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Demolition Evokes Memories of Historic Launches
Launch Complex 36 heard its last thunder and saw its last flash June 16 when more than 100 pounds of explosives toppled a pair of mobile gantries that serviced 145 missions.

The pair of launch pads at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station complex in Florida hosted the first Surveyor mission to the moon in 1967, along with several planetary probes including the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft which left the solar system.

Strategically placed explosives topple the launch gantry at Launch Complex 36. Image right: A series of explosions knocks over one of the Mobile Service Structures at Launch Complex 36. Photo: KSC/NASA

That historic pedigree was not enough to save the service structures from the relentless corrosion wrought by the salty air of the Atlantic Ocean. Rather than risk the structures corroding so much they would become unsafe, the U.S. Air Force opted to take the towers down quickly.

"It was kind of a sad feeling," said James Womack, a former launch director who spent most of his career working at the launch complex. "I realize it had to be done because the launch towers were in kind of bad shape."

In demolitions within an hour of each other, the 209-foot-tall gantries that serviced rockets on pads A and B fell flat. Much of the 3,600 tons of steel that made up the towers will be recycled.

An Atlas-Centaur rocket is readied for launch. Image left: An Atlas-Centaur rocket is prepared for launch at Launch Complex 36. The Atlas-Centaur was the most powerful satellite launcher when it was introduced in 1962, and it was used to catapult early spacecraft to distant planets including Jupiter. Photo: KSC/NASA

The last launch from the facility occurred Feb. 3, 2005, when an Atlas III carried a National Reconnaissance Office satellite into orbit from pad B.

The complex, with two launch pads and a concrete bunker that housed control rooms, was built in 1961 for the Atlas-Centaur rocket. It was a booster that topped an Atlas like the one that carried John Glenn into orbit with a hydrogen-powered upper stage called Centaur.

The combination gave NASA a vastly more powerful machine than any of the other rockets of the time.

"The Centaur stage itself had quite a bit more energy and we could go a lot further, especially in the planetary (explorations)," Womack said.

Along with the increased strength of the Centaur came the unknown of working with the flammable hydrogen gas, however. Engineers were told that a hydrogen fire would be invisible on the launch pad, and that workers could walk right into it and not know it.

"We walked around with a broom in front of us, because that would catch fire first," Womack said. "In this day and time, that would be ridiculous."

The first Atlas-Centaur launched May 8, 1962. Within 10 years, the rocket would shoot probes to the moon, Mars, Mercury and Jupiter from complex 36. Probes to Venus would follow.

An Atlas-Centaur rocket is hoisted into launch position inside a mobile service structure tower at Launch Complex 36. Image right: The first stage of an Atlas-Centaur rocket is moved into place by a Mobile Service Structure at Launch Complex 36. Photo: KSC/NASA

The Atlas II and III offered improvements, and modifications to the Centaur gave more power to the combination as satellites became more robust. The later Atlases lofted communications satellites for entities ranging from the Defense Department and National Reconnaissance Office to DirecTV and IntelSat.

The Centaur upper stage is still used today and rides the latest incarnation of the Atlas, the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V.

Together, launch pads A and B at Launch Complex 36 marked the starting point for 145 space missions. Atlas-Centaur rockets lofted national security satellites, weather observation platforms and communications spacecraft during the 44 years the pads were operational. But it was the robotic missions to the moon and deep into the solar system that etched the facility into the almanac of exploration.

Surveyor probes gave NASA close-up pictures of the lunar surface long before Apollo astronauts left their footsteps in the moon's soil. The Mariner spacecraft carried instruments to Mars for the first in-depth studies of our closest planetary neighbor.

Pioneers 10 and 11 headed for Jupiter on the top of Atlas-Centaur rockets launched from Complex 36. Pioneer 10 became the first man-made object to leave the solar system.

Another Pioneer spacecraft was launched toward Venus, providing the first look at the surface that until then was hidden under dense clouds.

"Launch Complex 36 was really the catapult for our planetary programs," NASA spokesman George Diller said.

Steven Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center