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The Rocket Ships

Tracking launches from Cape Canaveral required old boats and iron guts.

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Visitors to Florida's space coast who want to immerse themselves in the area’s remarkable history needn’t book tours of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. They can just follow the trail of restaurants, shops, and nightclubs in nearby Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, where 50 years’ worth of space memorabilia is hanging on the walls.

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True, this tour might suggest that the story of spaceflight is little more than jaunty astronaut smiles and triumphant trails of rocket fire. Persistent visitors, however, will make it to the beach bars, where a generation of locals have hung reminders of the ghost fleet of the Eastern Test Range.

These mementos—life rings, framed pictures of ships, plaques with the boats’ insignias—represent the years of the “missile range instrumentation” ships, vessels that cruised to strategic locations around the world to track missiles and spacecraft and record crucial events. Their mission was so vital to the development of space technology that the government spent hundreds of millions of dollars on them. The Navy even put them in a class by themselves, referring to them as T-AGM ships. Twenty-three vessels eventually shared this somewhat cryptic classification, and those who sailed on them remember them as front-row seats to history.

The ships trace their roots to 1950, back when the fledgling Eastern Test Range, which in nine years would include 11 tracking stations from Grand Bahama to Ascension Island, initially consisted of one brand-new launch pad at Cape Canaveral, a dozen makeshift telemetry antenna sites, and lots of open water. That year, the U.S. Army launched two “Bumpers”—V-2 rockets modified to carry a solid-rocket upper stage (see “The Year the Rockets Came,” Apr./May 1999). To augment the Cape’s rudimentary telemetry sites, the Navy loaned the services of two ships: the destroyer USS Sarsfield and a destroyer escort, the USS Foss.

Howard Hoge, now an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, was a sonar striker aboard the Sarsfield. He remembers the historic first Bumper launch clearly. “We were stationed just a mile or two offshore,” he recalls. “I was off-duty, so I was on deck and actually watched the vehicle take off and streak across the sky. Amazing. We tracked it with our Mk25 Fire Director system, which provided radar and optical tracking.”

The Foss, on the other hand, had taken a position 225 miles downrange, which proved optimistic. The first Bumper covered only about 48 miles; the second, 150 miles.

It was an appropriate baptism for the Cape, and yet for the next few years, the growth of the area had nothing to do with rocketry. The Air Force saw rockets as unreliable, inaccurate, and too small to deliver the massive nuclear bombs of the era. Instead, Cape workers focused on subsonic, jet-propelled cruise missiles. One such missile was the Snark, which would become the United States’ first intercontinental missile. At the Cape, though, locals remember it more for its numerous failures. So many of these missiles hit the drink off Cape Canaveral that people began referring to that section of the Atlantic as “Snark-infested.” But the Snark eventually achieved its intended long-range capability, roughly 5,500 miles, and in so doing, it forced the construction of the tracking stations that would become the Eastern Test Range.

The West Indies stretch 1,600 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral and were perfectly placed for Snark tracking. Beyond these islands, though, range planners had 3,000 miles of unbroken ocean to contend with before tiny Ascension Island came into view. If a Snark went haywire during this leg, the only sign of its demise would be its failure to appear on Ascension’s radar screens. In 1956, Air Force officials, in an attempt to plug this gap, went to the mothballed World War II fleet. From it they selected six “FS” class (“Freighter, Small”) ships. (James Cagney’s much-maligned ship in the movie Mr. Roberts was an FS.) The ships were nameless, but the Air Force gave them call signs—Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, and Kilo—and sent them off for a facelift. For one thing, the port and starboard gun mounts had to go. In their place, shipyard workers installed telemetry antennas. (White radomes covered these antennas, and the resulting assembly came to be known as the ship’s bra.) Belowdecks, a cargo hold became the ship’s electronics center, with the equipment necessary to lock onto the Snark’s beacon and record the data for later mailing back to the Cape.

By October 31, 1957, the ships were in position, ready to track the first Snark to travel the entire length of the range. Michael Birmingham was aboard the Golf. Birmingham had been working at the Eleuthera Island tracking site when he heard about the ships. If the prospects of ocean voyages and foreign ports weren’t inducement enough, there was always the money. As lead technician, Birmingham’s $110 per week would stretch a long way while he was living on the ship. Other perquisites were the 40 percent bonus for working at sea and the one-dollar-per-carton cigarettes, which in 1957 were as important to a technician as his tube-checker. “We had to sign the ship’s Articles of Agreement,” says Birmingham, “and we laughed when we read that, among other things, the ship’s master guaranteed us a daily ration of flour and water. Sailors had probably been signing that same agreement for a hundred years.”

