The Space Coast, by Anthony Haden-Guest

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We have perhaps created too much history too quickly—more than we can cope with. We know the cycles: birth, growth, glory, degeneration. Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make fashionable. The space project has already accumulated a history of Byzantine complexity. There are monuments in the heartlands of the project—the Cape Canaveral Spaceport itself, and the John F. Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, just across the Banana River—that stand as paradigms of Instant Obsolescence. Edifices and artifacts that were the splendor of their times now lurch backward into the archaic after a history of some two decades. And everywhere the savor of decay.

There wasn’t much here before the rocketeers came and built their tall birds. Just the scrub, thorn, sand, and swamp. But the rocketeers came, and the publicists, and motels burgeoned with splendid names: the Sea Missile, the Polaris, the Moon Hut. But there is nothing romantic about motel owners or real estate men. Minuteman Causeway still slides along the ocean, but the Vanguard Motel has already changed its name to the Beach Park, and nobody has ordered an Astronaut cocktail for as long as the barman can remember.

Operations at Cape Canaveral got under way in 1949, with overall responsibility going to the U.S. Air Force. The following year, building began. In 1958, NASA was created to quash persistent interservice squabbling over the space program. The need for coordination had become critical. The Russians had landed a rocket on the moon, and had another orbiting Venus. On April 12, 1961, they launched Vostok I. Its pilot was Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. On May 5, Gagarin was followed by Alan Shepard. The next year, President Kennedy made a resonant decision: to boldly go, as the Star Trek prologue was to put it in a ringing split infinitive, where no man had gone before. The race to the moon.

December 21, 1968. Borman, Lovell, and Anders flew Apollo 8 to the moon. That was the first orbit. On July 16 of the following year, Collins, Armstrong, and Aldrin took up Apollo 11. Five hundred and thirty million people watched as Armstrong and Aldrin walked the surface. A slow, tranced gait over a blue-gray shimmer of dust and rock. Men on the moon. Man on the moon. Man and his machinery, but crosscut with the fabulous. Three years later, the entire program was dead.

The seaboard of the cape has a higher concentration of salt than any other place on the East Coast. Salt clogs the air, nibbles and corrodes. This and the high, squealing gales that afflict the shore together contribute to a freakish acceleration of the normal processes of decay.

Not that nature has to work unaided. Consider Launch Complexes 34 and 37. We see cranes, predatory and delicate, picking at the hulk of 34. NASA has sold off both gantries to salvage firms for what they will fetch. What is left of 34 is a gray concrete armature—copper and other components of any value have gone—red girders, white piping, bright-blue insulation material, and a mound of rubble, larded with high-technology junk. I pick up a plastic panel: water glycol and freon service. Mission control, or something to do with the drains? Ruined papers flap at my feet. The salvage contractors are wearing white plastic hard hats and drinking midmorning Cokes.

Back now, down ICBM Road, to Launch Complex 19. Further back in time. The complex had been in use since February 2, 1960, and was the site of the Gemini launches. It was from here that John Glenn took off, becoming our first space hero. How much money has this sour soil soaked up? A hundred billion dollars? At least.

You can see the ocean from Complex 19. The salt-heavy air blurs the vision, tangibly, and rust has so fretted the metal platforms that you have to walk with extreme caution. As with derelict buildings anywhere, I suppose. Some of the struts give easily, with just the smack of a hand. On the platform from which Colonel Glenn entered the module we find a small skeleton. Probably a rabbit. It is picked entirely clean.

From “An Archaeology of the Space Age,” which appeared in the May 1974 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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