52.

THE CAPE OF THE CANEBRAKE VS. “MOOSE” MATHISON

The place where this competition between the Air Force and the Army was to take place had been, until barely a half dozen years earlier, 15,000 miserable acres of sand and swamp, interspersed with scrub brush and palmetto, which jutted out like an enlarged nose from the central coast of Florida. The Spanish, who discovered Florida in the early sixteenth century, had named it Cabo de Canaveral (Cape of the Canebrake) for the clumps of wild cane, with dense undergrowth, that also distinguished the protruding nose. They had never attempted to settle the Cape. Rather, they had destroyed the original human inhabitants, the Florida coastal Indians, by raiding their villages for slaves and transmitting European diseases like smallpox and typhus that decimated the Indians until the survivors fled to refuge inland. Yet Cape Canaveral had acquired an importance for the Spanish, if only as a navigation point, and is marked distinctly on sixteenth-century Spanish maps. The navigators of the galleons sailing up the Bahama Channel, with gold and silver from the mines of Mexico and Peru to sustain Spain’s economy and pay for its European wars, had known that at Cape Canaveral they could pick up the east wind that would carry them out across the Atlantic to the Azores and thence to Cádiz and the other ports of home. Galleons wrecked by the fickle storms of the Florida coast in the shallow seas around Canaveral made the region a favorite haunt for treasure hunters in the centuries to come.

On Cape Canaveral itself nothing really changed between the sixteenth century and the end of the Second World War. With the departure of the last of the coastal Indians, the sand and swamp and the scrub, palmetto, and canebrake had reverted to an abode of its natural inhabitants: cottonmouth water moccasins, diamondback rattlesnakes, an occasional black bear or cougar, and alligators, raccoons, and skunks. A few hardy squatters lived in shacks here and there and eked out a living hunting, trapping, and scavenging whatever might be available. The Coast Guard also manned a lighthouse out at the end of the Cape, but the small crew traveled back and forth by boat, not overland across the Cape itself.

Then, in October 1946, spurred on by the development of the V-2, the armed services decided they needed an adequate firing range for rockets and missiles. The desert range at the White Sands Proving Ground was 125 miles long and 41 miles wide on average, too cramped for what was envisioned. A two-year search settled on Cape Canaveral. It offered the security of remoteness because the neighboring central coast of Florida was only lightly populated at the time and the handful of squatters on the Cape would be easy to move out. Yet for all its remoteness, Canaveral was accessible by road, the coastal railway, and the Banana River, which ran behind it. Building materials, equipment, and rockets and missiles of any size could easily be transported there. The Caribbean and the South Atlantic Ocean beyond constituted a virtually limitless range. The British government was willing to negotiate agreements for the firing of missiles over the Bahamas and its other island colonial possessions beyond them and for the establishment of tracking stations on the islands. The abandoned Banana River Naval Air Station twenty miles south of the Cape, a wartime seaplane base for training and patrols to destroy Nazi U-boats preying on shipping, would also make an ideal airfield and headquarters base for the range. On October 1, 1949, the Defense Department established the Joint Long Range Proving Ground. Joint administration proved too cumbersome and so the Army and the Navy ceded everything to the Air Force, while reserving the right of use. By the time the contest between Thor and Jupiter approached, the old Banana River Naval Air Station had been renamed Patrick Air Force Base, in honor of Major General Mason Patrick, chief of the Army Air Service and its successor, the Army Air Corps, from 1921 to 1927, and the firing range at Cape Canaveral had become the Air Force Missile Test Center (AFMTC).

The first paved access road into the Cape was not laid down until 1950. Prior to Thor and Jupiter, the launch facilities constructed were also small and rudimentary. The missiles tested earlier, such as Redstone; the Matador, a jet-powered cruise missile with a range of 650 miles; and the long-range cruise missile, the Snark, also jet-powered, which was to be deployed briefly, did not require anything elaborate. The one substantial concrete structure built at the Cape in the early 1950s was a launch pad for the doomed supersonic cruise missile Navaho. (This was the impractical project Ed Hall had taken advantage of to create a rocket engine for Atlas and now Thor.) The Navaho was ridiculed at the Cape as the “Never-go Navaho” because of its repeated failures before it was finally canceled in 1957. Its launch pad was useless for the testing of Thor and Jupiter because its configuration did not fit their requirements. Big new concrete pads with wide troughs underneath, filled with water before launching to divert the flames of the igniting rocket engines so that they would not damage the missile before liftoff, had to be constructed for Thor and Jupiter. Rugged concrete blockhouses to shelter the launch control teams in the not unlikely event that a missile exploded had to be built. Storage tanks had to be installed for the rocket fuels—RP-1 (Hall’s blend of kerosene) and liquid oxygen. Radio control and radar tracking facilities had to be erected, and paved access roads laid across the Cape on which to truck in these weighty missiles and the heavy equipment needed to test them.

