Less than an hour’s drive north of Key Largo, the fringes of America’s greatest swamp hide a secret; a great hulking rocket.
Get out of your car, walk south a while and you come to a bunker. Walk past the bunker down the abandoned road and you’ll arrive at a large steel shed. A close look at the surrounding asphalt reveals embedded supports for moving the entire structure back and forth. Huge air-handling equipment and ductwork snake through the structure’s roof. Industrial fans line the walls of this shed-on-steroids. Clearly, this is no ordinary building.
A look inside shows electronic instrument racks along the far wall. Overhead, a 20-ton crane sits silent, its chains swaying in the whistling breeze that permeates the open shed. Standing here, you begin to get that fury feeling that there is something more here.
Directly below you, there is: a silo, plunging 180 feet straight down into the earth, and in it stands a rocket, a rusting apparition 10 stories high and as wide as a two-car garage. It is the largest solid rocket motor ever built and it was intended to take us to the moon.
You can’t help but wonder, what is the story behind it all? I became determined to find out.
As my research became more and more pointed, it was obvious that a lot of people wanted to keep this place a secret. Aerojet, the company that owned the facility, would not cooperate with my story, and not one manufacturer of equipment I saw at the site would return my e-mails. Even the public information officer of Everglades National Park wouldn’t return my calls.
The secrecy surrounding the place was a story too good for me to pass up. And what could be more compelling than a hulking factory complex that once built and tested the mightiest monolithic rocket motors in history rusting away smack in the middle of the Florida Everglades?
Space age in Homestead
America’s space program came to South Florida in 1963 when the U.S. Air Force gave Aerojet General, a Sacramento, Calif. rocket builder and subsidiary of General Tire’s GenCorp, $3 million to start construction of a manufacturing and testing site in Homestead, less than five miles from Everglades National Park.
Sputnik had been launched five years earlier, sparking two space races — one between the United States and the Soviet Union, and one between the Air Force and the fledgling National Aeronautics and Space Administration. While NASA’s Wernher von Braun worked on perfecting the smaller rockets that were part of the Mercury and Gemini programs, two schools of thought emerged regarding the rockets that would propel Apollo astronauts to the moon.
The issue was whether to use liquid-fuel rocket engines, solid-fuel rocket motors, or a combination of the two. Apollo would need massive thrust capability, enough to lift 100,000 pounds of orbital payload to space. That favored the solids. But once free of earth orbit, liquids seemed the way to go. Early on, von Braun would favor a liquid-fueled Saturn rocket, which proved prophetic for Homestead.
Homestead’s location was perfect for Aerojet and the nation; it was close to Cape Canaveral. A proposal was made to dig a canal from the plant to Barnes Sound on the Atlantic Ocean. If the C-111 canal project was approved, it would allow barges to carry NASA’s rockets from the homestead Plant to Cape Canaveral via the canal and the Intracoastal Waterway.
It was a time of economic expansion for the region. Everglades National Park had been open since 1947, but environmental conflicts were downplayed in favor of economic development. The C-111 canal would be dug for Aerojet and agricultural interests in the name of flood control. Homestead won the competition for Aerojet, beating out sites in California, Texas and Daytona Beach. South Dade residents were ecstatic; the space age was coming to South Florida!
Giant rocket parts
The first thing you need when building a moon rocket is a cylindrical chamber strong enough to withstand the monumental forces of space flight. After researching several possibilities with the assistance of the U.S. Air force, Aerojet subcontracted fabrication of a 260-inch-diameter chamber to Sun Ship and Dry dock Company of Chester, Pa. Sun’s location on the Delaware River would facilitate shipping the chamber by barge to the Aerojet facility in Florida. They were short-length designs, half the length of the planned final version; hence the test designations SL-1, SL-2, and SL-3.
Two rocket chambers were delivered to Aerojet, the first in March 1965. The C-111 canal was not yet finished, so the rocket chambers were barged down from Sun Ship to Homestead via the Intracoastal Waterway and then trucked in from Biscayne Bay.
After you’ve got a strong chamber, you need the fuel, or propellant. The fuel would be manufactured at three batch plants at the Everglades facility.
Before the chamber could be filled with fuel, it had to be insulated and lined at the General Processing building in the Everglades. Insulating the chamber is key to confining the massive pressure and heat of the burn, as well as allowing an even, non-stick curing of the fuel inside the chamber. This was done inside the huge processing building that still stands at the site.
