Wednesday, April 10, 2019


The LC-3&4 blockhouse looking good in 2002...
not  looking so good today, however.
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved
Notice: Original photos and artwork on this site are copyright 2002- 2019 protected


Everyone has their favorite place, or places to visit. In my case I have favorite places at which I have favorite places where my most favorite place is located- or my "favorite place cubed." One of my favorite places is the Florida space coast and therein resides my favorite squared- the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral. Therein resides my favorite place cubed. It is a little know, often overlooked, routinely mistaken and mostly forgotten place called Launch Complex 3 and 4. NOT Complex 34 folks, but 3 and 4. I've been on bus tours where they simply drove right past it while turning around to get another look at LC 2 and 3 and then head for the famous lighthouse. Yet it is the location where the first large rockets- called Bumper, were launched. And there is a lot more overlooked history there as well... much of which we'll document here.

In 2002, my space buff pal Jim Banke and I got IDs from the CCAFS Museum to do a private tour of the Cape. Granted there were places that we could not go and walk around, such as LC-19 which is considered contaminated from toxic hyper-gols, or the actual pad at LC-14. Yet other places were not specified as off-limits and one of those was LC-3&4. Now, when a 45-year-old former airline captain and current research historian has a chance like this... well... I turned right into a 15-year-old raving space buff kid again! So, as Jim's van rolled up onto LC3&4 I bailed out with my camera in hand. Took some shots of the X-17 pad and the block house.

"Ya' think I can I go in there?" I asked.

"If the door's open." Jim replied, being quite sure that the place was locked and I'd find that out for myself.
Come on in...
said the blockhouse
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved

As I approached the entrance to the blockhouse following in the footsteps of von Braun who supervised the first 6 Redstones launched from the Cape at this exact place... I found that Jim was wrong! The damned door was propped open with a mop handle! The door right next to the open one said "IN"... it was a karmic invitation that I could not pass up.

I ran back to the van and shouted that the freaking door was propped open with a mop. I heard Jim mumble something like "Don't ya' go and..."

Odd but, his voice just faded as I trotted back to the door. What was inside I could not imagine, but you don't miss an opportunity like this. I was gonna photograph every inch of it. (Postscript... 6 years later I was at the 50th anniversary of Explorer 1 and Jim showed me the recovered and restored Gemini white room from LC 19. "Now don't you go spelunking in there," he warned seriously. I'll show you folks my photos from inside in a later blog post... Ha!)

Front view of the blockhouse under construction.
Note the center direct view window and the
two mirror view windows on each side of it.
I have spent a lot of time and energy researching LC 3&4 since that day, and the more I look the more cool history I find. Although it is numbered "3" and "4" the site was actually the first launch pad ever used at the Cape. The first surveys of the site were completed on August 31, 1949. Then on May 9, 1950 Duval Engineering Company was contracted to build a paved road from Highway A1A 4.7 miles out to the pad site, which is literally on the tip of Cape Canaveral. The reinforced concrete pad surface measuring 8 inches thick and 100 x 100 feet was completed June 20, 1950. This was all in preparation for the launching of two Bumper V2 rockets, one on July 24 and the other on July 29, 1950. Meanwhile, contracting for a  blockhouse to replace the sandbag and cinder block temporary launch control shelter that had been used for Bumper began on May 9, 1950 and was completed on November 30, 1951.
The Bumper launch control blockhouse

August 1951 view of the blockhouse.
Although the exterior of the LC-3&4 blockhouse was completed in August of 1951, interior work continued into November. Total cost for just the blockhouse itself was $115,204, (which would be $1,120,031 in 2019 dollars.)

Located 200 feet from the pads the blockhouse has 3,115 square feet of space inside including the "Ready Room" which is located outside, but attached to, the hardened shelter. The domed reinforced firing room was attached to two equipment rooms and had three main ways that a launch could be viewed. Two of those were indirect view mirrors. A huge mirror was placed at a 45 degree angle at the top of the opening and a second was placed at the bottom at an opposing 45 degree angle. The person viewing could look through a thick shock-proof glass pane and see the outside by way of reflection. Any explosion tossed material would, in theory, not get all the way through. Each of these mirror-view windows had a large blind that could be closed completely over its exterior opening. The third way to see things was by a small direct-view window. And I wish I could tell you how thick it is, but I've yet to find a reliable source for that... but it is THICK.

