Lost Forever: Ruins at Cape Canaveral
Earlier this year, an insightful book The Final Mission by Lisa Westwood was published. Its topic is the continual decay and demise of sites related to the Space program, particularly those connected to Apollo. This text explores that it may soon be the job of “Space Archaeologists” to unearth and investigate the workings of these sites. However, these places aren’t an ancient burial mound or pottery collection - they directly contributed to humanity’s first visit to another world.
Not giving too much of the book away, there is a lack of agreement by Historians, NASA, and the US Government as to how far down the daisy-chain we go with classifying sites as historic. The Space program was, and still is, spread thinly across the whole country. There are a plethora of lone buildings and facilities that contributed integral pieces of the Apollo puzzle, ranging from the California desert to Pad 39A. Some sites, like the aforementioned one in California, only produced one component. Whereas others were heavily involved, like Pad 39A.
There is no doubt that Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station directly and fundamentally contributed to the greatest adventure we have ever taken. However, when I toured CCAFS a fortnight ago, a strong imagination was needed to see this place as it once was. These historic facilities, like Pads 5, 26, Missile Row, and other structures were deemed outdated shortly after their prime; and subsequently became derelict due to lack of funding or interest in preservation. Just ten years ago, one could stand on Cocoa Beach and see launchpads lining the coast just a few miles north. Today, the last of these gantries still standing is Pad 17, which is still available for use to commercial industry (for now). Those of us who were here before the Great Recession look on and remember how it was. More important than us, however, are the people who were not here, especially those who were born afterwards.
We cannot save every site, just like saving every building, place, item, or document is unfeasible. The historic contribution of some sites is not enough to justify their restoration and upkeep. Some sites must be either scrapped or modernized for logistical purposes, like the Vehicle Assembly Building and LC-39. However, it is a crime to our heritage to let those historic sites which cannot be re-used decay to the level they have. Some examples of these are LCs 5 (Mercury-Redstone), 14 (Mercury-Atlas), 19 (Gemini), 26 (Explorer I), and 34 (Apollo-Saturn IB), including buildings integrally related like blockhouses, operations buildings, or launch gantries.
LC-5, site of the first launches of a hominid and US citizen (Ham and Alan Shepard, respectively), is nothing more than a crumbling concrete floor, a mockup of a Redstone Rocket, and the blockhouse. The rocket display is held in place by four cables. If a former Cape worker hadn’t been on our tour, I would have never understood the scope of what has been lost. He explained a press site he helped construct (now a field of overgrown grass), support facilities, gantries, and other equipment that is now gone. Looking at photographs of the launchpad in its heyday, then looking at its appearance today made my head shake in frustration.
Pads 14 and 19 have become overgrown and unstable enough to cease visitation in general. Our tour guide explained that many of these structures are hard-hat zones because years of corrosion have made them brittle and unstable.
Such is becoming of LC-34, site of the launches of an unmanned CSM, Apollo 7, and the tragic Apollo 1 fire. All that's left is a small concrete sub-structure and floor. On the side, the words “Abandon in Place” are stencilled onto the ruins.
So far, this has been a royal gripe on my part. It must be made clear that no person, organization, or government is substantially at fault for the state of these ruins. NASA and the US Air Force did what they had to do for the best utilization of their resources. The Government, in theory, allocated funding according to their best knowledge and wishes of their constituents. No single person had it out against this place. Rather, the whole country, all of us, share tidbits of responsibility.
According to the National Academies Press, from the height of the Apollo program to the late-2000s, most Americans thought NASA received too much funding, despite a majority being moderately to very interested in the Space program. Even in 1967, no more than one-third of the American public believed Apollo was worth the money, or that it was important to land a person on the Moon before the Soviets. But surely, despite lack of financial or nationalistic support for these events, they were important? The results are surprising to me. In the same study, Americans who believe Apollo was “worth it” have been growing since the 1970s, reaching approximately 70% in 2010. Yet, in that same timeframe, the historic sites related to Apollo have only ever decayed.
At this point, it’s too late. Too many of the original structures and supplies that directly participated in humanity’s first visit to another world are beyond repair, and the equipment that built them was demolished long ago. The best that can be done at this point is mockups. We should at least design a VR reconstruction before we lose dimensions and participant accounts as well.
So what can we do for sites that have not yet decayed, and sites that will someday be historic? The public must be better educated on the philosophical, historical, and cultural importance of Space Exploration, both manned and unmanned. People understand the scientific factor. They know we have GPS and Velcro because of NASA. What they don’t understand is what it means in the scale of civilization; and even bigger, our evolution.
Space explorers are like the lone soul that escaped Plato’s cave, who learned his world was only a shadow. We have a new and revolutionary view of our world, and we must make the others understand.
That’s the mission statement of my career.
Images: Courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise.
Cover Image - Courtesy of Emily Carney
Link to The Final Mission:
National Research Council. Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration, 2014, 83-108. Accessed November 18, 2017. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/18801/pathways-to-exploration-rationales-and-approaches-for-a-us-program.
Westwood, Lisa. The Final Mission: Preserving NASA's Apollo Sites. S.l.: University of Florida Press, 2017.