The Rocket Ships

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

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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.

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