Back in about 96 or 97 I was doing some online research into quite a few things in the military industrial complex. I was very interested in missile silos and old abandoned Air Force bases at the time, along with continuity of government and communication sites.
I stumbled across a forum where a guy mentioned a rocket test facility in one of the southern states that piqued my interest. It told of the entire complex still standing but being damaged by a hurricane recently. There was a long road to it off the main road, and it was suggested that roller blades might be a good idea as the area was patrolled often by police. This should make it easier to cover the ground without a vehicle, as there was a gate up impeding progress.
I have always wanted to visit this place, but being in the Midwest was cramping my style. My brother moved to Florida for several years and was having his first kid, when he decided to move back. I figured I would help him move and get to see a shuttle launch from the Cape…….and I could swing by this place on the way back North. It fell through due to work as usual and I was pissed.
In late 03 I was reading on another forum that there was a secret place in this same general area that had something very important, historically inside. The caveat was that it was concealed behind a ‘door’ of sorts. Now this person would not elaborate as to what was there, but after him describing a few more details, I started to get excited. Could this possibly be what I thought it was? After I told him what I thought he was looking at, he came clean, well not at first. It took some time, but they were one and the same.
I had no idea there was still a freaking rocket buried in a test pit, intact, in the middle of the swamp! It was not just any rocket motor either. It was the largest ever built, one of only 3, and the last one remaining in existence. He had a plan to get down into the pit, but had no way in, or down. He decided to trust us and finally enlisted the Command. There was no way I was going to sit this one out,not now or ever.
I didn’t really have the money to go, but some things are worth more than money, and this was one. Much talk was on the forum about how to get past the solid steel sentry that kept this rocket relic from seeing the outside world, and the world from it. Everybody had a great idea from explosives to the little torches you get at the hardware store, to acid, and the like.
Well for obvious reasons none of these were viable in practice. So we had a job to do. Planning can be a bitch, but we found the right tools right at the shop and my bike for ease of travel and concealment. It seemed the Jeep would be best suited for this one, gas mileage be dammed. It would be easier to explain the equipment in an off road vehicle if the need arose. I loaded up and tested out my new lift, gears, tires, and lockers. Kissed my wife and brand new daughter goodbye and I was gone.
It was -25F when I left and Jeeps have never been known for their stellar heaters, even with the hardtop. I was bundled up in a hat and hood and 2 jackets. The farther South I got, the warmer it got and gradually the layers came off until I arrived in a T shirt. I called my new partner for the week and waited in a parking lot for him to call back so I could meet him. I saw this hot chick in a low cut shirt and figured out why people lived here. She gets out of the car and puts on a sweatshirt in the 60 degree weather and looks like she’s freezing still. WTF?! I think very loudly to myself. Man was I going to stick out.
Anyway Shane and I finally meet, both of us are giddy as hell and can hardly contain ourselves. His friend he brought with seemed slightly less excited than the two of us. Right away I knew Shane and I would get along great, we had the same enthusiasm for this space aged relic. It was adventure, it was history, it was borderline illegal, it was going to happen. I haven’t had much sleep the whole trip down, which took way longer than it should, stopping every 150-200 miles for gas due to the shitty 15 gallon tank.
We stage some of the equipment at the hotel I was staying at and decide to travel light and just do some last minute recon, or first time for me. We would get a feel for what would fly and what wouldn’t. I just had a beautiful little girl 6 months ago and didn’t want to risk any serious trouble. I guess we all decided we were allergic to jail at that point.
It was quite a bit of planning before we left and all the time we just wanted to go. We would be the first people to see this giant up close in almost 40 years, to touch it. We really didn’t want to screw this up. We finally felt like we could pull it off without a hitch, no matter what. We had plenty of notice from any direction the authorities would be coming from all planned out and in place, which sounds way better than it actually was.
It was a long road where we could see parts of it, but it would be possible for someone to sneak up on us during the excitement and set up if we didn’t see them at the gate. We would have just enough time to create a diversion and ditch any equipment we may or may not have had in our possession at the time.
The trip down the long access road was surreal. We were about to do something great, possibly the pinnacle of explorations in our lifetimes, however long or short that just may be. We were wild with excitement as the building grew bigger and slowly became our reality. This building was larger than the rest, and separated by several miles from the production facility, for obvious reasons. Even in the swamp, nobody wanted this rocket to ignite the rest of the fuel contained on the site, and then, possibly the world.
