Athena launch vehicle. Today, SLC-46 is licensed by Space Florida to support multiple commercial and government users.

Skid Strip: This unpaved runway was built to support test landings of the experimental Snark winged missile, which landed under radio control. Later, the winged Navajo missile was launched and landed here. The Skid Strip also supported conventional aircraft. Air Force One landed here carrying President Kennedy when he inspected CCAFS facilities that supported his plan to launch humans to the Moon. Later, Atlas rocket cores and Centaur upper stages were delivered by cargo airplane on the runway.

Industrial Area: This area supported the early experimental launches at the Cape but is no longer generally in use. Many of the hangers in the Industrial Area are expected to be restored to possibly host a museum.

The Range Control Center: This facility formerly supported range operations until it was decommissioned in 1997 in favor of the Morrell Operations Center, which now supports wider range operations.

Morrell Operations Center: The current headquarters of the Range Operations department at the Cape.

Historic Launch Facilities

Historic launch sites include the following:

Launch Complex 3/4: Site of the first launch from Cape Canaveral, Bumper 8. The rocket was a captured V-2 rocket with a U.S.-built solid-fueled upper stage launched from Pad 3.

Launch Complex 5/6: Mercury-Redstone flights were launched from Pad 5, including the chimpanzee Ham. Additionally, the first U.S. suborbital piloted spacecraft was launched from Pad 5, the Freedom 7 Mercury spacecraft, piloted by Alan Shepard.

Launch Complexes 9/10: Built to support test launches of the winged Navajo missile.

Launch Complex 11: Home of early Atlas missile launches.

Launch Complex 12: Pad for Atlas rockets. Ranger missions to the Moon were launched here for NASA, as were several Mariner probes.

Launch Complex 13: Atlas rockets launched NASA’s Lunar Orbiter spacecraft from here. In 2015, the complex was leased by SpaceX and redesignated Landing Zone-1. Falcon 9 first stages land here after launch from either LC-40 or LC-39A.

Launch Complex 14: Atlas pad where the first U.S. piloted orbital spacecraft was launched by the Mercury program. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft. Additional Atlas launches were conducted here in support of the Mercury-Atlas program, including launching the chimpanzee Enos aboard a Mercury-Atlas test flight.

Launch Complex 16: Initially constructed for launches of the Titan I and II, it was handed over to NASA for static firing of the Apollo Service Module engine in 1965. NASA returned the complex to the Air Force, which used it for testing of the Pershing nuclear missile. The site was deactivated in 1988 following the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Launch Complex 17A & B: Initially pads for the Thor rocket, which eventually evolved into the Delta II rocket. The two pads on this complex hosted many launches for the U.S. military and for NASA, including the Mars Pathfinder mission, many GPS satellites, the Mars Exploration Rovers, and the GRAIL mission to the Moon.

Launch Complex 18: Home of the Vanguard rocket and the first attempt by the United States to launch an orbital satellite: the Vanguard TV-3 launch. The attempt ended in failure after only two seconds and the launch vehicle exploded the pad. The satellite itself was ejected from the exploding rocket and landed a short distance away, where it began transmitting as though it were in orbit. The failure, covered live by the media, resulted in a major embarrassment for the U.S.

Launch Complex 19: Home of both the Titan I and II rockets, this pad also hosted Titan II-Gemini piloted launches.

Launch Complex 20: This pad also hosted the Titan II and was upgraded to accommodate the Titan III.

Launch Complex 25: This pad was used to support test launches of Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles for the U.S. Navy, including the Polaris and Trident missiles.

Launch Complex 26: This was the site of the first successful U.S. satellite launch on January 31, 1958. Explorer 1 was launched on a modified Redstone missile, designated a Jupiter C.

Launch Complexes 31/32: These pads were built to support test launches for the Minuteman ICBM.

Launch Complex 34: This pad supported the Saturn I and IB for NASA. The complex was handed over to NASA in 1961 and launches began in October 1961. This pad was also the site of the Apollo 1 tragedy, in which three astronauts, Virgil Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, were killed by a fire in their Apollo spacecraft during a countdown test on February 27, 1967. After thorough investigations and corrective action, Apollo 7 was launched on October 11, 1968, in the first piloted test of the Apollo spacecraft after the tragedy.

Launch Complex 36: Launch pad for the Atlas-Centaur. Multiple planetary missions were launched from pads A and B, including Surveyor missions to the Moon, and Mariner missions to other planets. Both pads were upgraded over time to support the Atlas II and III rockets. The complex was handed over to the Space Florida public-private partnership and is undergoing construction to support commercial launches in the future.

Launch Complex 43: This complex features four pads for sounding rocket launches.

Notable Missions

The Cape has hosted many historically important missions, perhaps more than any other space launch facility in the United States. The first successful attempt to launch a satellite by the U.S. happened here on January 31, 1958, from Launch Complex 26. The first suborbital piloted mission happened from Launch Complex 5 on May 5, 1961, carrying Alan Shepard aboard the Freedom 7 Mercury spacecraft. The first U.S. piloted orbital flight took place on February 20, 1962, from Launch Complex 1

4. The entire Gemini program took place from 1964 to 1966 from Launch Complex 19. The first piloted Apollo test took place from Launch Complex 34 on October 11, 1968, after the investigation following the fatal Apollo 1 accident.

Cape Canaveral’s historical value does not come from piloted missions alone; it has hosted every U.S. interplanetary mission ever launched, save for the Magellan and Galileo missions. Ranger, Mariner, Pioneer, Voyager, and Viking all launched from the Cape, as did every U.S. spacecraft to visit Mars, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity.