The Rocket Ships
Tracking launches from Cape Canaveral required old boats and iron guts.
- By Dan Kovalchik
- Air & Space magazine, January 2002
(Page 2 of 4)
After a few weeks at sea, Birmingham got the feeling that the language in the ship’s articles wasn’t the only thing that had remained unchanged for a hundred years. “The ocean really pushed our little ship around. We were all young and thought we were tough, but I think even the toughest of us took a turn at the rail,” he says. “And the noise! Our quarters were right above the engine. To top it off, we spent 21 days at sea just to record 15 minutes’ worth of Snark telemetry. That gave us plenty of time to play cards. Oh, we played a lot of cards.”
Turnover was high. After three months, Birmingham decided the incentives weren’t enough to warrant another trip on a Freighter, Small. He transferred to range operations in Florida, where he remained a career landlubber.
The next batch of range ships appeared just two months after the birth of the FS ships. This curious timing was the result of intelligence indicating that the Soviet Union was dominating ballistic missile research. Suddenly, there was a huge boom in the Cape Canaveral rocket biz, and the Jupiter, Thor, Atlas, and Titan rocket programs brought six more ships to the fleet. These were World War II cargo vessels of the C1-M-AV1 class that became the Sword Knot, Rose Knot, Timber Hitch, Sampan Hitch, Coastal Crusader, and Coastal Sentry. The C1-M-AV1s were similar to the FS ships, but at roughly twice the length and 10 times the tonnage, they afforded a much smoother ride.
The smoothness of the ride meant little to technician Jim Hagan, whose first ocean voyage was a trial to test the Rose Knot’s new antennas. “I’d never experienced motion sickness before,” says Hagan, “but we cast off during rough weather, and soon after, I got that queasy feeling. It didn’t go away until I stepped ashore two weeks later.”
The lure of the sea must have been strong indeed for Hagan to return to the ship, but return he did. To his relief, mal de mer was a no-show. Hagan’s seaworthiness proved especially valuable a year later. “We found ourselves in the midst of a hurricane,” he says. “I’d never seen seas like that. Each time we fell into a trough, I couldn’t see over the next wave, even though I was high above the main deck. Tons of water came over the bow.” The crew’s quarters were a mess, with drawers flying open and emptying more and more of their contents with each roll. Mealtime was a challenge too. “We wet down the tablecloths to keep the dishes from sliding, but we were constantly grabbing for our plates, glasses, and silverware,” Hagan says. “This went on for over 36 hours.”
Hagan points out that often, the sea was not the crew’s worst enemy. “The food varied from acceptable to awful and got worse the longer we were at sea,” he says. “On one trip, the maple syrup began to ferment, giving it a somewhat sour taste. Then the roaches got into it. I was very put off the first time I poured some onto my pancakes, but after a while, I just pushed the roaches aside. Another time, I couldn’t chew something in my Hungarian goulash. It was a small Band-Aid.”
By 1959, the Cape’s missile programs had been pushing the technology envelope for nine years, and digital telemetry systems began to outstrip their analog counterparts. Furthermore, the availability of ocean-bottom contour maps, in concert with the new LORAN system and a top-secret Ships Inertial Navigation System, solved the navigation problem that had limited the tracking radar dishes to land stations. (Ships were already carrying radar for collision prevention and coastal navigation. The improved navigation systems gave the tracking radars the data they needed to pinpoint their targets.)
Suddenly, project leaders found new uses for range instrumentation ships and began clamoring for ships of their own. This led, in rapid succession, to the conversion of another series of World War II vessels: a Liberty ship into the American Mariner; a Victory ship into the Twin Falls Victory, and two troop transports into the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg and the General H.H. Arnold.
And then yet another customer appeared. The year was 1960, and NASA, because of Project Mercury, was building a tracking station network of its own. The Air Force contributed the C1-M-AV1s Rose Knot and Coastal Sentry, and NASA filled the ships with new instrumentation, including a “command” system, which enabled the ship to transmit commands to the spacecraft, and an “acquisition aid” system, which homed in on the spacecraft’s beacon and guided the command and telemetry antennas.