Historic Cape Canaveral launch pad toppled
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: August 6, 2005
A Cape Canaveral launch pad tower with a long history was wiped from the spaceport's skyline Saturday, knocked to the ground by 171 pounds of explosives as part of a $5 million environmental cleanup project.
"This represents another one of those great old soldiers that have stood tall in the development of our space program that we have to say goodbye to," said Col. Mark Owen, commander of the 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral.
Complex 13 hosted its first of 30 Atlas ballistic missile test launches on August 2, 1958. The site was one of four Atlas missile pads built side by side at the Cape.
New structures, including the tower demolished Saturday, were built when the pad was modified for Atlas rockets fitted with Agena upper stages. Those vehicles started launching satellites in October 1963. Pairs of nuclear-detection spacecraft, called VELA, were flown on the first missions from the overhauled pad, followed by NASA's Mariner 3 probe bound for Mars.
"We had seven successful Atlas-Agena launches from Complex 13 and five of them were Lunar Orbiters," NASA spokesman George Diller said. "They are sort of the unsung heroes of the Apollo program because they orbited the moon, and during those five missions took thousands of pictures that helped NASA identify the six Apollo landing sites.
"Surveyor gets a lot of credit because they landed on the moon, but it was actually the Lunar Orbiters that launched from Complex 13 that took those pictures that really helped us identify what were the safe sites for the astronauts to land as well as what was geologically interesting."
The Air Force regained the pad in 1968, using it to launch a series of military payloads on Atlas-Agena rockets.
"The need to take it down stems from safety. It's corroded to a point that it's no longer able to sustain itself as a structure. As any responsible caretaker of a facility, you want to take down hazards. Also, we're going to make sure we return the site to a good environmental condition," Owen said.
PCB and lead-laden paint chipping off the tower added to the need for action now.
"We're going to make sure those are properly treated," Owen said.
Workers will chop the tower into pieces and bury them in a special underground cell at the Cape's landfill. Soil and groundwater remediation at the launch complex will continue through next spring.
The instability of the tower prevented the structure from being dismantled while still standing, leading officials to the explosive option.
"Getting a workforce up there wouldn't be a wise thing to do," Owen said.
"We were asked to come in and put this structure on the ground," said Mark Loizeaux, president of Controlled Demolition Inc. of Baltimore. "We spent about three days preparing the structure for placing of the explosive charges. The explosives were linear shaped charges, which are explosives in a copper sheath. Those explosives detonate at 28,000 feet per second and exert three million pounds of pressure per square inch on the steel, literally pushing it aside a lot like knife through butter."
Controlled Demolition has brought down the Kingdome in Seattle, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and countless buildings. But toppling a launch pad was a unique job.
"This is a special place," Loizeaux said.
From atop the Complex 14 blockhouse roof, a countdown blared for the spectators as the demolition crew targeted an 11:45 a.m. detonation. When clocks reached zero, there were no explosions.
The explosives team reset its equipment and started a new countdown 90 seconds later. But it was a deja vu moment when nothing happened. A hold was called and crews scrambled to unravel the glitch.
The fault was traced to a piece of loose black tape that allowed a short between the lead wire and a piece of metal.
"We fixed that, started the countdown again and it went off exactly as planned," Loizeaux said.
Two sets of charges, fired milliseconds part, roared across the Cape at 12:09 p.m. with an intense punch.
"As much the same as a tree surgeon would notch the base of a tree, we notched the base of the tower with explosives and created an unbalanced load and causing it to fall to one side," Loizeaux said.
Seven seconds later, the 2.6-million pound tower was a smoking pile of rubble, shattered into two large sections.
"It came down faster than it went up!" said Richard Ruffe, a retired Atlas systems engineer who helped build the pad and came out to watch the tower's demise.
"It tugged at my heartstrings a little bit," Diller said. "There was a little emotion when I heard those charges go off and the structure started to fall."
"Typically, we like to cut ribbons on things," Owen joked. However, the condition of Complex 13 had become worrisome, making the tower's end a welcomed sight for officials.
"It is a little bit of a relief because this is part of the infrastructure we kind of have to keep an eye on. So we do spend some resources to monitor."
Nonetheless, Saturday was a bittersweet day.
"This is where we developed the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile. This is where we sent the launches that NASA used to map the moon. It is key to our history. So it is kind of like seeing an old solider go. It is sad," Owen said.