And everything had to be done in a rush. Schriever, feeling the pressure of competition with the Army and Eisenhower’s impatience for an IRBM, and wanting to get what he saw as a distinctly secondary task out of the way, had decreed that Thor was to be a double crash program. A cautious approach would have been to allot two years from inception to test launching. Bennie cut this in half. The first missiles were to be fabricated swiftly enough for test launching to begin by the end of 1956, one year from the formal signing of the contract on December 28, 1955. These first Thors were to be built with production tooling so that Douglas and the manufacturers of the subsystems could go into series production as soon the missile had been proven. Schriever was, in effect, laying a risky bet with one of those judgments on technological feasibility he had taught himself to make while running the Development Planning Office at the Pentagon. Whether what he was demanding would prove possible in this enterprise, considerably more complicated than anything he had dealt with before, was to be seen.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mathison, the officer sent to Patrick Air Force Base from Schriever’s WDD organization to supervise the civilian contractors constructing the launch facilities at the Cape, could not have been a better choice. He had been nicknamed “Moose” in his cadet years because when he raised his voice it had the foghorn quality of a bull moose in rut, the result of an injury to his vocal cords when he was kicked in the throat while playing football at the Naval Academy. The nickname had a peculiar aptness in catching both the physique and the forceful personality of the man. He was six feet, two inches and 240 pounds of muscle and bone with a cannonball of a head. While boxing in the Marine Corps—he had joined at the age of seventeen and then won an appointment to Annapolis through competitive examination—he had hit an opponent so hard with a roundhouse right punch that he not only knocked the man out but sent him flying through the ropes as well, shattering his own wrist in the process. When not in a boxing ring, Mathison was a friendly, engaging man who delighted in his nickname because he understood how well it fit him. He never did become a naval officer. He had been attracted to Annapolis because of a desire to be a Navy flier. After the Navy barred him from flight training because of the throat injury, despite the fact that it had healed, he resigned from the academy, joined the Army, and after overcoming a number of vicissitudes, entered Flying School as an aviation cadet and won his wings and a second lieutenant’s commission as a bomber pilot in the Army Air Forces. Although physically oriented and unintellectual, he was not unintelligent or uneducated. In the late 1940s the Air Force had sent him to the University of Maryland to obtain a B.S. in aeronautical engineering. And fortunately for Schriever, when unusual assignments came his way, as they seemed to do, Mathison did not shrink from them.

During the five years before coming to WDD, he had been assigned to the Special Weapons Command at Kirtland Air Force Base next to Albuquerque, New Mexico. One of his tasks there had been to figure out how to drop the first weaponized version of the hydrogen bomb, the 41,000-pound Mark 17, which exploded with a force of eleven megatons, from a B-36 without the plane itself being destroyed by the blast. The obvious answer was to attach a giant parachute to the bomb casing and so slow its descent while the plane got far enough away. Mathison set about calculating rates of descent against the size of parachute required and the time necessary for the bomber to get clear. He had to fly up to SAC headquarters at Omaha every month to brief LeMay on his progress. A test was going to be run with a SAC B-36 dropping a Mark 17 over a deserted atoll in the Pacific. The commander-in-chief of SAC, whose philosophy on weapons Mathison characterized as “the bigger the bang, the better the bomb,” did not like the idea of parachutes on bombs. LeMay was afraid that Soviet fighters or antiaircraft guns might shoot up the parachute-dangling bomb before it detonated. He kept urging Mathison to make the parachute smaller and the bomb’s descent faster. They reached a compromise. As a further precaution, Mathison had the bottom of the plane’s fuselage painted with white enamel to reflect the heat from the thermonuclear blast. The painting was done while the B-36 was parked on a runway and its wheels down. The wheel well doors were thus open and the painters somehow missed them, leaving their silver aluminum surfaces bare. The compromise over the parachute was not quite compromise enough. Although the pilot took what evasive action he could by throwing the plane into what Mathison called “a screaming turn” down and away the moment the bomb was released, he did not have sufficient time to get clear. The extraordinarily intense heat burned away the unprotected wheel well doors and also scorched holes through the fuselage wherever oil had spewed on it from the six engines, but the pilot was able to land safely. Had Mathison not resorted to the white enamel paint as an additional safeguard, the B-36 and its crew would probably have been lost.

