Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Matagorda, Texas: the space port that almost was

Matagorda is a sleepy little beach town on the Gulf Coast of Texas, roughly 100 miles southwest of Houston. Situated near the Big Boggy National Wildlife Refuge, it's a good spot for a vacation or a fishing trip... and, I'll add bitterly, it's 5 degrees cooler there right now than it is here in Chicago.

A busy day in Matagorda, Texas.
Source: Wikipedia.

Oh, and I should also mention... back in the 1970s, Matagora almost became the launch site for the space shuttle!

Gulf Coast sunrise.
Source: Wunderground.

When NASA was choosing launch sites for the space shuttle, most of the contiguous United States was initially under consideration. The main limiting factor in choosing a launch site was safety. The shuttle shouldn't launch over populated areas, since that could result in the solid rocket boosters (or the shuttle itself, in an accident) crashing onto inhabited areas.

An Orion rocket, launched from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
Source: NASA.

This limitation ruled out pretty much any location that wasn't near a big body of water- leaving only the west coast, east coast, and gulf coast. Further, population centers dot most of these coastal areas. Only five spots made the final cut: Cape Canaveral (coastal Florida), Vandenberg Air Force Base (coastal California), the Chesapeake region in Virginia, coastal North Carolina or South Carolina, and Matagorda, Texas.

If NASA had made its final decision based on barbecue quality among the five sites, we'd have spent the past thirty years watching shuttle launches down east in North Carolina.

Pork barrel spending?
Source: North Carolina Travels.

But (unfortunately?) that is not how the launch site decision was made. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia were ruled out because areas near potential launch sites in the three states were just too populated, so it would have been too expensive to buy enough land to create a safe launch zone. That left Matagorda, Vandenberg, and Cape Canaveral.

Matagorda actually had a few advantages over Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral. The Cape can be used for eastern launches, but not polar launches. Vandenberg can be used for polar launches, but cannot be used to launch rockets towards the east (which is the most fuel-efficient direction for a launch). Matagorda could be used for either type of launch.

Source: Astronomy.

But, a cost analysis concluded that it would still be cheaper to equip both Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral for space shuttle launches than to build an entirely new launch site out of nothing in rural Texas.

So, at the end of the day, Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg were chosen. 

The Enterprise on the launchpad at Vandenberg AFB, back in the early 1980s.
Source: Spaceflight Now.

Last week I posted a little bit on Vandenberg, and how it came within a few months of actually hosting a shuttle launch. Here's my original postI have a few more things to say about Vandenberg in my next post, too...


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