Save John Glenn's Cape Canaveral Help Preserve Our National Space Heritage
By: John Shepler
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
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
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.
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
Also visit these related
Space Center - Everything you need
to know about what's happening at KSC and the Visitor Complex..
The Power of Not Giving Up - Astronaut Alan Shepard's boyhood dream of flying propelled him into America's first space mission, but persistence against incredible odds took him to the moon.