Chapter 5

Acquiring a Launch Site

Hazards Board Recommends Merritt Island

While Dr. Debus took the occasion of the top-level meeting at Huntsville on 25 April 1961 to brief Robert Seamans, NASA Associate Administrator, on the mobile launch concept, the conferees discussed other questions, especially the lack of space at Cape Canaveral. Gen. Donald Ostrander, Dr Wernher von Braun, and William Fleming, soon to be head of the Project Review Division, participated in the discussion. At its conclusion, Debus was directed to meet with Maj. Gen. Leighton I. Davis, commander of the Air Force Missile Test Center, to discuss NASA's need for additional land.1 The presidential challenge (a man on the moon by 1970) lent urgency to Debus's inquiry. Very likely, the launching of a moon rocket, Saturn or Nova, would create blast hazards requiring a large safety zone around the pad. Acquisition of many acres of real estate was the next step in building the moonport and the question facing the Launch Operations Directorate (LOD) was, Where? The answer would prove twofold: NASA would build the moonport on land (Merritt Island) within the Air Force sphere of influence at Cape Canaveral, but in the process would work out an understanding with the Air Force that would secure freedom of action in NASA's launch area.

Before recommending any land purchase, NASA and the Air Force had to determine the dangers involved in testing and launching a moon vehicle. In the last week of May 1961, the two groups set up a Joint Air Force-NASA Hazards Analysis Board to study the effects of blast, noise, fire, fragmentation, radiation, and toxicity. It would also prepare preliminary design data as a basis for safety perimeters for personnel and facilities within government-controlled areas, as well as for people and property in areas adjacent to the launch site.2 Since NASA had reached no decision on the vehicle for the moon landing, the analysts considered the use of a Saturn C-3 booster of 13 million newtons (3 million pounds of thrust) and Nova boosters of 53, 98, and 164 million newtons (12, 22, and 37 million pounds of thrust). These were further classified as to fuels: liquid propellants, solid propellant for the booster and liquid propellants for the upper stages, and liquid propellant for the booster with a nuclear-powered upper stage.

On 1 June 1961, the board published a preliminary report of its findings and recommendations. The hazards analysis indicated that the minimum distance required for overall safety between the launch pad and uncontrolled areas varied from 5,270 meters for the Saturn C-3 to 15,240 meters for the 164-million-newton (37-million-pound-thrust) Nova booster. The minimum safe distance for nuclear stages reached 16 kilometers. The board concluded that if the government acquired additional land on Merritt Island, vehicles without nuclear upper stages could be launched from onshore facilities along False Cape north of Cape Canaveral. Further, since persons working within government-controlled areas could be given adequate protection, Merritt Island provided suitable land for industrial and technical support areas.3

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