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Science: New Look at the Cape

8 minute read

All week Cape Kennedy lived with tension as its spacemen worked toward the countdown of Gemini-Titan 3, the long-awaited two-man orbital flight that would take U.S. astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom past a significant milestone in their reach for the moon. Then came the news from Russia—a neatly timed reminder of the Soviets’ continuing lead in the race to set man free from the confines of his own world.

Gloom descended over the Cape. The sound of disappointment ranged from profanity to polite and frustrated Pollyannity. But if all of Kennedy’s arcane hardware, and all its dedicated scientists, seemed suddenly to have been eclipsed, U.S. missilemen did not stoop to hide either their present discouragement or their future plans. At Russia’s spaceport near Baikonur, Kazakhstan, all operations are covered with cautious secrecy; even newsmen rarely get near the place. Space shots are never announced until they are aloft and functioning well. Failures are muffled behind a wall of security. The Cape, by contrast, is open, frank and plainly visible.

Overgrown Igloos. If there was any immediate benefit from the Russian stroll in space, it was the promise that in its urge to catch up, Congress would almost surely loosen the purse strings that have been tightening on the U.S. astronautical budget. And the availability of money has always been a measure of the Cape’s success. After a disheartening failure, the answer has usually been: Tear down the old gantry. Toss out the old design. Build a new rocket. Hang the expense. Get the job done.

The result is a landscape of the future, so endlessly and rapidly renewing itself that it is almost beyond the capacity of ordinary mortals to keep up. For an expenditure that has so far soared to $1.75 billion, the U.S. has covered the sandy bulge of the waist of Florida with an architectural fantasy that began with the now familiar pattern of old Cape Kennedy proper: the bending, baking shoreline, the line of steel launching towers covered with red, rustproofing paint, the overgrown concrete igloos, blastproof behind 2-ft.-thick steel doors.

And over Cape Kennedy’s northwest shoulder, a new landscape is taking shape. Its principal feature is the tall, white, broad-hipped barn for rocket assembly (see color pages); its major contribution is the application of U.S. assembly-line genius on a gargantuan scale.

Converted Germans. All the rapid changes that are commonplace on the Cape only reflect the rapid growth of U.S. missilery. In the beginning, out among the mosquitoes and the palmettos, there were only some captured German rockets and such converted German scientists as Wernher von Braun and Kurt Debus. Of those paleolithic days, few relics remain at the Cape except a blue-painted, Maltese-crossed V-l buzz bomb, and Debus, now NASA’s Kennedy Space Center director. In 1961, Mercury Astronauts Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra and Cooper began blasting off. After his 22 orbits, Cooper splashed down in the Pacific nearly two years ago, on May 16, 1963—and even the Mercury program is now ancient history. The only landmarks left for the busloads of tourists who roll through the spaceport is a memorial Mercury-type gantry and a stainless-steel monument shaped like the symbol for the planet Mercury ( §) with a “7” in the loop. It stands at the entrance to Pad 14 where Glenn & Co. embarked.

Pad 14 itself—like all active pads at the Cape—is simply too busy to look back. Even the establishment of a new, $170 million NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston will not diminish its activity. What is moving to Houston is administrative control and planning of manned space missions, the training of astronauts, and—beginning with the second Gemini shot scheduled for this fall—ground control of manned missions. But the place the missions will blast off from will still be the sandy flatland around Cape Kennedy. And until NASA’s Saturn rocket is operational, the Air Force will continue to provide adaptations of its defense-developed missiles to do the blasting.

Nowadays, on the average of once every three weeks a tractor drags a bright yellow trailer onto the base; on the trailer lies a metallically glistening Atlas-Agena rocket, or a massive, white-painted Air Force Titan III, or a long-necked Thor-Delta.

