A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why did they change the name of Cape Kennedy back to Cape Canaveral?

July 26, 1985

Dear Cecil:

Can you tell me why they changed the name of the U.S. space center from Cape Kennedy back to its original name, Cape Canaveral?

Cecil replies:

Sure, but let's get our facts straight: they didn't change the name of the space center, they changed the name of the cape — i.e., the land under the space center (or under part of it, anyway). The NASA launch facility continues to be known as the John F. Kennedy Space Center. The whole confusing business got started back on November 27, 1963, shortly after JFK's assassination, when Lyndon Johnson was casting about for a suitable memorial for the slain president. Jackie Kennedy suggested it might be appropriate to rename Cape Canaveral — after all, her husband had been a big space-exploration buff, and had launched the Apollo program that would eventually put a man on the moon. Now, your average president would have taken "Cape Canaveral" to mean merely "the Cape Canaveral launch facility," which at the time consisted of two installations — Station Number 1 of the Atlantic Missile Range (operated by the Department of Defense) and the NASA Launch Operation Center. LBJ, however, was never one for halfway measures. In an exhibition of his legendary arm-twisting skills, he got the Department of the Interior's Board of Geographic Names to agree to changing the name of the cape itself in a record three hours, enabling him to announce the rechristening of both cape and center in his Thanksgiving Day message.

Nobody objected to renaming the space center, but quite a number of Floridians were peeved about changing the name of the cape, which had been called Canaveral for more than 400 years. It had been sighted by Ponce de Leon in 1513, was named by other Spaniards not long after that, and appears as Cape Canaveral on the earliest French and Spanish maps of the area. ("Canaveral" is supposedly Spanish for "place of tall reeds.") The nearby towns of Cape Canaveral and Cocoa promptly sent resolutions protesting the change to LBJ and the governor of Florida, but in the hysterical atmosphere following the assassination nobody paid much attention. Nonetheless, state historical groups and others persevered in their efforts to get the old name back, and eventually a resolution to that effect was introduced in the U.S. Senate. Witnesses at a committee hearing on the matter were uniformly in favor of resurrecting the name, but Congress was reluctant to act, presumably because it might appear disrespectful to the late president. Finally, having gotten fed up with waiting for Uncle Sam to do anything, the Florida legislature passed a resolution stating its intention to try to get the name changed on maps regardless of what Congress did. What sort of behind-the-scenes scrambling followed this declaration is not clear, but on October 9, 1973, the Board of Geographic Names unanimously agreed to restore the old name. Ted Kennedy wrote a brief letter saying his family "understand[s] the decision," and that was that.

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