The task Mathison now faced was a daunting one, for he was under orders to build not just one, but four imposing concrete launch-pads, and their related facilities, by the end of 1956, two for Thor and Jupiter and two for Atlas. Schriever wanted to make certain that if anything occurred to disable one of the pads during testing, there would be an alternate from which to continue launching. The first problem faced by Mathison and the civilian contractors was that the designated sites were swampy, the water table rising nearly to the surface. Ground like this was simply too soft to support massive concrete structures. They had to employ a dredging ship to scour millions of yards of sand from the bottom of the Banana River and pump it ashore at the Cape. Great earthmoving machines then scooped up the sand and hauled it four or five miles to the sites, where it was dumped and then spread and tamped down by rollers to fill in the swamps and create a firm soil base. To try to meet Schriever’s deadline, Mathison had the contractors going in shifts around the clock, the nights eerie with the floodlights at the sites and the lights on the earthmovers shuttling back and forth. Just when they were ready to start mixing and pouring concrete, the workers at their major American cement supplier went on strike. (Concrete is a mixture of cement with sand and broken stone or gravel. As the water used to achieve the mix dries, the material hardens into stonelike consistency.) They overcame this obstacle by importing a shipload of cement from Belgium, which turned out to be cheaper than the American variety. The freighter was unloaded at the new Port Canaveral, a spot just south of the Cape that had been dredged out earlier precisely so that seagoing vessels could bring in bulky equipment or cargo.

The snakes and alligators and other critters of the Cape were intimidated by the earthmovers and floodlights and accompanying racket, but the mosquitoes were not. Vast swarms of them were a constant menace at Canaveral and all along the coast down past Patrick Air Force Base. The day Mathison arrived at Patrick he landed at dusk and got out of the plane wearing a short-sleeve shirt. A few minutes later he looked down at his arms and they were literally black with mosquitoes. After his family arrived, his six-year-old daughter was bitten so badly on the legs going to and from school that she caught a contagious and nasty bacterial skin infection with yellow crusty sores called impetigo. The contractors had to keep two large mosquito-repellent sprayers going at all of the sites in order to work their crews at night. Repellents, and covering as much of the body as possible, seemed to be the only solution. The Navy had sprayed so much DDT over the area to try to reduce the mosquito population during the war that a DDT-resistant strain had apparently mutated. The Air Force tried spraying with a different oil-based compound and it had some effect, but the number of bugs was not dramatically reduced. The coast below Cape Canaveral was one day to style itself the Space Coast and to be lined with motels, hotels, restaurants, and multistory beachside apartments. In 1955, the Cape was still mostly virgin wilderness and the coast below (there was only one motel at Cocoa Beach, about five miles south of Canaveral), sparsely populated stretches of sand. The mosquitoes had a paradise of swamps and low-lying stagnant water in which to breed.

Mosquitoes may swarm, but concrete hardens, and soon the launch emplacements, as the sites were formally known, began to take shape: the circular launch stand on which the missile would rest before its hoped-for flight; the flame troughs underneath on each side and in front; the formidable blockhouse for the controllers, its concrete resting on shock absorbers for additional protection, a good distance to the rear. Along with the RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen fueling tanks and other appurtenances of missile firings was a curious-looking multistory structure of steel beams called a service tower, or gantry for short, which could be moved on railroad tracks to and from the launch stand. The missile was hung in the middle of it for servicing and checks. When everything was ready, the tower would be wheeled over to the launch pad on its tracks and the missile transferred to the pad to stand there upright awaiting the command to rise. Spacious, hangar-like missile assembly buildings, also steel-framed, were erected near the launch emplacements. Missiles came to the Cape pretty well assembled, but the wide bays of these structures were convenient working spaces for the installation and changing of nose cones and other components and also provided shelter from the elements until launch time approached.

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