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.”

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