NASA Launching Spacecraft to Another Planet From California for the First Time

The Mars InSight spacecraft preparing for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Gene Blevins/Reuters

Early Saturday morning, if all goes well, NASA will make history, with its first ever launch from California of a spacecraft bound for another planet. To date, all such missions have left from Florida, where launching is logistically easier.

The feat is possible because the new mission, a lander called Mars InSight, is relatively small, and the rocket being used to launch it, a United Lanch Alliance Atlas V, is relatively large.

For the people behind the Mars InSight mission, the west coast launch is particularly exciting, since the mission is based out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. InSight principal investigator William "Bruce" Banerdt, a planetary scientist at the lab, has already been to see the launch preparations. This includes watching technicians carefully hoist the nose cone, with InSight packed inside, onto the top of the rocket.

"That was an amazing experience," he told Newsweek. "I've been a crazy space fan ever since I was a little kid, and this is so many dreams come true it's hard to keep count of them."

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InSight's launch pad is located on Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California, about halfway between Monterey and Los Angeles. The site is regularly used for rocket launches—most recently a SpaceX launch on March 30.

But for launching large spacecraft, Florida has two natural advantages. First, it's right on the coast—rocket scientists like to send launches over the ocean just in case something goes terribly wrong.

Of course, California's coast has the same benefit, but from here rockets have to head west. That means traveling the opposite direction of Earth's rotation, which makes gathering enough speed to escape orbit just a little bit harder, especially for heavy loads.

That's where InSight comes into play. The mission, a lander designed to crack secrets of what's hidden below the surface of Mars, doesn't carry as many instruments as, for example, the Curiosity rover currently on the red planet. "Not only are we much cheaper, we're also much lighter," InSight deputy principal investigator Suzanne Smrekar, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Newsweek.

Add to that a relatively powerful rocket, and you have a recipe for California launch-site dreaming.