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Why NASA picked stormy Florida

Weather thwarts shuttle launches. But important factors favor this state.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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If the space shuttle Endeavour lifts off in the early hours of Feb. 7, it will be the first shuttle launch in more than half a year to leave on time.

Each of the last three missions has been delayed for days or weeks – with one held back by a scheduling conflict and two by stormy weather. Despite its "Sunshine State" moniker, Florida has postponed shuttles due to five hurricanes, two hailstorms, a tropical storm, lightning damage, countless cloudy days, and meddlesome woodpeckers stabbing a fuel tank. And if the temperature goes below 36 degrees F., as it did earlier this month, Cape Canaveral's fickle weather will thwart yet another scheduled blastoff.

So why did the National Aeronautics and Space Administration choose Florida as the nation's launchpad? It's all about the state's location, explains Fred Marschak, an astronomy professor at Santa Barbara City College in California.

From the beginning, NASA needed beachfront property. Early rockets dropped debris, shed spent booster packs, and sometimes exploded. Better to have these scraps and missteps plummet into the ocean than onto American towns.

Plus, blasting off over the Atlantic has an added bonus. "Our Earth rotates eastward," Mr. Marschak says. When space shuttles launch in the same direction, "the Earth gives us a push." This planetary effect is similar to why it's easier to swim with the water's current rather than against it.

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