The Making of "the Cape"

Cape Canaveral

Cape Canaveral. View south from the lighthouse, ca. 1950.

Cape Canaveral, better known as "the Cape," had been earmarked as a missile testing range in 1947. * An elbow of land jutting out into the Atlantic midway between Jacksonville and Miami, the Cape covers about 60 square kilometers. Early Spanish sailors, marking it down as the only major feature of the long Florida coast line, named it for its abundance of cane reeds. Its choice as a missile range was dictated by several factors: the planners could set up a line of tracking stations stretching southeasterly over the Atlantic to provide the longest range necessary for missile testing; the Banana River Naval Air Station could serve as a support base; and the launch area was accessible to water transportation. The Air Force took over the Banana River Naval Air Station on 1 September 1948, contemplating its use as a headquarters for a Joint Long Range Proving Ground. The Coast Guard opened its 2.5 square kilometers on Cape Canaveral to missile use in February 1950. The government obtained the remainder from private owners by negotiation or condemnation.

Map of Cape Canaveral

Cape Canaveral and vicinity, ca. 1958.

Cape Canaveral was a scenic but comparatively unsettled place - beautiful beaches, excellent fishing areas, a lighthouse, scattered private residences, an inn that became the Cape Canaveral Auxiliary Air Force Base Headquarters, a few unpaved roads or trails, a dock used by shrimpers, and welcome and unwelcome wildlife including deer, alligators, rattlesnakes, and many millions of the pests that gave their name to Mosquito Lagoon to the north. In a clearing, made by burning the underbrush and uprooting the palmettos with bulldozers, construction workers completed a concrete pad on 20 June 1950. They also cleared all land within 1.6 kilometers of the pad.

Few pictures reflect the state of American rocketry in 1950 so accurately as the first launch pad at Cape Canaveral. It was a 30-meter-wide layer of concrete, poured on top of sandy soil a little more than a kilometer north of the lighthouse. When a dozen jeeps and delivery trucks sank to their axles on the sandy paths that passed for roads, a layer of gravel was laid over the sand. Steel scaffolding, purchased from painters, surrounded the missile to form the first gantry, or service support tower. Plywood platforms stood at various levels of the scaffolding. If more than ten workers climbed the piping at the same time, the whole rickety framework seemed ready to fall down. The crew stacked sandbags around an old shack, a onetime dressing room for swimmers, and turned it into a launch control block house. It stood a scant 91 meters from the pad. A row of trailers contained additional facilities to coordinate countdown, information, and reports from tracking sites. Heat and humidity sapped men's energy. Mosquitoes saturated the air.

The primitive spaceport was inaugurated 19 July 1950 by Bumper 7, a modified V-2 first stage combined with a WAC Corporal second stage. While the launch crew - Army, General Electric, and California Institute of Technology people - and 100 newsmen waited on the beach, Bumper 7 sputtered and fizzled at countdown. An autopsy revealed that salt air had corroded some of its elements. Five days later, the launch crew tried again with Bumper 8, a sister missile. The missile rose steadily into the air while a thundering roar rolled across the Cape. At 15,500 meters, the WAC Corporal second stage ignited and accelerated to 4,350 kilometers per hour before dropping into the sea. Thereafter, the Cape was in almost continuous use as the armed services brought missiles to Florida for testing - the Lark, Matador, Snark, Bomarc.8

The Cape had its share of growing pains. The Korean War diverted funds. The multi-service operation posed problems. On 30 June 1951, the Defense Department changed the official title of the Air Force unit managing the Cape from Headquarters, Joint Long Range Proving Ground Division, to Headquarters, Air Force Missile Test Center, with the Air Force in sole charge. The Cape was designated the Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex. The Navy had Point Mugu, California, and the Army had White Sands, New Mexico. But soon after the Army's rocket team moved to Huntsville, a representative was knocking on the door at the Cape, asking for launch facilities.

In the meantime, negotiations with Great Britain resulted in the Bahamas Long Range Proving Ground Agreement on 21 July 1951. This pact and subsequent agreements gave the United States the use of a 1,600 kilometer range through the Bahamas with tracking stations at Point Jupiter, Florida; Grand Bahamas Bank; and Grand Turk Island. Subsequent negotiations extended the range to Ascension Island, more than 8,000 kilometers southeast of Cape Canaveral.9

While working out the downrange bases, the Air Force had to cope with a communications problem at home. The division of operations between the administrative headquarters at Patrick Air Force Base and the launch site at Cape Canaveral, 29 kilometers to the north, resulted in a costly duplication of effort. In the summer of 1953 Pan American World Airways, an old hand at operating bases around the world, convinced the Air Force that it could reduce the costs of running the range. Pan American was awarded a contract for day-to-day operations and was soon engaged in many activities from setting up cafeterias to providing security on the pads. The Radio Corporation of America received a subcontract for the technical aspects of range operations.

With the launch of Redstone #1 in August 1953, the Missile Firing Laboratory inaugurated the testing of ballistic missiles. In those days, launch procedures were unsophisticated. Albert Zeiler, one of the Peenemunde veterans, had to decide within a split second whether to shut off the engine immediately after ignition, basing his decision upon the color of the flames. An off-color indicated an improper mix of the propellants. A couple of minor delays had occurred earlier, but on the morning of 20 August 1953 the flame color met Zeiler's approval, and the Redstone rose. The powered flight lasted only 76 seconds and fell far short of the anticipated 257-kilometer range. Still the missile met most of the test objectives, its structure proved sound, and the propulsion system worked well.10

* The selection was made by a Joint Chiefs of Staff committee. When the armed services went into rocketry in 1945, the Army stationed its launch team of German V-2 experts at White Sands, New Mexico - near the scene of Robert Hutchings Goddard's pioneering work in the 1930s. The southwestern desert proved too small for rockets, On 29 May 1947, a modified V-2 went the wrong way and landed in a cemetery south of Juarez, Mexico - one of the factors that decided the Joint Chiefs to move rocket experiments to the east coast of Florida.

8. "Champagne Flight," Spaceport News 2 (18 July 1963): 3. For other details of this first attempt, see L. B. Taylor, Liftoff: The Story of Americas Spaceport (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1968), pp. 42-44.

9. House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Management and Operation of the Atlantic Missile Range, 86th Cong., 2nd sess., 5 July 1960, pp. 1-2.

10. Zeiler interview, 24 Aug. 1972.

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