The first gantry at the Cape
the Redstone's MSS.
Meanwhile the actual pad area was being enlarged to 100 x 300 feet in size with the new northern section becoming Pad 4. That pad would have two sets of railroad tracks leading off the pad and nearly into the scrub. These would accommodate something new at the cape that would be the forerunner of many more to come; a self-propelled "Missile Service Stand" (MSS) gantry. The MSS was built by the Noble Company of  Oakland, California who were later contracted to add overhead bridge cranes to nearly every hangar in the Cape's industrial area. It was shipped in pieces aboard 14 railroad cars to Cape Canaveral in July of 1953 on a 5 day trip. It was then trucked to the launch site where just 7 Nobel workmen reassembled it at LC4 in a remarkable 5 days. It stood 135 feet tall, 26 feet wide at the base and was 61 feet long. The MSS weighed in at 308,000 pounds. There were four movable platforms and an elevator on each side. There was also an airconditioned workroom on the lower level. An overhead crane able to lift 15 tons served to aid in stacking rocket components. A diesel engine powered the electric motors that allowed the MSS to move up and down the railroad tracks embedded in in the surface of LC4. It is worth noting that the original Nobel drawing of the gantry refer to it as the "Missile Test Stand Assembly" while later documents from the Air Force call it the MSS.

MSS seen reclining. 
Redstone 1 from the
William Tippins collection
One unique feature was that the MSS could be folded down backward when not in use. The gantry was intended specifically for the early Redstone launches from the Cape. It served the first six Redstone launches starting in August 1953.

Thereafter Redstone activity was shifted to the Army Ballistic Missile Agency's new "Vertical Launch Facility" that consisted of LC 5, 6, 26 A and B. As a result in February of 1955 the MSS was laid down and jacked up off of its rails. Then several rubber-tired bogeys were rolled into place beneath the gantry and it was lowered onto them. Two diesel semi-trucks slow-rolled the MSS and moved it to LC5 and 6 where it was carefully lowered onto the railroad tracks of that launch complex and made ready to handle further Redstone flights. It worked there along with it's younger brother and near twin "A" frame MSS which was 23 feet shorter and had a larger overhead crane. Subsequently it ended up servicing all of the Mercury Redstones including Freedom 7 and Liberty Bell 7. For that purpose the third highest service level on the MSS was fully enclosed and air conditioned for manned operations. The pad rats named that level "Surfside 5" after a TV detective show of the era that supposedly took place in Miami called "Surfside 6." The MSS thereafter lay inert until the Florida salt air took its toll and the structure was finally scrapped in the early 2000s.

Cable tunnel at the "Y" split, May 1951
A critical part of the blockhouse and both pads is nearly invisible... because most of it a buried. A cable tunnel was constructed that led from the north side of the blockhouse and split in a "Y" arrangement 150 feet from the blockhouse and going to each pad where the tunnels are then split again to an "H" arrangement under both pads 3 and 4.  Interestingly, the cost of just the tunnel system alone was $97,275 ($945,547 in 2019 dollars) which was nearly the cost of the entire blockhouse itself.

Cable tunnel as seen on July 2, 1951
Both tunnels vari in height and are 8 feet high in some areas and only 6 feet high in others. The tunnel leading to Pad 3 is only 4 feet wide, but the later section that goes to Pad 4 is 5 feet wide. The tunnels once carried everything from compressed carbon dioxide gas lines to huge bundles of electric cable. Additionally they carried firefighting water lines for the pads and hydraulic control lines. When the tunnels were in operation they were accessible from the blockhouse and through stainless steel hatches on the surface.

So... who out there would like to see what this looks like inside? I cannot show you what it is like right now, but I can show you what it looked like in 2002. First, here's a floor plan that will be our key on this tour...
This is my own drawing of the layout of the LC 3&4 blockhouse.
And in we go!
There wasn't any welcome mat... but to a research historian, this shouts "come on in!"
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved
It's 4 steps down as part of the blockhouse
is underground.
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved

Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved
Come on "IN"
This was the part that has always cracked me up. One door propped open with a rusty mop handle and the other says "IN" on it. Inviting to say the least... especially to the local alligators and snakes.

Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved
Anyone for a cold, but rusty drink from the fountain?
Of course none of the utilities are hooked up anymore- including the water. Yet, as I stood there I wondered how many times von Braun or Debus sipped from that same fountain.

Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved
Behind door number 1 we have.... a sink.
Keep in mind that I did not have a flashlight with me because I'd never intended to go spelunking in a darkened cavern that day... man-made or not. All I had was a small pen light on my keychain, so my camera's flash had to do the work of illumination. 

