Save John Glenn's Cape Canaveral
By: John Shepler
As John Glenn waves to the camera in his orange Space Shuttle flight suit and climbs aboard the Discovery Orbiter to join the crew of six other NASA astronauts, our memories replay the excitement of that Mercury blastoff in 1962 that established him as our premier American space hero. The space program of the 1960s is more than history, it's our history. It's established who we are and what we aspire to as much as the railroads, the battlefields, the frontier settlements, or the historical buildings of our government. Yet, we're in danger of losing John Glenn's space program heritage at Cape Canaveral as it disintegrates, out of sight, out of our perceptions.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of being able to tour the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral and write about it. I'd like to share that experience with you again, and also talk about how we might use our considerable collective influence to save one of our national treasures before it disintegrates and is lost to ourselves and future generations. Here's what I learned on "Our Trip to Cape Canaveral."
When we hear about Cape Canaveral these days, it's almost always in reference to the Kennedy Space Center and the Space Shuttle activities that go on there. Indeed, the most prominent landmark you see is the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building, where the shuttle orbiters are mated with the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters on top of a tractor driven launch pad called the Crawler. One side of the building opens up periodically and the whole assembly creeps down a gravel roadway to Pad 39A or 39B for launch. It's all gigantic, impressive, orchestrated...and distant. Visitors are kept at telephoto lens distances and provided with pre-recorded commentary as the "red" bus makes its rounds of Merritt Island. Had we only took the popular tour and visited the exhibit buildings and Rocket Garden, I would have probably left satisfied that I'd had the Kennedy Space Center experience.
But something was nagging at us. Something seemed to be missing. It was flashbacks from childhood, getting up at six in the morning to tune-in Walter Cronkite as he started coverage of another countdown. Be it the first flights of Alan Shepard or John Glenn, or another weather satellite on top of a Thor or Atlas, those 13 inch black and white images were indelibly burned into the back rooms of our memories. There was another tour offered, the "blue" bus to the old Cape Canaveral facilities, and we came back a second day to see if this would lead us to those almost forgotten sites.
Across the Banana River, the Cape Canaveral Air Station juts out into the Atlantic like a little finger. A 165-foot tall lighthouse stands watch as it has since 1894. The other buildings are Air Force facilities, mostly built in the 50's and 60's. Our driver, Dale, has been with the space program since those early days, first as a fireman and recently as a tour guide. He punches off the pre-recorded public address babble and says to us, "now let me tell you some real stories about what went on here." Right then, we knew we'd found the right tour.
What happened next seemed almost surrealistic. We pulled into a lot next to an old concrete building and followed Dale up the steps where he fumbled with his keys, found the right one, and pulled open a creaky metal door leading to a dark corridor. "Come on in and let me get the lights here," he said motioning us into another area. Barbara whispered, "it feels like your dad taking you into the plant after hours." The lights came on, and when my eyes adjusted from the glare outside, I could see that we were standing in the visitor's gallery overlooking the very launch control room I remember seeing on TV. On the far wall was that flat map of the Earth with the almost sine wave tracks representing 3 orbits. The tracks have light bulbs to show the active tracking stations and the line stops in the middle of the Atlantic...splashdown!
Dale's explaining how the blockhouses were build of concrete, sand and more concrete to absorb the blast of exploding rockets just hundreds of feet away. I'm half-listening but mostly getting used to the fact that I'm standing here where I saw the wives of the astronauts sitting on these bleacher seats wondering if they'd ever see their husbands alive again. There are the consoles labeled "flight director" and "assistant flight director" where one of those controls must be "the button." I move around a bit, trying to get the same angle as the TV cameras had. I know Dale is talking, yet the presence of those days is so strong that I can almost see and hear Walter Cronkite again.
It would have been nice to just sit there for an hour or two, or better yet sneak into the control room itself , sit at those consoles and touch the controls. I stood there wishing I could slip away from the group and hide out until I could find a way in. In a way, I got my wish fulfilled at another site, Complex 26. There you are let into the very control room that launched our first satellite, Explorer I. Through the 16 inch thick laminated glass blast windows sits a Redstone rocket on Launch Pad B, so close it's hard to see it all without moving your head. Around the corner is the original flight computer, a Burroughs with punched tape memory and modules that can be pulled out the front to change the vacuum tubes. It surely has less processing power than the smallest home computer today, and yet...it all worked and we got into space and then to the moon and the planets. The signs were clearly marked "Don't Touch," but I had to pat an instrumentation recorder on the way out...just to make contact, I guess.
Outside is another rocket garden. Included are the famous Thor Able and Atlas - E, but also lesser known vehicles such as Snark and Bomark, Navaho and Nike Ajax...each with a story important to our country's defense in the Cold War. I check a few placards and start making my way toward a Minuteman 1, when I hear shouts from the distance. Dale is waving us on the bus. Our tour is out of time for this stop.
