"Abandon in Place" at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 34.

“ABANDON IN PLACE”


For those who have read my blogs in the past, will not be surprised to find out that I am a fully paid-up member of the ‘space cadets club’. Being a child of the 60’s and 70’s, my formative years were heavily influenced by the dawn of the Space Age and mankind’s first attempts to fly higher and faster and eventually break free of our Earth’s atmosphere and enter the realm of space itself.

It is probably hard now to explain to those generations that have followed the ‘Baby Boomers’ who were born into the post World War II era, just how incredible it was living through this era of ever faster jet aircraft – both civilian and military; the dawning of the age of computers, which were gradually being shrunken in size from that of a house and by 1964, become small and compact enough to fit inside of a two-man Gemini manned spacecraft.

The foundations of todays information technology were also being laid down along with all the computers and the programming languages that would be required to input and retrieve the data for us to communicate with them. This was an age of ever faster scientific breakthroughs – not only in engineering and electronics – but also in medicine and so many other areas of our daily lives.

By the early 1960’s we had become used to seeing ever more advanced jet aircraft in our skies and were rapidly replacing the old piston engined aircraft which had dominated the immediate post war period. Newer, sleeker and ever more sophisticated jet aircraft were now becoming more commonplace.

Televisions were rapidly taking their place along with the radios that had initially been the sole source of all our home entertainment during and after the war years. By the late 1950’s, we had seen and heard the sound of the first satellite placed into Earth orbit by the Soviet Union – Sputnik. This had been swiftly followed by the United States when they launched Explorer I.

Alan Shephard in Mercury spacesuit
Alan Shephard is seen here during his Mercury career, wearing the iconic silver space suits. Image courtesy of NASA

Then in 1961, we saw the culmination of these exotic, modern-day technological and scientific marvels coalesce into the marvel of both of the super powers placing their ‘Cold War’ warriors into space; in the shape of cosmonauts from the Soviet Union and astronauts from the United States.

I cannot stress enough, just how amazing all this was to myself and my parents . We were witnessing science fiction becoming science fact, right in front of our very eyes. In the United Kingdom of the early 1960’s, we were still recovering from the ravages of World War II. Rationing was still a fresh memory. Steam trains were still a common sight on our Railways and we were just arriving at the threshold of the age of consumerism. Fridges and washing machines were not yet commonplace in the average kitchen of the early 1960’s.

Yet here – being played out in front of our very eyes – was the best of what science and technology could produce

. . . from the two world superpowers, in the shape of cosmonauts and astronauts and there amazing manned spacecraft. What we were seeing would shape and define the rest of this decade, culminating in 1969 with Neil Armstrong’s ‘One Small Step . . . . ‘ Star Trek would follow soon after these first space missions and from that television series, would come the movie franchise of both it and of course ‘Star Wars’.

To us youngsters, growing up whilst this was all playing out on our ‘black and white’ TV screens, the cosmonauts and astronauts would become household names and every bit as famous and glamorous as movie stars, pop stars and TV stars.

Mercury/Redstone 3 Recovery.
Alan Shephard is seen post Mercury/Redstone 3 flight, thus becoming the first American in space, after its recovery. Image courtesy of NASA.

We watched them bravely getting suited up and then be driven to the launch sites. There they would step out of the buses at the base of those huge space rockets and then ride elevators within the gantries that surrounded their space vehicle and then access them via swing-arm walkways. Then these heroes of ours would walk across in their space suits and access their awaiting space craft and be strapped to their couches and plugged into the crafts life-support and electrical systems by the technicians who awaited them. We then heard their calm voices talking ‘techno-speak’ to their ground controllers – supremely calm and confident, as everyone else departed to the safety of concrete encased blockhouses, as they sat alone on top of rockets that in previous incarnations, carried nuclear warheads instead of manned space capsules.

These men were our heroes . . . . We imitated their techno speak inside of our dads cars. “‘A-OK’ mission control”; ’10-9’8’7 . . .

as we all ‘blasted’ off together on our bikes . . . We watched our heroes do the same – but this time for real – in their space craft and disappear into ever blue, sunny skies. Later we listened and later watched through live TV broadcasts in awe, as they orbited our planet above our heads.

Apollo 13 splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Apollo 13 splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Image Courtesy of NASA.

And then they would return safely after being plucked from their heat and fire damaged spacecraft either from the remote steppes in the Soviet Union or the Pacific Ocean, if they were astronauts. Afterwards they would then be feted and welcomed back as heroes. Greeted by Presidents and movie stars and ride in open-topped limousines in cities such as New York, surrounded by marching bands and the air filled with ticker-tape and the cheers of thousands of onlookers welcoming them back home.

In our minds, they were as invincible as any super heroes that we read about in our weekly comics.

Apollo 14 crew after themselves and 'Kitty Hawk' are successfully transferred to the recovery air craft carrier USS New Orleans.
Apollo 14 crew after themselves and ‘Kitty Hawk’ are successfully transferred to the recovery air craft carrier USS New Orleans, in the Pacific Ocean. From left to right: Commander Alan B. Shepard, Command Module Pilot, Stuart Roosa and Lunar Module Pilot, Edgar Mitchel. Image courtesy of NASA.

Imagine then the shock when the news came through on that bleak day in January 1967, when the impossible happened. Three American astronauts had lost their lives in a fire. They had been strapped inside of their Apollo 1 space capsule as they were going through a ‘routine’ plugs out countdown demonstration test. They had not even launched into space. How could this be . . . They were superheroes weren’t they?