What is this over in the corner?
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved

A sight that just spun me back to the 1950s was this emplacement for a regulation USAF fire

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On the left is a mirror-view window and on the right is the direct view.
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved

Some light was coming in through the three windows, however, and that allowed me to move around once my eyes adapted to the dark.
Looking at all three windows. Keep in mind that ground level
is at the bottom of each window.
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved

Direct vision of the launch was thought to be critical because in 1951 remote TV technology was just not up to the task. Thus, three windows were built into the blockhouse. The one in the center is made of multi laminated layers of glass, but the two on either side used double mirrors at 45 degree angles to give the viewer a safe vantage point. The last time I saw the blockhouse, in 2019 it appeared that all of the glass was still intact, but the mirrors were gone.

Here is a "then & now" of the controller's positions
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved

When looking at the firing control positions it is key to note that everything was analoge.

For those who may be wondering... the launch controls
seen here are for support of the BOMARC and not the Redstone.
Originally LC 3&4 were supposed to support the Air Force's XF-99 BOMARC program. The prime contractor, Boeing, however, insisted that each missile be fully test flown and the data be completely analyzed before the next missile was constructed. That led to a snail's pace of development and the first BOMARCs were launched from Pad 3 simply by sitting on a launch table.

Early BOMARC on Pad 3 August 1952

Originally LC4 was intended to launch BOMARC, but the
missile's slow development rate left Pad 4 open for the Army to
use for the Redstone. Look closely at this photo and the white
dial in the center and note the word "Boeing" on it.
Interestingly, Boeing was launching BOMARCs from the LC3 before the Air Force officially "accepted" the launch complex. The first BOMARC was fired from the site on September 10, 1952 and a second was launched on January 23, 1953. The Air Force officially accepted the launch complex in March of 1953. So, the first "official" Air Force launch of a BOMARC came on June 10, 1953. Many sources confuse the dates saying that the second launch was the first and ignoring the first launch as being the first and... you get the idea. The first Redstone, however, was definitely on August 20, 1953.

Over time a lot of changes were apparently made inside the
blockhouse. Here is the doorway to some sort of data  recording
room. No idea what was in there but there is a "Danger- High Voltage"
sign on the wall buy the door.
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved

Here's a wider view where you can see that a false ceiling was installed later.
Notice the acoustic tiles in the original, many of which are now on the floor.
The original 1951 light fixtures, however, are in great shape.
Man, how I'd love to  have one of those hanging above my desk.
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved

Finally, we turn around and visit... the cable tunnel... which is the most creepy place on the blockhouse. It is totally flooded with black water and after I stuck my camera in there and shot the first photo, I heard something moving in there! Yep- if you've ever lived in Florida. like I have, one of the first rules is that where there is standing water- there are critters residing. And you are no longer at the top of the food chain.

The cable tunnel- I shot my camera's flash and the light just fell into it!
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved

Here's a now and then composite of the cable tunnel.
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved

I took the time to point the camera back the other way and
again shot into the darkness and  captured this... just
junk that was once ventilation and electrical equipment.
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved 

Not having any anti-venom in my pocket and not wanting to be dragged by the pant cuff down into that black water to become alligator food, I decided to make a hasty retreat from the blockhouse and leave it to the critters.
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved
So it was goodbye to Building 4100 and I started digging into its history.

Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved

The site itself went on to host launches of the X-17 missile that was key to solving the problem of reentry into the atmosphere.

Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved

Additionally, most folks do not know that it served as the "Forward Medical Area" for all of the Project Mercury flights. It was the place where doctors and nurses waited for the helicopters that would bring back an astronaut from an aborted launch.
Photo copyright 2002 Wes Oleszewski all rights reserved
Of course the Air Force did finally get all of their BOMARC testing done there as well. The BOMARC "split-roof" shelter was constructed at Pad 4 after the Redstone was moved to LC 5&6.

The split-roof building is still there as of March of 2019.

LC 3&4's final duty was as the tethered balloon facility. Sadly, today LC-3&4 remains as just a turn around for the bus tours.

The first Redstone ever launched
August 20, 1953 ABMA photo
from the William Tippins collection
But now you know more than the tourists...

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Thanks to Emily Perry who recently retired from the CCAFS Museum

Details from:
 Historical American Engineering Record, National Parks Service
"The 6555th," Chapter II, Section 3
"Cape Canaveral- a Nobel Endeavor" James E. Hale Jr. CCAFS Museum
Photos from the UCF collection

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