“Missile Row” pads at Cape Canaveral returning to action

by William Graham

Firefly Aerospace secured the lease to SLC-20 in 2019, with plans to use the site to enable low and medium-inclination launches including lunar missions. The company also operates Space Launch Complex 2W (SLC-2W) at Vandenberg Space Force Base for high-inclination launches. Firefly’s Alpha rocket made its debut from Vandenberg last year but failed to reach orbit. A return-to-flight mission from Vandenberg is currently expected around May, with the first launch from Cape Canaveral due before the end of the year.

Alpha will be able to deploy a payload of approximately 1,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. Like Relativity, Firefly has ambitions to expand its launcher fleet. It has announced plans for a larger rocket – Beta – and a reusable winged launcher, Gamma.

While two of the Titan launch pads at the north end of Missile Row might be coming back to life, there are currently no plans for the Atlas pads on the southern part of the row – at least, not those that were used historically for missile testing – to support future launches. This does not mean, however, that they have no role in the future of America’s space program.

The Atlas made its first flight on 11 June 1957, lifting off from Launch Complex 14, the northernmost of the four launch pads. Over the next twelve months, eight Atlas-A rockets flew from LC-14 and LC-12, before the Atlas-B was introduced in July 1958 from LC-11. This was the first version of Atlas to incorporate the stage-and-a-half approach with a sustainer engine and separable booster unit which would become one of the hallmarks of the Atlas family. Further iterations of the missile would be introduced over the next few years including the prototype Atlas-C and the operational Atlas-D, E, and F versions. All four pads would be used in support of the missile testing program, but each would also see at least one orbital launch.

An Atlas-B launch vehicle at LC-11 prior to launching the SCORE satellite in December 1958. (Credit: NASA)

Launch Complex 11 was used for the first orbital Atlas launch, with an Atlas-B vehicle orbiting Signal Communications by Orbiting Relay Equipment (SCORE), the first experimental communications satellite, in December 1958. This would be the only orbital launch from LC-11, although the pad would continue to support missile development – both directly through development launches of the later Atlas models, and indirectly through a series of Advanced Ballistic Reentry Systems (ABRES) flights using Atlas-F rockets. The pad was deactivated after its final ABRES launch in 1964, having supported 33 launches.

Launch Complex 12 was to have hosted the first flight of the Atlas-Able rocket, which paired the Atlas booster with the upper stages of the Vanguard rocket. This first launch, with an Atlas-C booster, was never conducted as the vehicle caught fire and exploded during a pre-launch static fire test. Three Atlas-Able rockets were subsequently launched with Atlas-D boosters, one from LC-14 while LC-12 was undergoing repairs and the other two from LC-12 itself. However, none of these launches succeeded in reaching orbit.

Missile tests from LC-12 continued alongside the Atlas-Able launches until 1961, after which the pad was turned over to NASA missions with the Atlas-Agena rocket. These launched the nine Ranger probes to the Moon, along with the Mariner 1, 2, and 5 missions to Venus, Mariner 4 to Mars, and a series of scientific and technology demonstration missions in Earth orbit. Two suborbital Atlas-D launches were also made during this time under NASA’s Flight Investigation Reentry Environment (FIRE) project, aimed at testing materials to protect spacecraft as they re-enter the atmosphere.

The last of 37 launches from LC-12 – not including the Atlas-Able accident – took place on 5 November 1967, with an Atlas SLV-3 Agena-D carrying Applications Technology Satellite 3 (ATS-3) to geostationary transfer orbit.

Launch Complex 13 was used exclusively for missile testing until February 1962. Like LC-12, it was adapted for the Atlas-Agena rocket, although its mobile service tower was also torn down and rebuilt, providing better payload processing facilities – particularly for military satellites. Atlas-Agena launches from the pad began with a pair of Vela satellites in October 1963. In addition to military launches, LC-13 also hosted NASA’s Mariner 3 launch to Mars, the Lunar Orbiter launches, and the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory 5 (OGO-5) mission.

LC-13 would continue in service until 1978, supporting occasional launches of National Reconnaissance Office signals intelligence payloads and the Canyon and Aquacade spacecraft bound for geostationary orbit. A total of 51 rockets were launched from the pad.

