Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour
Last week, I was invited by my friend Susan Roy to join her on the Cape Canaveral Early Space tour (formerly "Then and Now" tour) offered by Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex. Naturally, since it was ASF weekend and a plethora of Space Hipsters were around, we were then joined by friends Emily Carney and Chris Boyd. The tour starts at KSCVC and drives you around Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, with stops at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum and several historic sites, before terminating at the Apollo/Saturn V Center.
When Emily, Chris, and I caught up with Sue, we found she had made a friend. It turns out there was a former Cape worker on our tour. From 1960-1966, he worked on communications for ground support, vehicles, and payload. He regaled us with stories and fun facts from those days before the tour started. The conditions at the Cape back then were primitive. Almost all workers were sharing rooms in motels around the area without their families, simply because there were not enough homes built yet. Some were even rumored to be living in tents. Stories like that remind me of the title of Jonathan Ward’s book “Rocket Ranch”. It truly was rustic - and instead of trusty steeds, the ranch bred somewhat un-trusty rockets.
In this field, I’ve found that just when you think you’ve heard each story and made normal their absurd aspects, you meet another person involved and they proceed to knock your socks off all over again. The technology back then was so basic it is almost unbelievable they pulled it off; but in their own time, things like miniature vacuum tubes and global teletype networks were as cutting edge as wireless charging seems to us. Less technically, these stories are consistently told light-heartedly, as under-dramatizations of complex things. While explaining the post-launch parties that occurred regardless of a success or an explosion, our friend stated: “Friday was a good time to blow them up”.
The bus came, we got on, and left the Visitor’s Complex. However, instead of exiting NASA Parkway and heading towards the VAB like usual, we went straight-on to the Causeway connecting KSC and the Cape. At this point, no photographs were allowed.
No photos, but we are allowed to talk about it! The first things I noticed on the Cape-side were a few Falcon 9 returned stages neatly placed by a hangar. I had never been this close to one, forget three! I thought they would appear more worn from their violent journey halfway to orbit and dramatic return to the surface; but they were in good shape, and seemingly begging to do it again. Even more surreal was the lack of personnel and equipment, even for a Sunday.
The air force station itself is akin to an air base with a couple significant differences, one being the amount of trees, grass, and greenery. Most obviously is the abundance of hangars with a peculiar absence of planes. Driving past Hangar S, the famous intended-quarters for the Mercury 7, it is not difficult to understand why the astronauts quickly moved down to the Holiday Inn. It’s a good hangar, mind you - but it’s a hangar! There was no beach nearby; and back then, few women around either.
Continuing south, a familiar sight appeared above the trees: the twin towers of Pad 17, the last remaining gantries prominently visible from Cocoa Beach. I had grown up seeing them in my bathing suit wading in the sea. Now, I was looking at them from the other side, as a Space writer with my friends and colleagues. Sure, any member of the public can take this tour and see the same thing. For me, though, it was a positively sobering indication of the direction of my career.
After passing a large, plain building that is definitely not a NRO facility (wink), we arrived at Pad 26, site of the launch of the first US satellite: Explorer 1. At this point, photography was allowed. This was my first time in a “blockhouse”, another name for the Launch Control centers that took the form of fortified bunkers sitting next to the launchpad. And what an experience it was!
While in the blockhouse, I had a surprising thought. In that moment, it seemed to me that these voluminous, complicated machines were simpler to interact with than today’s computers. On the LCC Tour I took earlier this year, the group had an opportunity to glance inside Firing Room 3 at Pad 39's LCC, which is being fitted for launches at Pad 39B. There were no more than a dozen stations, each with multiple computer monitors. Though today’s computers are compact, require less maintenance, and are orders of magnitude more powerful, they don’t look or “feel” as sturdy as these old metal panels and aircraft-style switches. The old consoles are literal desktops, as opposed to the imaginary counterpart of today. If you wanted to see guidance data, you went to that console, instead of opening a new window and clicking about. To alter parameters in the countdown, you pressed buttons, flipped switches, and entered data manually. My view was, perhaps incorrectly, it would be a lot harder to make a mistake or misread data on the old equipment (assuming it was operating nominally); but if you did make a mistake, it would be tenfold harder to correct it than on modern-day equipment. Of course, today’s technology is safer, easier, and allows more control - this is merely an observation about the interface.