Spidery Wires. The trailer backs up to the base of a gantry; cables are attached, and up comes the payload, trailer and all. When the bird is snugged into its red iron nest, the trailer is peeled off and trundled away. White tarpaulins drop over the missile’s exposed side to keep off rain and the Cape’s corrosive salt mists. Inside, casually competent engineers and technicians in white hard hats begin to spin the spidery wires and connect the delicate electronic mechanisms that will control the bird. Capsule specialists poise their instrument-packed pod atop the rocket to check it out. If all goes well, fuel specialists attach the plumbing that will fill the projectile’s maw with explosive cargoes of liquid oxygen and kerosene, or intractable liquid hydrogen.

Advanced as the process sounds, it is already at the point of becoming routine and outdatedly slow—good enough for such bread-and-butter missions as re laying messages, photographing the moon, measuring micrometeoroid impact, sending space vehicles past Venus and Mars, monitoring radiation and watching the earth’s weather. For the first manned Gemini mission, scientists have bred a new generation of fuels designated “hypergolic”—powerful liquids that explode on contact with one another but require no delicate refrigeration for storage.

Varied Thrust. For later missions, the Air Force is rushing to completion its $127 million Titan III complex on a long, skinny sandbar dredged out of the blue-green Banana River. When it goes into production this spring, the first stop on the assembly line will be in what Air Force spacemen call the VIB (for Verdeal Integration Building). There, in four identical 180-ft. bays, technicians will be able to assemble a quartet of the Air Force’s versatile new Titan IIIC rockets. When one is finished and checked, a pair of railroad locomotives will pick it up between them and lug it to the next building down the line, the SMAB (Solid Motor Assembly Building). At this point, solid fuel motors of varying degrees of thrust will be strapped onto the sides of the liquid-fueled Titan.

Again the trains will pick up the rocket, this time to carry it to one of two widely separated launch pads for blastoff. Thus, on a two-pad complex, the Air Force will be capable of readying eight rockets at once. The first specific objective of such increased speed and efficiency is to put a three-man space laboratory into orbit around the earth.

Cheops-Sized. Beyond the Banana River, NASA is building new production-line facilities on 88,000 newly purchased acres on Merritt Island as part of its Apollo project to reach the moon. Their specifications are so superlative-studded as to strain belief. The 552-ft.

Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), for example, will have four rocket assembly bays behind the tallest doors in the world, and more interior volume than the Great Pyramid of Cheops, or the Pentagon and Merchandise Mart combined. It will be so big inside that its air must be kept in constant motion to keep clouds from forming and rain from falling. The mobile launch towers on which the rockets will be assembled are taller than a 30-story building; the crawler-transporters that will carry them have a flat back half the size of a football field, and a cab boasting the biggest windshield wipers in the world.

In action, the crawler will carry an empty tower into the VAB. Complete with the combination of capsules and vehicles needed to travel to the moon and back, the giant Saturn V will be put together—taller than the tallest building in Florida. When the rocket is ready, the transporter will lift it and its launch tower, and clank onto a special crawlway, as wide as the New Jersey Turnpike and almost 8 ft. thick (to support the 17.5-million-lb. combined weight of the transporter and its load).

At a lumbering 1 m.p.h., the clanking monster will haul the rocket over 3.5 miles of roadway, carry it up an inclined ramp, and deposit it over a flame bucket that looks like a battleship’s drydock. There the Saturn will be fueled, tested, and fired from a control room back at the assembly building. If all goes according to plan, the noise caused by 7,500,000 Ibs. of howling thrust will dissipate to safe levels over the empty spaces of Merritt Island. “It will be only 115 to 120 decibels,” says Debus. “Well within known medical tolerances.” The cost: $1 billion.

Fighting Chance. With a realism born of expertise, Debus predicts an imminent Russian attempt at in-flight rendezvous of two orbiting capsules. He concedes that the Russians might succeed in making a flight around the moon before the American space effort catches up. “But a lunar landing requires very different hardware,” he insists. “We have a fighting chance to make a landing on the moon before they do.”

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