Their capsule had become filled with fire as a spark arced across two bare wires, igniting the 100% oxygen atmosphere of their Apollo 1 Command Module. They had gone from being superheroes to three dead astronauts, in the blink of an eye. Surely this cannot be true. We had not been mistaken, they were dead. Sure, astronauts had died before them, but never strapped inside of their spacecraft out their on the launch pad taking part in a routine test.

Here you can see the extent of damage to the Apollo 1 Command Module from this photograph taken after the fire.
Here you can see the extent of damage to the Apollo 1 Command Module from this photograph taken after the fire. Here we are viewing the Command Module at the ‘White Room’ level at the top of the service structure that surrounds the spacecraft, allowing access to and from it for both astronauts and technicians. The Apollo 1 spacecraft is covered by a booster protection shield and the lattice like escape tower, which should a problem occur to the spacecraft during initial launch and prior to achieving orbit, would pull the Command Module away from the main body of the Apollo Spacecraft stack. The Command Module itself is underneath the shield. You can make out the severity of the fire in that when the cabin did finally ignite, the pressure of the resulting fire burst through not only the Command Modules own pressure bell but also through the visible booster protection shield, seen here. Image Courtesy of NASA.

A bit of the dream died that January day. Death in all its grim reality had intruded into our boyhood dreams and never again would we view the exploits of these cosmonauts and astronauts as being easy or risk free. Nor would they always prevail as the superheroes in our comics did.

All this played out in front of the worlds eyes at Launch Complex 34. Back then in 1967 with Apollo 1 and later in October 1968 with Apollo 7, this place was the focal point of the world’s attention. A world was in thrall of all what was playing out in front of their eyes, as we watched the United States unstoppable juggernaut surge forward in its quest to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to his nation to ‘put a man on the moon and return him safely before this decade is out’.

Launch Complex 34 launch pedestal
Launch Complex 34 launch pedestal, looking up beneath it. The launch vehicle itself would be situated on top with the rocket engines pointing downwards. From where this photograph is taken, the flame deflectors would be situated ready to deflect the hot exhaust gases outward towards the sides of the pedestal, thus minimizing damage to the launch vehicle and the rest of the launch site superstructures. Image Courtesy of NASA

Now today this place is empty and eerily silent . . . The only people to visit it now are those that step off the tour bus as part of the historical launch site tours that daily process around the John F. Kennedy Space Center. The launch pedestal stands there out in the middle of Launch Complex 34, alone with the stark message stenciled upon its side stating “ABANDON IN PLACE”. The launch blockhouse is still there as are the two huge flame deflectors – silent sentinels to a by gone age.

The launch of Apollo 7 from Launch Complex 34.
The Apollo 7 Saturn IB space vehicle is launched from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 34 at 11:03 a.m. October 11, 1968. A tracking antenna is on the left and a pad service structure on the right. Image and Caption, Courtesy of NASA.

The technological juggernaut arrived there in the mid ’60’s and reached its zenith at the time of the Apollo 1 fire and again later in October 1968, when Apollo 7 successfully launched from that same pedestal that now stands empty. That was the last space mission to launch from the now silent Launch Complex 34. All remaining manned space missions would launch from the newly completed, state of the art Launch Complex 39. After Apollo 7, the site became “ABANDONED IN PLACE”.

The now abandoned launch pedestal at LC-34.
The now abandoned launch pedestal upon which the crew of Apollo 1 lost their lives in the fire that erupted within their Apollo Command Module on the 27th January 1967. This site in now a National Monument in memory of the crewe of Apollo 1. In the background towards the left hand side of this image, you can make-out the inverted ‘V, shape of the ignition flame deflector. LC-34 was only subsequently used once more for a manned flight – Apollo 7 – which was launched over a year later in October 1967. The Apollo 7 mission was indeed the next manned space flight of the Apollo programme after the Apollo 1 fire and carried out the mission which Apollo 1 would have flown, should not the fire had happened and with the resultant loss of life. It took just under two years for a complete re-design of the Apollo Command module, which included a entrance/egress hatch that could easily be released from the inside by one man and the removal of nearly all flammable materials. Image Courtesy of NASA.

Of course, many people still visit this monument to technology and exploration. It is a strange, quiet place now. At its height it was a placed filled with the most advanced technologies of its time and when the spacecraft sat atop the now abandoned launch pedestal, floodlit during the night so that technicians could work around the clock to make sure that all was ready for the ensuing launch.

Launch Complex 34 flame deflectors
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 34 flame deflectors (Saturn I, left and Saturn IB, right). The flame deflectors were positioned directly under the Saturn rocket engines within the launch pedestal. When the engines ignited, the flames would hit the flame deflectors which then directed the hot exhaust gases outwards and to the sides of the launch pedestal. This stopped the exhaust hitting the concrete base directly under the launch pedestal, which it would have damaged due to the severe temperatures of the flames, steam and gases and also prevented them from bouncing back up and damaging the first stage of the vehicle during its assent from the launch pad. Pad 37 is in the background. Image and Caption Courtesy of NASA

Now it is a quiet place – where those children of the ’60’s can come to see in person where these miracles happened and of course, pay our respects to those who made our dreams come true – our childhood heroes back in those early days of manned spaceflight and still are today.

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