To see and interact with these historic machines makes time fly. We wanted to stay longer, but the tour guide was ushering people back onto the bus for the rest of the tour. I was only disappointed until the next stop just a few seconds away: Pad 5 and its blockhouse, site of Jupiter, Juno, and Redstone launches. In 1961, Ham the chimpanzee became the first hominid in Space from this site. Soon after, Alan Shepard became the first US citizen in Space from here as well! Along with Gus Grissom, all of their 15-minute cannonball shots began from Pad 5. All that remains is the concrete floor, the blockhouse, a flame deflector, and a Mercury-Redsotne mockup held upright by four cables. It was so quiet - the wind gently sweeping across the long, uncut grass; and trees obscuring the view of nearby Port Canaveral. It was exciting to be standing in this historic place, but just as solemn to see what lack of interest has let it become. More on Space-ruins in an upcoming blog entry.
The blockhouse was just as fun as Pad 26, except not as interactive. Many of the consoles are behind glass. To make up for that, there were photos of the room and consoles populated by the likes of Wernher von Braun and Chris Kraft. I couldn’t help but imagine the atmosphere in the room when the infamous “four-inch flight” had controllers thinking they were about to be bombed.
From Pad 5, we drove North through Missile Row, a straight road with a launchpad every 600 metres or so. Some of these pads include what is now SpaceX Landing Zone 1, Mercury's Pad 14, Gemini's Pad 19, and others. Though the tour doesn’t visit the pads themselves and they aren’t visible through the trees, it is fun to drive alongside them and imagine the place in its heyday.
We hit the last stop two hours into the tour, spending some time at Pad 34. This is a poignant stop because it was the the last place Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee ever saw. The Apollo 1 fire had occurred here in January 1967. The tour guide tells the whole story, sparing nothing of the impact this accident had on NASA and the country. The story ends on a positive note, however. The first flight of a crewed CSM, Apollo 7, launched from this site, successfully testing a crewed Block II CSM in Space.
A highlight of Pad 34 is being so close to Pad 37, where ULA processes and launches their Delta IV vehicles. In fact, so much of the Pad is visible, no photography is allowed in its direction. Our tour guide warned us, saying the Air Force has previously seen cameras pointing that way and confiscated them. Looking is all the fun you need. It’s somewhat bizarre to watch a very active launch complex from one that is literally in ruins. All that’s left of Pad 34 is the substructure that the gantry once stood on. Grass was growing up through the concrete, metal plates were rusting, and the foundation was crumbling.
We loaded back onto the bus and were taken back across the causeway to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where the tour concluded. It sure was worth the extra $25 to see this crucially important base whose work the Apollo program stood on the shoulders of. The tour is only offered a few times a week, and is subject to cancellation depending on activity on the very active Base. If you plan on taking it, I recommend doing it sooner rather than later - SpaceX, Blue Origin, and ULA are only growing larger, and will at some point need more facilities. Be sure not to plan your tour directly after a large storm or hurricane, because debris often leads to a cancellation as well.
Just some last minute icing on the cake: between Pad 5 and Missile Row, the tour passes Cape Canaveral Lighthouse. This anecdote, told by our guide, is too good not to share. Back in the Mercury era, a group of journalists were delayed getting to the press site due to issues with their paperwork. By the time the problem was worked out, there was no time to get close to the pad. So they made their own camp quite far away from the Redstone rocket. The leader said to the group: just find the black and white object and fix your cameras on it! The countdown came: 3.. 2.. 1.. 0.. and liftoff! The photographers heard the noise and felt the rumble, but the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse didn't go anywhere.
Images: Courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise.