The Rocket Ships
Tracking launches from Cape Canaveral required old boats and iron guts.
- By Dan Kovalchik
- Air & Space magazine, January 2002
(Page 4 of 4)
It was not a good omen for the missile-range instrumentation ships. Like so many segments of the space industry, their development peaked during the Apollo project, and their fall came soon after. Evolution demanded that the smaller, suddenly obsolete C1-M-AV1s retire, but surprisingly, just weeks after Apollo 11’s historic mission, NASA released the Redstone, the Mercury, and the Huntsville as well, keeping only the Vanguard for the remaining six flights.
By 1971, 11 ships had been decommissioned. The availability of improved ground station technology, satellite communications, and increasingly portable telemetry systems doomed the expensive ships. As their numbers dwindled, their crews scrambled for other assignments. Many, like Linthicum, hoped for another ship. “We were traveling and making money, obviously, but we were also making history,” he says.
While the range continued to diminish, the Navy needed specialized support for its Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident launches. It added one last ship, the Range Sentinel, to the range. Twenty-six years later, in 1997, the Range Sentinel relinquished its Port Canaveral berth. It had been the last missile range instrumentation ship on what is now called the Eastern Range. But the title came with an asterisk. Remarkably, the 53-year-old Range Sentinel’s replacement was the 54-year-old Vanguard, which had been serving several contractors since 1980, when it was stripped of its big antennas and its T-AGM classification. Its new class was the less impressive “Miscellaneous Auxiliary.”
The assignment was short-lived. In 1998, after only one year, the last Apollo ship was decommissioned. Today, only the Pacific’s Observation Island retains the T-AGM classification. Most of the rest have probably been cut up for scrap. There are a few exceptions. The Coastal Sentry, hero of Gemini, was destroyed by fire while waiting its turn under the cutter’s torch. A private firm bought the Mercury, recipient of the $30 million Apollo makeover, and converted it to a cargo ship. When last seen, the ship that sent the command for the Apollo 11 translunar injection burn was hauling Hawaiian sugar to San Francisco. Surely the most ignominious fate belongs to the Rose Knot. It last sailed to Point Mugu, California, where the Navy sank it during a training exercise.
Finally, in what may be the least offensive curtain call of all, a group called the Artificial Reefs of the Keys has mounted a “Sink the Vandenberg” drive to turn the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg into an artificial reef off Key West.
For the ship’s old hands, the losses are something to be mourned. There they were, isolated from the world on these 600-foot vibrating, rocking steel islands for weeks at a time. Yet they placed their crews directly in the path of mankind’s greatest technological achievement. For those 10 minutes every hour, they were the Apollo program.
With the high cost of ship maintenance, though, it doesn’t pay to be sentimental. That’s why tourists can walk through rocket gardens today and marvel at the evolution of the boosters that pushed humans to the moon. They can view thousands of items representing the Space Race era. But all that remains of the missile range instrumentation ships are the faded pictures on the beach bar walls.