Our tour guide for Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was John Hilliard, an Air Force retiree who had once launched rockets from that very site. He led us around out-of-commission missile launch pads and launch control bunkers that have dotted the 17,000-acre peninsula since the NASA space program arrived there in the 1950s. The bunkers were once built very close to the launch pads in order to maintain good signal strength over DC wires linking the control room to the rocket but advances in technology now allow them to fire from a long distance. For this reason, the bunkers were fortified and generally dome-shaped in order to minimize damage if a missile exploded on the nearby pad.
First on the tour was the launch control bunker that had catapulted American “monkeynauts” into space as human substitutes. Stepping inside the fortified bunker, we could easily imagine its operation during its mid-century heydays. Sunlight was tinted green upon passing through blast windows 15 panes thick and dimly illuminated the tastefully mint green walls. Adding to that eerie effect, control panels with giant vacuum tubes and a wall-sized computer with 5,000 bytes of memory nearly convinced us that we had finally achieved time travel. Amazingly, 13-14 people used to cram into these small rooms on launch days.
Next up was a museum dedicated to the rockets once launched from Cape Canaveral, including Delta-IVs. Some of the rockets stood behind the building in the “Rocket Garden”. There we found a Pershing missile stand, a Lacrosse missile, and a railroad engine that had transported equipment from one end of the peninsula to the other. An intriguing red building turned out to be the clean room for Gemini II and was designed to decontaminate an astronaut before entering the ship. Around the corner was a Mercury-Redstone rocket sitting on the pad where Alan Shepard was first launched into space.
Continuing on our tour, we passed at the Mercury 7 time capsule which is to be opened in 2464 and contains photographs and movies about the Mercury project and its astronauts. We drove past some snazzy fire tanks (that’s right, tanks not trucks). On a more solemn note, we visited the Apollo 1 launch platform where astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffey died in a cockpit fire during a launch simulation. The Cape has an annual memorial service in their honor and permanent memorials are located around the launch site. Our last major stop was a hanger for restored rockets. Many of the rockets had been stored outside near the old launch pads and had gone through extensive refurbishing, painting and polishing to restore their original luster. Just outside the base’s security gates we stopped at another small museum of NASA and rocket history.
Despite the Florida heat, the tour was a success. We were able to explore firsthand missiles and their launch pads, and in the process we learned a great deal about NASA’s history in both manned and unmanned (and monkeyed) rockets.