I'm having a hard time getting situated in the bus seat, because I've picked up a tube with rocket posters and a bag of T-shirts from the Air Force Space & Missile Museum gift shop. It's a neat little place with Atlas Launch Team shirts, space books that don't look like they're in print anymore and postcards, six for a dollar. Barbara got a shot of me leaning on the historical marker at the front of the blockhouse, but these postcards have some excellent pictures, too. There one of the firing room, the Redstone surrounded by its gantry, and also some of the missiles from the 50's and 60's that you may not have heard of, like the Navaho. Each has a story.
Take the gantry, for instance. When you see a rocket sitting on the launch pad, there's always a metal framework surrounding it. That's for the technicians to climb up to various access panels on the rocket and make adjustments, plug in wires, ...whatever. Now on TV, they referred to this structure as the gantry. I always thought that was a term invented for the space program, like launch pad or splashdown. Actually, the first gantry wasn't something designed for the Cape at all. When rockets started getting taller, somebody remembered that the oil derricks they were using in Texas were about the right size to provide a working platform. So they cut a purchase order for one of these, and it was sold and delivered by a man named Gantry. Whenever they built a new pad, somebody would say "get me another one of those gantries," and that's how the name was established.
Dale turns the bus into another launch site, and we pass an enormous rusting gantry, now called a service tower. "You don't dare go up there anymore," he says with a touch of anger in his voice, "You'd get killed by a piece of falling metal." Looking up the yellowing concrete ramp, you can almost see a truck backing its way up in '62 or '63 with a shimmering Atlas destined to lift John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra or Gordon Cooper into orbit. Now many of the historical launch sites have been torn down as hazards after decades of neglect. It almost seems sacrilegious. This is the very place, the hallowed ground, where space flight began. When planetary travel gets as routine as Shuttle missions, will there be anything left for aspiring astronauts to see how we started? Will we ourselves be left with little more than fading memories of black and white TV scenes or stock photos in history text books?
I'm mulling this over as we pass another dilapidated concrete building, the launch site of the Navaho program. The Navaho was something of an ancestor to the Space Shuttle. It was two vehicles strapped together. One was a rocket booster, the other a long range air breathing missile. The rocket booster would be jettisoned, like the solid boosters and external tank of the shuttle, when enough speed and altitude was reached.
Dale told us about another early "cruise missile," the Snark. "That seat in the control room is for the pilot. Yep, they used to fly these things remotely down the missile range and back. They'd land on an air strip here...most of the time. One went a little wild once, zoomed around and headed across the Banana River. It landed in a trailer park. Back then the residents had a ball with it, they were so excited. These days, somebody'd file a lawsuit."
Oh, probably so, but there are still funny things that happen on the way to outer space. Just over some trees from the museum center you can see Complex 17, a currently active launch site for Delta rockets. Most launches are routine events these days. Gone are the wild explosions, out of control vehicles and other unplanned disasters. Well, maybe almost gone. "See those black marks in the roadway? Those are powder burns from a Delta that exploded right after launch earlier this year," explained Dale. Indeed, you can spot round black marks in the roadway every twenty feet or so. "The launch crew all lost their cars that day. They'd gotten so complacent that they parked right up next to the blockhouse for the launch. Really made a mess when it blew up. In fact, not a single one of those cars was driven back off the Cape under its own power."
The jungle growth has fared a little better over the years. It burns when there are mishaps and then regrows to protect the alligators, deer and other game on the Cape. You can see a brown patch from the Delta accident that is already starting to re-form. Cape Canaveral, and Merritt Island next door where all the Space Shuttle activity takes place, are national wildlife sanctuaries. Oddly enough, the animals enjoy legal protections against their extinction, but the operations that have made the Cape so important to our national safety and advancement do not. I'm with Dale. There's too much of value here to let it crumble or be hauled off in dump trucks and forgotten.
Perhaps technology itself can be of some help. Seems that our elected representatives are Internet-savvy these days. The White House, Senate and House of Representatives all have web sites. Yes, even the President has e-mail. So, is it worth a few minutes to compose a short message about saving our space heritage and send it to these people who have the power to save the Cape? I think so, and what more perfect time than right now. Will you join me?
Books of Interest:
John Glenn; A Memoir by John Glenn and Nick Taylor. John Glenn takes us into the cockpits of the experimental planes and spacecraft he flew to experience the pulse-pounding excitement of the early days of jet aviation, including his record-setting transcontinental flight in an F8U Crusader in 1957, and then on to his selection for the Project Mercury program in 1959. We see the early days of NASA, where he first served as a backup pilot for astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom and helped refine some of the initial cockpit and control designs for the Apollo program. In 1962 Glenn piloted the Mercury-Atlas 6 Friendship 7 spacecraft on the first manned orbital mission of the United States. Then came several years in international business, followed by a twenty-four-year career as a U.S. senator--and in 1998 a return to space for his remarkable Discovery mission at the age of seventy-seven.
Also visit these related sites:
Kennedy Space Center - Everything you need to know about what's happening at KSC.
Save the LUT - This site is dedicated to saving the historic Launch Umbilical Tower used to send the first men to the moon.
Don't Miss The Super Blue Blood Moon Event of 2018 - What are you doing this January 31? Make sure your plans include watching the Super Blue Blood Moon, likely the big sky show of 2018.
Copyright 1998 - 2018 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: November 1, 1998 as part of A Positive Light