By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla.
The impression that stands out when visiting the vintage launch pads at the cape is we’re viewing ancient history here.
Relatively speaking, it is. The 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon will be celebrated in July 2019.
An opportunity during a family day event to tour two of the most historic launch complexes – LC 14 where John Glenn took off and LC 34 where the Apollo 1 crew died – put the passage of a half century into perspective.
Time and the effects of the salty sea atmosphere have taken a toll on the concrete and steel that remains where some of the groundbreaking flights originated during America’s heady rush to land men on the moon.
Stroll the grounds around what is left of launch complex 34 and the feeling is much like viewing ruins in Rome or other outposts in antiquity.
Only the decaying launch pedestal remains. The giant flame deflectors, which look like skateboard ramps, have been dragged some distance away and are rusting in the weeds.
Apollo 1 astronauts memorialized
There is a palpable somberness at Pad 34, now a memorial to astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who perished when a flash fire trapped them in their Apollo1 capsule during a ground test in January 1967.
The tragedy is marked by an inconspicuous brass plaque affixed to one of the columns supporting the launch pedestal. A kiosk at the entrance has information and photos of Grissom, White and Chaffee.
This is one of the stops on the Early Space Tour offered by Kennedy Space Center (see below for details).
It is a reminder not only of the price that was paid for the landmark achievements in space exploration but that history abounds here on this spit of flat scrubland where Juan Ponce de Leon once landed and many of the landmark missions to space took flight.
The pioneering astronauts have joined Ponce de Leon in the ranks of explorers from another time. All of the Original Seven Mercury astronauts have passed on. Only four of the 12 men who walked on the moon remain as of this writing, and they are well into their 80s.
Lest it seem that the space program is all in the distant past, pad 37B looms tall beyond the flame deflectors of LC 34. It is where United Launch Alliance launches Delta IV rockets carrying satellites into orbit for the Air Force and other clients.
There is a space exploration renaissance sweeping the cape and adjacent Kennedy Space Center, led by private companies such as ULA, SpaceX and Blue Horizon.
SpaceX and ULA are preparing to begin ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station, possibly before the end of 2019. NASA is plotting a return to the moon and extending human missions to Mars, though timing and funding remain uncertain.
Renewed space interest
This new wave of space fever has fueled interest in the original space race that unfolded in the 1960s and continued into the ’70s with six moon landings.
That is reflected in increasing attendance at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex attendance, which totaled 1.66 million in 2016, a 48 percent jump from 1.12 million in 2012, the year after the space shuttle program ended.
Today’s Cape Canaveral is a curious juxtaposition of historical and cutting edge. Landing Zones 1 and 2, where SpaceX has been landing reusable first-stage boosters from Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches since 2015, is one complex away from launch complex 14, where John Glenn took off on February 20, 1962 and became the first American in earth orbit.
Because many of the historic launch sites are on property of the Air Force base, access to this wealth of history is limited. The family day event for workers at the cape and their guests afforded a rare self-guided tour of some of the vintage sites as well as SpaceX and ULA facilities.
Most enlightening was the stop at LC 14, where a weathered sign at the entrance marks it as “The launch site of the free world’s first ICBM and the free world’s first man in orbit.”
Where Mercury took flight
The parking spaces of Glenn and the three Mercury astronauts who followed him into orbit — Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra, and Gordon Cooper — still bear their names.
They are adjacent to the entrance of the domed bunker, which was renovated in 1998 and is a mini museum displaying photos, documents and memorabilia from Project Mercury. On this day the heavy vault-like door is open and it is like stepping into a time capsule.
The interior of the bunker is a throwback to a different time and stage of technology, particularly the periscopes that provide a view of the remains of the launch pad 750 feet to the east.
It was in a similar bunker at a different launch complex where scientists peered and pondered what to do with a fully fueled Mercury-Redstone rocket after the infamous “four-inch flight” in 1960.
Launch Complex 14 was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1984 and the preserved bunker is a treasure, though public access to it is minimal. It is mainly used as a conference room and for special events by the Air Force and NASA.
But there are opportunities for the public to get a look at American space history that has been preserved:
Early Space Tour
Arguably the best of the bus tours operated out of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, it provides an informative overview of some of the history dating to the late 1950s.
Stops include the Air Force Space & Missile Museum at launch complex 26, where the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, was launched as were three “monkeynauts”; and the blockhouse at LC 5/6 where Alan Shepard took off on the first American suborbital flight.
The tour also visits LC 34 and stops at the Mercury 7 Memorial near the entrance to LC 14.
The three-hour tour is offered Wednesday through Sunday. Tickets are $25 for adults, $19 for ages 3-11.
Cape Canaveral Lighthouse and Space Flight Tour
This is an independent, small-group tour that provides access to much of what we experienced during the family day event.
In addition to an opportunity to climb the preserved Cape Canaveral Lighthouse (established in 1848), the space exploration part of the tour visits pads 34 and 14. Access to the restored bunker at pad 14 is sometimes available.
The tour operator said to call in advance to request access to the interior of the bunker.
The 3 ½-hour tour, in a 10-passenger Mercedes coach, is offered on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and most Saturdays by Canaveral Lighthouse Tours in partnership with the Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation and the 45th Space Wing.
Cost is $45.95 for adults.
Phone 321-307-2900 or visit canaverallighthouse.tours