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.

Manned spaceflight had arrived, but despite the advances in technology, NASA still could not guarantee communication between the Cape’s mission control center and the remote sites, so communication with the spacecraft was handed off to the network of tracking stations and ships. For each launch every ship hosted a capsule communicator (CapCom) and at least two flight surgeons to monitor spacecraft systems and help astronauts in case they faced health emergencies. (Though the doctors were intended to serve the spacecraft’s passengers, one surgeon aboard the Coastal Sentry for John Glenn’s flight performed an emergency appendectomy on a crewman. The operating room? A converted mess hall.)

At least two astronauts served as CapComs, both aboard the Coastal Sentry. Alan Shepard supported Wally Schirra’s Mercury 8 flight in October 1962, and for the final Mercury mission, in May 1963, John Glenn took the chair for Gordon Cooper. Glenn’s presence proved crucial when Cooper’s electrical systems began to fail. Glenn radioed Cooper with the modified procedures and maneuvers for manual reentry, which resulted in Cooper’s flawless return.

The ships again showed their value during an emergency that arose in March 1966 during Gemini 8. Dick Bodette, then the Coastal Sentry’s operations manager, remembers, “There was always a little thrill when we locked onto the astronauts’ signal, but this was the 10th mission for some of us, and maybe a bit of the thrill was wearing off. That all changed when we saw the Gemini’s wildly fluctuating beacon and realized the oscillations could only be caused by a tumbling spacecraft.” Moments later, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott confirmed Bodette’s fears.

Armstrong stabilized the craft, but Gemini 8’s flight plan was suddenly obsolete. The astronauts’ lives depended on receiving a new set of deorbit data, and their only chance for receiving it lay with the Rose Knot and the Coastal Sentry, the only tracking stations in the spacecraft’s path. These few minutes of contact proved to be sufficient. Flight controllers invented alternate deorbit plans, and, with the help of a nearby ship that had satellite capability, Bodette’s crew received this information and relayed it to the Gemini crew.

Despite the C1-M-AV1s’ stellar performance throughout the Mercury and Gemini programs, the ships weren’t equipped to handle the next phase of NASA’s plan. Instead, NASA budgeteers allocated $90 million to transform three World War II oil tankers into the Vanguard, Redstone, and Mercury. The new ships were double the length and four times the tonnage of the C1-M-AV1s, creating a vastly improved comfort level for 85 crew members and 108 technicians.

The conversion from forgotten derelicts to shiny transports was accomplished courtesy of the Apollo program, which also initiated a sweeping overhaul of both spacecraft and tracking station electronics. One of the most important changes was the satellite communications link, which would finally guarantee clear, constant contact with the mainland. The Apollo ships’ navigational aids marked another area of improvement, allowing navigators to fix their position to within an unheard-of 600 feet. This precision, in turn, enabled flight controllers to more accurately identify the location of the spacecraft. Each ship carried improved versions of the standard technologies, as well as a new satellite navigation system, the forerunner of GPS.

For the first time in manned spaceflight, lunar trajectories became part of the equation. The Vanguard, Redstone, and Mercury would gather this data in the initial phases of the flight, but there was a hole in the reentry support. To fill it, the Western Test Range, which was established in 1958 to extend from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California west to the Indian Ocean, donated two of its Victory ships, Huntsville and Watertown, for the upgrades.

During Apollo, Mike Linthicum was a young navigation technician on the Mercury. Today, he recalls a schedule so tight that one mission’s post-flight tasks often collided with the next mission’s preflight activities. While the schedule was exhausting, Linthicum did come away with one happy memento of the occasion: His overtime pay allowed him to buy his first Porsche.

But a moonlit night in July 1969 provided a more timeless memento. The Mercury was in the China Sea, tracking Apollo 11 in earth orbit. Linthicum, listening to the network traffic, knew the command for translunar injection was imminent. “I stepped out onto the main deck,” he recounts, “and, using the ship’s antennas for a guide, I easily spotted the spacecraft just before the controllers transmitted the command. Sure enough, I saw the engine ignite. Then, unbelievably, a halo and then a cross attached themselves to the speeding spacecraft. Call it an atmospheric quirk or Act of God, but it was the most exciting thing I’ve seen in my life. At the very least, I took it as a good omen.”

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.

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