The Rocket Ships

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

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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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