We get there and find what Shane sent me pictures of, a door, of sorts. It was solid steel and had straps welded across it to the floor. The floor was not exactly a floor though. It was for us, on the surface, but it was a cap for the motor below, silently resting in its tomb. It hadn’t been awakened in years, and now was about to be disturbed by us. The gods were going to be pissed. And as much as they would like to have our balls for this one, The Mouse was not going to ever let that happen, so long as we succeded. For if we failed, the gods would be the least of our worries.
We took a closer look at the ‘door’ and to our surprise it was not welded all the way anymore. It was unlocked when we got there! We had to be the luckiest sons of bitches alive. But the door wouldn’t budge, even with 3 of us pulling with everything we had. We looked around, as we had not planned on this. What we found were a few pallets we could break apart by kicking the crap out of them and a big pipe to use as a lever. Slowly we wedged it open and stacked more boards inside to keep it from closing. We finally made it and looked down.
It was a catwalk about 10 ft down, and about 90 ft below that was another larger catwalk that spanned the entire pit where the test stand was that held the 260 inch diameter monster. We went up to the mezzanine level and set our anchors. I gave Shane and his friend a quick lesson on how to rappel and more importantly how to ascend. Getting down was the easy part, he’d have gravity, and me to make sure they were rigged correctly.
At the bottom, they would have almost no help. I could only instruct them blindly. They had to know. It isn’t hard to pick up and Shane was feeling very confident. He rappelled down 15 ft several times and looked like a pro by the end, so he switched to ascending. It is easy to set up wrong, but the good part is that you are already on the ground and can’t fall, it just won’t work. Once you have it set up the right way, by flipping the device to hold when pulling down, and slip when going up, you’re in the clear. You just have to have your safety back ups in place. He picked that up quick too.
I couldn’t talk him out of going first, as he found the holy grail inside. In the excitement he missed a kink in the black rope about half way down. It was an easy thing to miss, but a very important one as he would later find out first hand. Shane looked like he was right out of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon or something, with his respirator mask on and all black with his camera and tripod looking like his choice weapon for this job. I guess it was. I’ve never been any good with a camera anyway.
I was putting the shit on him about his mask, but it made for a kick ass picture though. He was worried about the air below. I guess from my experience so far, it seemed to me that there wouldn’t be much for contaminants and we wouldn’t be there for more than an hour each.
The more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by the presence of combustibles and the problems that could have presented, but it turns out that it would work out in the end anyway. The mask wouldn’t prevent one from dying in an Oxygen deprived area however. We didn’t see any reason for this and went ahead. I never wear the things, cheap ones don’t fit tight, thus don’t work anyway. They are hard to breathe in when doing real work. I’ll probably die of something else anyway.
We only had the one harness, so I made a swiss seat and joined him on the catwalk. He went over the rail and I ran the video, which wasn’t so good as my spotlight crapped out quicker than I anticipated. He moved slowly and methodically down into the depths of the pit, slowly spinning around and catching his first views of the rocket from an angle never seen in over 40 years.
Everything was going good as he passed 50 feet or so, but that came to an abrupt end and I’m sure a very sick feeling. He hit that kink in the rope and it jammed in his descender. This wasn’t planned for. Talking to each other was very slow and difficult due to the enormous echo in the giant concrete cylinder that was now our world. I instructed him to pull himself up an inch or two on the rope and shake the kink out, as his weight was the only thing keeping it there.
He was having trouble, as one would. This wasn’t working so well, and I was going to have him switch to the ascenders to do it and switch back again. This would not be easy and he was never shown how to do it. We had to talk in slow, low voices as I reminded him that if he dropped one of the ascenders and it fell through the grated floor and into the water below, it would be a bad time to learn prussiks.
He gave the rope a tug and got himself up just enough to shake the rope free. I think he just didn’t want to doink around with all that other BS and get down to see his rocket. He’s definitely not the guy to screw around and got the job done, in style I might add. I think that was one of those Command joining moments.
The last half of his journey down was uneventful and a sigh of relief for both of us no doubt. I could hear him holler pure excitement and stomping on the deck to make sure it would still support his weight after 4 decades before he got off the rope. The silo lit up with the flashes of his camera. They were bright at the bottom, but completely drown out before they were even half way back to the surface, as if the black of the void just sucked them in as they slipped out of existence.
All I could do is watch as he took some long exposures, and think about this place. Above me there was a hole where the door was that let in a sliver of daylight from the outside world. It too was fading from existence. I could hear our man on top as he mentioned another chopper flying by, then the chopper itself. Then it too was gone. He was slightly worried, as he was more exposed than we were, that the choppers were for us. There was a base in the general area and they were probably on maneuvers I offered, hoping I was right.
