Monday, July 20, 2009

The Moon

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, and I've felt inspired to share my own personal experience with the space program as a result. This all started a few years back when I still lived in FL and heard about an abandoned rocket engine factory out in the middle of the Everglades. It turns out that Aerojet General had built the factory in the 1960's to develop, build, and test solid rocket boosters for a proposed version of the Saturn rocket. They were successful in building a series of 260" diameter test engines and firing them. The last of the 3 engines would produce some 2,670,000 kgf thrust, making it the most powerful rocket engine ever fired in the history of the planet. In spite of the tests, Aerojet lost the NASA contract to one of their competitors and eventually sold the facility and land back to the State of FL.

It's been since left to be reclaimed by nature and this is how I found it a few years ago, pictured is the main assembly building, one of the support buildings, and a submerged road that we had to traverse (to take a more discrete route to the facility):

The main facility itself is a giant playground of 10 buildings and on it's own is a pretty amazing find, but there is quite a surprise another 3 miles down the road. As I mentioned before, this facility was not just a factory, but it was also testing grounds for what would be the largest rocket engine in the world. We rode bikes down to the main test site and discovered a large airplane hangar like building, it was a seemingly empty building on a huge paved area. Metal plates formed a circle on the ground maybe 40 feet in diameter in the middle of the building. Apparently, as I was walking around on these rusty metal plates and looking around a peice of rust broke off one of the gratings below my feet and fell through a gap. I didn't realize what had happened until I heard the echo from what sounded like a gigantic void below my feet. I immediately got down on the floor and shone a light down to see what the hell had made such a strange noise. I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. There was a gigantic hole in the ground below me, deeper than anything I'd seen in my entire life. Being from South FL I'm not really used to seeing much elevation or anything dug very deep in the ground, we're just about at sea level. Regardless of what I believed, there it was, a giant cement lined hole in the ground, and sitting in the middle of it was an equally huge white cylinder with the words NASA 260 SL-2 printed right on the side of it. H O L Y S H I T. There was a fucking rocket engine sitting right there beneath my feet, in the deepest goddamn hole I'd ever seen, in the middle of a fucking SWAMP. I knew at that moment that I would have to go down there see this thing for myself. I didn't know how, but I was going to do it. How could you not? It's not very often that an ordinary citizen ever gets to be this close to a rocket engine, especially an experimental prototype for a lunar launch.

We searched the entire cover of the silo for any possible weaknesses and tried to come up with ideas for how to proceed. It was determined that we would need climbing gear, as I wasn't able to see any way down to the platform below without it. Was there even breathable air down there? This was a low lying area in a swampy wetland. It seemed plausible that methane or other natural gases could collect in the silo. Would we pass out at the bottom? Would the platform still be stable enough to stand on? Not having the equipment or knowledge necessary for this sort of thing, I started contacting others who might be able to help and would be willing to come to FL for this.

After a few months of talking to people and thinking about this WAY too much, we finally mounted an expedition. Myself, Junkyard (the man with the climbing knowledge) from WI, and my good bud Mayhem got on our bikes and rode all the way out to the test site. After quite a bit of work to find a way in, Junkyard started rigging up the rope system. This would be my first time ever rappelling and ascending a rope of any kind. He gave me a crash course on the surface and I practiced a few times off of the second story of the building how to get down and switch into the ascent rig to come back up. I was feeling pretty good about it. In fact, I was feeling so good about it that I insisted that I be the first one down. After all, I had found the damned thing and done all the planning for this.This turned out to be a not so good idea.

We got in at the first level and found ourselves on a platform maybe 10 feet below the surface. There was a staircase that went down, but unfortunately it was about 20 feet away from the platform we were on and as such was not reachable. We would have to rappel all the way down, a good 90ft I would guess. Roughly halfway down the entire length of the silo to the platform the rocket engine was sitting on. After tying in, setting up the video camera, and Junkyard checkin everything over, I began my descent.

All was going pretty smoothly, it was a nice slow and controlled descent. I spun around in the darkness, my headlamp lighting up the side of the engine every time I turned past it. It was beautiful. After about 30 feet I could no longer make out much of anything Junkyard or Mayhem said due to the ridiculous amount of echo in the silo. Now I'm more than halfway there, slowly making my way down. Suddenly, I feel something catch in my braking hand. I pull the rope into a stop position and realize that there is a kink in the rope. "Uhhh guys, there's a kink in the rope." I say to the guys above, hoping for some guidance. I'm still a good 30 feet above the platform. "You gotta shake it out" Junkyard says. I shake it as much as I can, struggling with it for a few minutes, nothing changes. It's still there. I'm terrified that if I let it go, it'll get stuck in my descender and then I'll be completely trapped. It feels like a pile of rocks just dropped in my stomach. I yell up that I still can't get it out. Junkyard then tells me that I'll have to clip into the ascent rig, raise myself a few feet, and then get the kink out. That wasn't part of my little lesson before. I'd put the ascent rig together on the surface, standing on the ground. Now he's telling me that I'd have to do it while hanging on a rope in the dark, with only one free hand. They are also the only ascenders we have, so if I happen to drop it while I'm doing this, I won't be able to get back out of the hole at all. Needless to say I am pretty terrified at this point.

In a desperate, last resort before trying the ascent rig, I let go of my guide hand on the top end of the rope and kick my feet up so that I'm almost completely upside down. I reach back with that now freed hand and grab the rope below where the kink is. I pull up on it and feed rope into the kink, giving it a bit more room to untwist itself, and... it works! I drop the rest of the 30 feet pretty quickly and am incredibly relieved to be standing on solid ground again. I spend the next 20 or 30 minutes taking pictures, touching the rocket, and generally being happy about being there.

After that, there was a pretty grueling ascent ahead of me. Junkyard's rig was not quite set up correctly for the length of my arms, so it was not nearly as efficient as it should be. It was honestly one of the hardest physical things I've ever done. I stopped frequently to take breaks, but not too long, for I knew that every minute I spent on that rope was a risk I was taking and at this point I just wanted to be done with it. I finally eeked out my last bit of strength to pull myself up onto the platform and re-joined Junkyard and Mayhem. Within about 30 seconds of planting feet on the platform, I totally went into shock. I felt like I was gonna puke/pass out, my vision shrunk down into a blue tunnel, my hearing became muffled. It was incredibly intense, I think it was just from the combination of the kink incident and the tough climb, I was just overwhelmed. After sitting for a few minutes and catching my breath, things returned to normal and I emerged victorious from the silo. The cool night air never felt better after being down in that hole for the past hour or so. Junkyard took his turn going down and it was pretty much without incident, Mayhem decided not to go after my ordeal as he was just as inexperienced as I was and not as comfortable with heights. Sure, it's not quite going to the moon, but for me, this is probably about as close as I will ever get.

Epilogue: Here are a few assorted historical images I pulled from various sources as well as a couple of photos of a model from the main facility that were previously unpublished. You can actually make out the hangar type building in the 3rd shot. The building was apparently mounted on airplane wheels and was able to be moved across the huge paved area for firing tests and then could be pull back over to cover it. The building is now completely anchored to the ground and no longer mobile.

If you want to read some more about the rocket engine itself and the history of the facility, check out: