The Rocket Ships

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

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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.”

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