Space race relics in the florida swamps
As something of an artist in my early years, I delighted in taking crayon to butcher's paper like a madman with my tongue hanging out the side of my mouth. The subject, crudely drawn rockets and spacecrafts. In first grade I made a rocket place my proud mother still displays on the kitchen wall. One year the next door neighbour took a US vacation and returned bearing gifts - a navy blue baseball cap emblazoned with NASA in bold red stitching. I wore that cap to the brink of disintegration.
qx and I sat upon a rusty gate staring vacantly down a rough asphalt road that veered not an inch far as the eye could see. It split the swamps neatly in two under a cloudy winter sky. Into the distance rotting power poles line the road, like a dead army of withered old men waiting for a good break in traffic. A chill wind spurred us to action and we dropped from the gate and began the hike. Our skateboards were sacrificed early to the Swamp Gods, deemed horribly inefficient upon the bombed out asphalt.
Removed from civilization we marched clear minded and relaxed through the marsh. The tall plants rustled in the breeze and I forgot how tired I really was. On two hours sleep we'd boarded a 5am flight, missed our connection, been bumped to first class, arrived 4 hours late into Florida, lost our drivers license, sweet talked the car hire place, gotten lost, gotten found and finally arrived at the one road in the entire world we wanted to be. A mile into our journey we passed the main building cluster of the old primary research site. It was loosely guarded by rocks and rusty wire. In this marshy wilderness the dozen buildings stood decayed and silent but for the birds and wildlife who had come to reclaim their lands. We pressed on.
As the cluster shrunk behind a single outline on the horizon grew larger and larger. Over the next 3.5 miles the corrugations upon the roof became visible and slowly the harsh shape of a solitary shed grew bold. Long weeds overflowed from cracked concrete and sheet metal roofing littered the ground around the shed. The hollow interior was barren but for scrap metal and discarded relics of the US space program. A suspicious checkerplate circle 60ft in diameter filled the center of the floor. This is what we'd come for.
We dropped a chunk of old metal through a small hole in the checkerplate, 7 seconds later it clanged against metal and splashed into something liquid. The echo rose up and battered around the entire shed. With ropes rigged and backups in place I harnessed up, squeezed through a tiny hole in the floor and dropped into the dark chasm below.
Hanging off the rope above a 190ft deep, 60ft wide concrete abyss I rotated slowly feeling the incredible freedom of my limbs in the stale damp air. My first view was the two spiral staircases affixed to the outer walls, blocked forever by the checkerplate. The turquoise hand railings contrasted strongly against the silo's grey interior. Rows of massive concrete and steel anchors protruded from the walls at three metre intervals encircling the entire silo. I spun slowly towards the silo's centre and came face to face with the world largest solid rocket motor. All sense of proportion and perspective was lost from my vantage point but one thing was clear, it's fucking huge.
qx dropped through the hole and I laughed aloud as his eyes grew wide and jaw dropped. He was awestruck too and fumbling for adjectives we whooped and cheered instead. Opposite the stairs on the backside of the rocket we finally found our proof. Halfway up its length in faded red faded letters it said: NASA.
The rocket engines were dropped nose first into this firing pit with the tail of the rocket sitting at ground level. The nozzle was then attached for test firings. Three such engines were made and the rumours say this engine was never been fired. Below is a picture of a test firing from 1965.
Clambering through the hole was a little tricky, the key seemed to be hunch right over, get your hand ascender as high as possible then stand up through the hole. Ropes were checked for wear, derigged and stowed; lost lens caps were found and we scuttled out from the lone shed into the crisp night. Drained and weary the long featureless walk began on autopilot, a blurry collection of stills from an old film in a flip book. Just us and the cool night air. The entire site and its special secret are long neglected out in the swamp wastelands. I doubt many know or care what's hiding below that thick steel floor but I couldn't be happier - I'd finally seen my rocket.
With eyes closed we wandered back taking in the scent and sounds of the marshes, knowing we'd just seen something special the likes of which we may never see again. When I arrive home I'm going to dig out that old NASA cap and put it on the wall.