The Starting Point: The Gateway To Space
Spacecraft may allow astronauts to live in space and rockets may take them off the Earth, but launch pads are truly the gateway into space. Every mission starts at a launch pad. It’s here that a rocket goes through all its pre-launch checks and the last hurdles before it can launch. And it’s here, sometimes, where disaster strikes. Particularly during the early space age, rockets had a nasty tendency to explode on, or just after leaving, the launch pad.
Museum Exhibit: Launch Relics
The launch pads that saw some of the most historic missions leave Earth have since fallen into disrepair. Launch complex 14 hasn’t been used since 1966, though there is currently a move to restore the site. Launch complex 5 was last used to launch Gus Grissom on his Mercury flight in 1961. The blockhouse with launch control systems remains on display, and a Redstone was at one point erected on the old pad. Launch complex 19 was never used after the Gemini program ended. Launch complex 26 was deactivated in 1963. Launch Complex 34 is now an uninteresting-looking concrete structure with plaques commemorating the men that lost their lives there.
Launch Complex 14
NASA was already making strides in the first wave of the space race when it made history at Launch Complex 14. It was here that the space agency launched John Glenn on America’s first orbital flight on January 20, 1962. It was a historic mission, but wasn’t without its problems. While he was in orbit, mission control got a warning that Glenn’s landing bag was deployed. Sandwiched between the capsule and its heat shield, a deployed landing bag could leave Glenn unprotected during re-entry. The warning turned out to be faulty and Glenn returned from space in fine health.
Fun Fact 1: Launch Complex 5
Launch complex 5 saw the first launches of the Mercury program, including that of the Chimpanzee Ham on January 31, 1961. Ham, whose name was an acronym for Holloman AeroMed, cleared the way for astronauts to launch on the Redstone rocket, though one unmanned flight separated his and Alan Shepard’s on May 5.
Launch Complex 19
Launch Complex 19 was in use from 1959 to 1966 and facilitated 27 Titan launches, 10 of which were the manned Gemini missions. It was here that NASA experienced one of the most nerve-wracking launch situations. On December 12, 1965, Gemini 6 astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford felt their Titan II shudder beneath them at the moment of ignition, then it suddenly stopped. It was a launch abort, but neither man knew what had happened. It fell to Schirra as Commander to decide whether he and Stafford would use their ejection seats to distance themselves from a potentially explosive rocket, though there was a chance the ejection might do them significant bodily harm. Schirra elected to stay in the spacecraft, and it was the right call. The problem lay with a plug that had fallen out of the bottom of the rocket and triggered the computer to start prematurely, which in turn triggered the abort program. The rocket was reset and launched without any problems three days later.
Launch Complex 34
Launch Complex 34 holds the unfortunate distinction of being the site of NASA’s first disaster. It was here on the night of January 27, 1967, that the Apollo 1 crew was killed. At the time, they were running through the so-called “plugs out” test, a pre-launch test of the spacecraft’s systems running on its own batteries. It was a routine test, one the agency had been doing since the Mercury program with the crew cabin pressurized to mimic condition of spaceflight. The equivalent to five pounds per square inch of pure oxygen in orbit was 16.7 psi at sea level. No one thought the test was hazardous, until a frayed wire sparked and the cabin of the Apollo 1 spacecraft ignited. Everything, including the crew, had been soaking in pure oxygen for hours by that time. The three men, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died from smoke inhalation within minutes. After the fire, NASA made significant improvements to the spacecraft, and the “plugs out” test was reclassified as hazardous. There was never another fire during a pre-launch test.
Fun Fact 2: Launch Complex 26
The space age began for the United States at Launch Complex 26. It was here that one of the Army’s Jupiter C rockets launched the nation’s first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit on January 31, 1958. Weighing just 30 pounds, it paled compared to Sputnik’s 184, but it was a satellite nonetheless.