As a self-confessed ‘space-geek”, I was excited as I drove toward Cape Canaveral to attend a behind the scenes media tour of the historic launch complexes at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with the 45th Space Wing in October. This media tour would be seeing some launch sites that are not always available to tour by the general public. We got an early morning start so that we could cover a lot of ground on the seventeen thousand acres of the Cape’s Wildlife Refuge. Jim Hale, volunteer and historian with the office Public Affairs of the 45th Space Wing, was our guide through the beginnings of the Space Age.
Located in a restricted area of the Cape, the Air Force Museum opened in 1965. Until September 11, 2001, visitors could visit the museum on the honor system; however, those days are gone. Today, tours of the museum and launch pads can be arranged through the Space Wings Public Affairs office.
Stepping through the door of the firing room, our group was transported back into the 1950s when computers were the size of a room and the firing room (so named when the Army was in charge of firing the rockets) was stale with cigarette smoke. We were in one of the few blockhouses (concrete buildings that housed the firing rooms) that had windows so you could see the launch pads. However, the view was a bit obscured because these windows are a foot thick and made of fifteen layers of safety glass.
Pad 26 has the distinction of launch the first U.S. satellite, Explorer One on January 31, 1958. The thirty-pound battery-powered satellite continued orbiting the Earth until 1970. Next to Pad 26 is Pad 5, where both Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom launched into sub-orbital flights in 1961. The pad was never used again after Grissom’s flight.
Walking up the base of a Redstone rocket in the middle of Pad 5 is standing in history. What struck me was the size of the Redstone rocket, compared to the Saturn 5 that launched the Apollo flights it was tiny. Of course, it didn’t have to push the payload that the Saturn did to push Apollo into space only a man in a capsule. Standing in the shadow of the rocket, you get a real sense that the astronauts were strapping themselves atop a controlled explosion.
Other exhibits at the museum also included the animals that paved the way for human manned flight in space. The rocket launched from these pads are well documented here with photographs of nearly every launch conducted at Pad 26, 5, and 6 on display.
We saw the location of the first launch pad used by the Army on January 24, 1950. It is now oddly designated as Pad 3. It’s not much to look at but back in the 1950s, this was a busy piece of ground. In the distance, the Cape Lighthouse oversees the area. The Godfather of Spaceflight, Wernher von Braun oversaw the early rocket launches from high atop the lighthouse.
Turning onto ICMB road, our group headed toward Complex 14, where the Mercury missions were launched. As we into Pad 14, we saw a high-grade stainless steel monument to the Mercury 7 astronauts. The monument is constructed from the same stainless steel used in the Atlas rocket that launched Mercury flights.
In 1964, a time capsule was placed beneath a bronze plaque that is to be opened in 2464. The monument has stood for over 50 years and has another 450 years to go. There is no doubt it will stand the test of time. A plaque was placed alongside the Mercury monument eight years ago to honor the crew of the C-130 that crashed in Africa while deployed during Scott Carpenter’s space flight. The ceremony was attended by both present and retired personnel from Pope Air Force base where the crew had been stationed.
Dr. Sonny Witt, Director of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, met us at Pad 14’s blockhouse. Restored over two years, the blockhouse is being currently used as an event location and educational space. A four-foot concrete retaining wall surrounds the perimeter of the facility, and blast door seals the entrance.
Everything except the photographs and the carpet in the blockhouse came from the trash. Not literally, the industrious refurbishing team used items that were being tossed out by entities around the cape. Because there were no windows in the blockhouse, periscopes were used to observe the launches. The company that made the periscopes refurbished them for use in the refurbish blockhouse. Only at Pad 14 will you find the only surviving billboard marker of all launches completed at the launch pad.
On June 11, 1957, Pad 14 saw the first Atlas rocket launch. After that launch, the pad was then turned over to NASA for the Mercury program. At the end of the launch ramp, there is a marble memorial to John Glenn. Our group was asked not to risk walking up the ramp due to its state of deterioration.
If you looked closely around the parking lot, you saw some famous names that were launched and worked from the pad.
Visiting the launch pad where the Gemini flights were launched is akin to walking the ruins in Europe. All the metal has been removed and scraped from the site, and the launch gantry long removed. Larger than the Mercury pad site, the pad used a gantry erector, which started in a horizontal position then moved to a vertical position so that the rocket could be launched. If erector got stuck, the technicians on the pad would hit the relays with a broomstick to get the gantry moving. Technology is great when it works.
Pad 34 was constructed in 1960 and is where, on January 27, 1967, we lost our first astronauts, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White, on Apollo 1 in a cabin fire. Here you will find two monstrous flame deflectors used during the Apollo test missions. Just off to the side of the launch site is a memorial to Astronauts Grissom, Chaffee, and White. The last flight to be launched from pad 34 was Apollo 7 in 1968.
We were given special access to a Minuteman missile beehive blockhouse, which is not usually on a public tour. Having once been married to an Air Force Missile man, I knew about the missile silos and its purpose. Not far from the beehive is a Minuteman silo where the remains of the Space Shuttle Challenger are interred.
Next door to the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse is Hanger C. Here we saw examples of many of the missiles that have been launched from Cape, including the Vanguard and the Snark as well as both an Apollo and a Gemini capsule that were used to practice the sea recoveries at the end of the space missions.
The Canaveral Lighthouse originally built on the point of the Cape in 1848 and was only 65 feet tall. Unfortunately, at that height, it was not much help in warning vessels of the shoals that surround the Cape. The lighthouse, which is constructed of cast iron was moved one hundred feet inland in late 1868 due to the encroaching sea. The lighthouse was later moved to its present location in 1894. The Cape’s lighthouse has recently undergone a major renovation but was not quite ready for tours. Tours of the lighthouse can be scheduled through the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation.
I highly recommend a tour of Cape Canaveral, whether through the 45th Space Wing or at Kennedy Space Center on the Cape Canaveral Early Spaceflight Tour. If you’re interested in learning the history of U.S. Spaceflight and rockets, then Cape Carnaval is the place for you.