Then the chamber was trucked three miles down the straight asphalt road linking the General Processing Building and the silo.
Meanwhile, the solid propellant was being mixed and analyzed at the batch plants and quality-control lab adjacent to the General Processing facility.
After officials were satisfied with the propellant, it would be produced in sufficient quantities to fill the rocket motor chamber now standing ready, placed vertically in the underground silo.
Three static test firings were done between Sept. 25, 1965 and June 17, 1967.
SL-1 would produce more than 3 million pounds of thrust, as measured by the silo’s accelerometers and other instruments. An ignition motor, a knocked-down Polaris missile B3 first stage known as “Blowtorch,” was used to jump-start the motor. Remnants of all this — cables, poles and concrete slab anchors — are all still on the site.
Wernher von Braun himself came to the test of SL-2, a spectacular night test firing. The flames could be seen as far away as Miami. Thrust measurements were even higher than SL-1.
By the third test, however, von Braun and NASA had decided that liquid fueled engines would power Apollo’s Saturn V moon rockets.
The last test had problems, ejecting the rocket nozzle and tons of propellant made of hydrochloric acids across wetlands and avocado fields. In Homestead, people complained of damage to their automobiles’ paint from the fallout. By then, however, Aerojet and Homestead had too much invested to stop and walk away.
When Aerojet came to Homestead and Southern Dade County, people wanted it there. Local, county and state government paved the way, literally. The federal government even carved out the C111 canal — later to be known as the Aerojet Canal — for the company. The Senate expedited the appropriation through Congress, calling it a “National Security Priority.” Nearby Everglades National Park and the National Park Service said little or nothing and the locals opened their arms in the name of economic development.
Aerojet acquired land for the plant with the help of real estate giant Arvida, paying $2.50 an acre per year for an annual lease with an option to buy up to 25,000 acres more at nickels on the dollar. After Apollo’s Saturn V went liquid, the site sat vacant and abandoned, its workers laid off.
Later, in 1986, after NASA had awarded the Space Shuttle booster contract to Morton Thiokol of Utah, Aerojet sued the State of Florida, exercised its options and pulled out of South Florida for good.
Land returns to swamp
The company sold most of its land holdings to the South Dade Land Corporation for $6 million. After unsuccessfully trying to farm it, the corporation sold it to Florida for $12 million. County and federal courts were kept busy for years with lawsuits between Aerojet, Dade County and the State of Florida.
After losing the Shuttle contract in 1986 Aerojet later traded its remaining 5,100 acres in the wetlands of South Dade for 55,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land belonging to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in New Mexico. That 5,100 acres surrounding the factory site is now controlled by South Florida Water Management District.
Some folks say the Aerojet site should be a museum, but water management district officials are land and water managers. They told me they do not have the resources nor the inclination to run a museum. To date, no private or joint effort has been forthcoming.
In February 2010, the Homestead City Council entertained a proposal by Rodney Erwin, representing the Omega Space Systems Group, to resurrect the Aerojet facility as a new rocket plant. Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman voiced support for the plan, stating “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The water management district immediately shot down the idea.
I visited the Aerojet site four times. For my last visit, I contacted the South Water Management District and met its director of communications at the site.
One very interesting thing happened during one of those visits. Exactly 1.5 miles from the General Processing facility, as you head south towards the silo, a mound appears out of nowhere. But there is a gravel “driveway” up to it. Approach, and you’ll see a concrete block sticking out of both sides of the mound and through the block run three 6 inch PVC pipes. A vent of some sort? Maybe a forward observation post for the tests, protected by earth? No. Not a door or hatch to be found. Just that “vent.”
What’s in there that has to be vented?
An eeriness pervades here. Everything is quiet except for the wind whistling through broken windows and the distant thunder of the ever-present Everglades rain machine.
Rust blows across the concrete floors and dislodged aluminum siding swings and bangs in the breeze. My first impression of the place was Tombstone brought forward; a space-aged ghost town, with the biggest, baddest ghost of all lurking in that 150-foot-deep hole out on the edge of town.
To walk amongst the dials and switches, the bunsen burners and boilers, and then finally to bend to my knees and look down at the mighty rocket itself, all that history looming up at me, was something I will never forget — even if others would like me to.
David Schneider is a South Florida freelance writer and musician. His blog is available at someplacelse.net.