From my position, it was hard to keep in both realities at the same time. Up there, was the regular world. People shop, work, eat, whatever it is that people do. Down here, none of that mattered, time meant nothing. There were no rules, the only law was gravity, which we strictly obeyed. There were no bosses here, no traffic jams, no bitchy ex-wives. I could silently take all of the nothingness in and relax, all the while knowing I really had this world by the tail and that the people that got to enjoy this world would make up a very short list.
I was standing right next to the largest solid rocket motor ever built, and this one was the last of three in existence. They were so big that they would float the completed ones down a canal by barge, past a swing bridge, and eventually into the ocean for it’s trip to the Cape. Once at the Cape they would hurl men into space, on an even more fantastic voyage.
This would never be, as they lost the contract to a competitor, who was cheaper. This was the superior product, right in front of me, and I could almost lean out and touch it, maybe 20 feet away. This is as close as I will ever get to outer space—
“Junkyard! I’m coming up now.”, shouted a voice from 10 stories down. It was Shane. He was done with his time in the pit. He rigged the gear perfectly and started his ascent back to the catwalk. I had checked out the freight elevator, glad that we couldn’t take the easy way. Obviously it too hadn’t moved in 40 years.
There wasn’t much to do in the time it took to jug up a rope that far. Shane had to take a break maybe halfway up and was out of breath. He finally ripped off his mask and grabbed as much fresh air, if you want to call it that, as he could. He looked like hell and still had a good 50 feet to go. He just hung there for a few minutes and rested. He made it maybe 15 feet from the top and had to take another break. He was parched and his water was up here with me.
He mustered the strength for the last haul and pushed his way over the rail, where he collapsed on the floor. If I thought he was exhausted before, this was three fold. He got his water and just slumped against the wall, pouring it in as fast as he could take it. He had this very satisfied look on his face, he didn’t have to say a word.
We switched gear and I went over the rail. It was an easy trip, now that the rope was straight. I could only imagine how Shane felt, as it was his first time on a rope. This was old hat to me by now, but this was different. I was next to the rocket and watching it get taller and taller and Shane getting smaller and smaller, until he was just a light from a headlamp.
In less than a minute I touched down. I was here, face to face with, hands down, the coolest piece of history to date. It’s still hard to top that.
I walked up to it and touched it. There was a gate valve on the bottom, which I of course, instinctively cranked open. Nothing. I don’t know if I expected something to come out or not, but this valve was WAY out of adjustment as it stood. I walked around, checking out the various small pieces of equipment left behind and tried to figure out what they might have been for.
I did notice a small piece of something with a latch on it. It was some kind of Aluminum fin, for who knows what, but I know it fits in a pocket and lives in a display case now.
I headed for the horny spiral staircase that was bolted to the wall, far from the reach of the upper catwalk, which was maybe a quarter of the pit. The lower catwalk encompassed the entire silo. The staircase went from top to bottom and would have been easy access back in the operational days, before the cap was welded in place. I went down maybe another 20-25 feet to where the stairs slipped under the surface of the water and continued, I presume, to the lower section, and possibly another level of coolness and machinery.
Now I have always loved spiral staircases, but being a Junkyard, I love machinery even more. Spiral staircases that lead to machinery are very sought after indeed. I really need to learn how to SCUBA dive.
I head back up the stairs from the dead end and back to the lower catwalk. Going up from here would be cool, but pointless. I couldn’t get the whole motor in the picture from midway, and I couldn’t get to the only exit from there either. I just spent some time under the rocket and its test stand and did absolutely nothing. I just took it all in. I was here, I touched it, and now nobody could take that from me. Shane was right, and he never said a thing. It’s not something one could put into words if he tried, you’d just have to be there.
(*during the next few years a small few other groups have made the journey. They have my respect, as it is not the easiest thing to do for a good many people. But I do not know if they shared the same sense of adventure as we did that first time, venturing into the unknown. And in later years, I have heard stories that it has been filled in with sand, sealing this relic in a sarcophagus forever)
Well there was nothing left to see and it was my time too now to head up to the world on top. I had to stop two or three times and just hang out on the rope too. I had plenty of time to think about how I really didn’t want to leave, how maybe I could absorb more from this place. I couldn’t gain any more here, I would have to tour the production facility the next morning.
I climbed over the rail, we gathered our gear, and climbed out through the door, of sorts. Shane got a badass picture of us, just shadows and the room barely lit.
Every time I see that picture to this day, it feels like we’re still there.
Maybe sometimes we are.
Aerojet by Jeremy Krans