Project Horizon (Part I): Christmas Island Launch Facility

Christmas Island Launch Facility

The Christmas Island Launch Facility, proposed by the US Army in 1959 as part of their ambitious Project Horizon. Once built they looked to launch more than 200 missions that would end with a twelve-man lunar base before 1968. Public Domain image taken from Project Horizon, Volume II: Technical Considerations and Plans. Click for a larger view.

What it was: An American spaceport, proposed by the Army in 1959. As part of their Project Horizon to build a base on the Moon by 1968 they decided that the United States should have a launch facility directly on the Equator, and came to the conclusion that Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean was the best bet.

Details: One of the less-discussed aspects of launch vehicles is exactly where you launch them from. The closer one is to the equator, the more one can get a hand from the rotation of the Earth if you launch to the East. Cape Canaveral is where it is because it’s quite far south in the continental United States: 28.5°N. It also helps that, when launching east from the Cape there’s open ocean for a very long way. If something goes wrong, it’s mostly a problem for fish. By contrast the USSR was handicapped by the location of Baikonur at 46.0°N; the N-1 was actually more powerful than the Saturn V, but would have lifted noticeably less into orbit because of where it was based.

During the scramble following the launch of Sputnik, the US Army explicitly rejected Cape Canaveral (then known as the Atlantic Missile Range) for not being expandable enough. On the grounds that they were going to have to build a new launch facility from nothing anyway, the Army decided to look at sites no more than 2.5° on either side of the equator and decided that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages (most notably that none of them would be in the United States). They specifically looked at four locations:

  • The Jubba River estuary, near Kismayo in southern Somalia. Logistic difficulties were considered too great and this site was quickly eliminated.
  • Manus Island, in the Bismarck Archipelago off the north coast of New Guinea. Like Somalia, distance and logistical difficulties eliminated this site.
  • The north side of the Baía de São Marcos, in Maranhão State, Brazil. The main problem here was considered to be building in a jungle with no land or air connections and poor access from the ocean, as well as the disease climate. It was still considered a strong contender
  • Christmas Island (now Kiritimati) in the Line Islands in the central Pacific Ocean. It had been occupied by the US during WWII and so though it was owned by the British, it was practically a condominium of the two countries. The British had also proved that it worked for large technical projects, as they’d used it to test several hydrogen bombs. It also had the advantages of being relatively easy to reach by air and being intermixed with two smaller nearby islands (Jarvis Island and Palmyra Atoll) that were formal American possessions. Along with Brazil it was considered a prime site, especially if speed of construction was wanted.

Having selected Christmas Island (without eliminating Brazil, but not getting into much more detail there), the Army laid out how it planned to build a launch facility.

Launch complex diagram

Diagram of a launch complex, four of which would be built on Christmas Island. Image also from Project Horizon. Click for larger view.

The basic unit was a launch complex, which consisted of a block house on the western vertex of a triangle and two launch pads, one each on the northern and southern points of same. The pads would be 961 meters apart with a liquid oxygen plant halfway in between them. Four of these launch complexes would be placed on Christmas Island’s eastern shore, separated by a bit under two kilometers from each other, and be supported by a channel dredged into the western approach of the atoll, where a port would be constructed. Two large airstrips would be built, and the whole works would be used to launch no less than 229 of the upcoming Saturn C-1 and proposed Saturn C-2 rockets between August 1964 and December 1967, with as many as 6 in one month. In a burst of realism, the facility was planned for Saturn C-1 and C-2s only because the Saturn C-5 (what became known as the Saturn V) was not going to be ready in time to help. The report does point out that expanding the lunar outpost after 1970 would need the bigger rocket, and so a large stretch of coast stretching to the southeast of the four launch facilities was set aside for expansion. They do sadly note that nuclear boosters would be even more efficient, but couldn’t be accommodated on Christmas Island’s 100 square miles; nearby Jarvis Island would have to be converted for that purpose. Personnel and their families would be housed on the north side of the island, and so the hospital and recreational facilities went there too.

Construction of the spaceport was to begin in January 1960 and was estimated to cost US$426 million. Running it from 1962 (when it would become operational if not complete—that would take until the end of 1965) to 1968 would cost an additional US$883.1 million for a grand total of US$1.309 billion—just over one-fifth of the entire cost of the Army putting a twelve-man base on the Moon by the end of 1968. Given that the real Apollo program cost US$25.4 billion, there probably would have been cost overruns on all of it, not least the Christmas Island Launch Facility.

What happened to make it fail: NASA was formed just after the Project Horizon report was completed (but before it was published) and, on examining the space programs of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, decided that Saturn was the launch system closest to completion. Though there was some resistance the Army’s attitude in general was that it was acceptable for the Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency (which is to say Wernher von Braun and the Huntsville facility that would become Marshall Space Flight Center) to be transferred to NASA, bringing the Saturn with it.

That was the lynchpin of Project Horizon, and the Eisenhower administration was leery of military control of the space program in any case so it was not going to go forward even if NASA had let them keep Saturn.

The Christmas Island facility itself fell to the wayside because NASA was of a different opinion about Cape Canaveral than the Army. They were of the opinion that it was better to have their launch facilities in the United States, and where there was already infrastructure to use. This pointed to Florida over any of the sites the Army had examined. More cynically, if the launch facility was built outside of the US, no congressman would be able to point at the jobs and money the space program was bringing to his state, and NASA needed Congress on their side.

What was necessary for it to succeed: A more ambitious Apollo program might have made the difference. An equatorial launch site is most useful when you want an orbit with low inclination, and that’s most wanted when you’re going to use a LEO space station to build your Moon-bound spacecraft—as Horizon was going to do. The ISS, for example, is nearly useless as a stepping stone to the Moon as its inclination was increased to 51.6° to make it easier for Russia to contribute.

If NASA had been charged with the goal of starting a scientific base on the Moon instead of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” then the advantages of an equatorial site might have overridden Cape Canaveral’s advantages. This is especially true if they had decided to stay with an Earth Orbit Rendezvous mission profile rather than Lunar Orbit Rendezvous as they used, or if there had been problems with the development of the Saturn V that had forced them to use smaller rockets. In both those situations every extra ton would count and Christmas Island might have looked like what they needed.