The Mercury-Atlas 2 mission launches from LC-14 in February 1961. (Credit: NASA)

The northernmost Atlas pad on Missile Row, Launch Complex 14, is perhaps the most storied due to its role in NASA’s early human spaceflight programs. As well as supporting tests of the early Atlas missiles, LC-14 hosted an Atlas-Able launch in 1959 and a pair of Atlas-Agena flights in 1960. It then began to transition from tests of the Atlas-D missile to the LV-3B variant of the Atlas-D which would be used in NASA’s Mercury program. Following a series of test flights, John Glenn would lift off from LC-14 aboard Mercury-Atlas 6 in February 1962, becoming the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth.

Four crewed Mercury-Atlas missions would launch from LC-14 before the end of the program. LC-14 would also be used to support NASA’s next human spaceflight program, Project Gemini, with the launch of uncrewed target vehicles for use as docking targets. Six Atlas SLV-3 Agena-D launches were made from LC-14 with their upper stages serving as Agena Target Vehicles – equipped with docking collars for the Gemini capsule to dock and then perform orbital adjustments using the Agena’s engine.

An additional launch of an Atlas SLV-3 without an Agena carried the Augmented Target Docking Adaptor (ATDA), an inert backup launched to replace the Agena for Gemini IX after it failed to reach orbit. This reached orbit successfully, but when the Gemini crew attempted to rendezvous with it, they discovered that the payload fairing had failed to separate.

The target vehicle launches from LC-14 took place about an hour and a half before their corresponding Gemini missions, with the crew launching to rendezvous from LC-19 as the Agena or ATDA made its first pass back over Cape Canaveral. The 11 November 1966 launch of the Agena Target Vehicle for Gemini XII marked the thirty-second and final launch from LC-14, 99 minutes before Gemini XII itself became the last mission to lift off from LC-19.

Today, LC-12 and LC-14 remain inactive, the latter hosting a monument to the Mercury program and its seven astronauts. While Launch Complex 13 is no longer used to launch rockets, it has found a new role in helping to land them. The complex has been leveled and reconstructed as SpaceX‘s Landing Zones 1 and 2 (LZ-1 and 2), providing a landing area for returning Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters that have lifted off from Launch Complex 39A and Space Launch Complex 40 further north.

The side boosters of the Falcon Heavy test flight in February 2018 land at Landing Zones 1 and 2, on the former site of LC-13. (Credit: SpaceX)

LZ-1 was first used in December 2015 on the first Falcon 9 mission to feature a return-to-launch-site (RTLS) mission profile. Booster 1019 landed successfully, becoming the first Falcon 9 core to achieve a successful intact landing following an orbital mission. The landing pad has since been used for several first stage recoveries, with a second landing pad constructed nearby to facilitate dual landings of Falcon Heavy side boosters.

As the Missile Row designation is unofficial, it is not uncommon to find alternative definitions including some of the adjacent launch pads. At the south end of the row, two additional Atlas launch pads were built in the 1960s as Launch Complex 36 (LC-36). These were used exclusively for satellite launches with the Atlas-Centaur rocket, which added the high-energy Centaur upper stage to a modified Atlas missile to produce a capable launch vehicle once initial reliability issues had been worked out. LC-36A was built in line with the Missile Row pads, while LC-36B was built slightly further to the west.

Atlas-Centaur rockets launched from LC-36, later SLC-36, until 2005, when the Atlas III was retired and replaced by the larger Atlas V launching out of SLC-41. The complex is now being rebuilt by Blue Origin to service their New Glenn rocket. This will have a launch platform close to the site of SLC-36A, with processing facilities where SLC-36B once stood. Launch Complex 11 has been subsumed into the enlarged complex, Blue planning to use it as an engine test site.

Render of the new LC-36, rebuilt to support Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Two launch complexes built for NASA’s Saturn I rocket that supported the Apollo program are located to the North of Missile Row, also sometimes included in an expanded “Row,” even though they have no link to missile testing at the Cape. Launch Complex 34 was used for initial tests of the Saturn I and later Saturn IB vehicles, as well as being equipped for crewed launches. This was the site of the Apollo 1 fire, and later saw the launch of the project’s first crewed mission, Apollo 7. Today the site stands derelict, a memorial to the Apollo 1 crew.

Launch Complex 37 originally consisted of two pads, LC-37A and 37B, although only the latter was used for launches. It was used for some uncrewed missions during the early Apollo program, including the first test of the Lunar Module, Apollo 5. NASA had originally expected to use both LC-34 and LC-37 as part of the Apollo Applications program, conducting Earth orbit missions after the goal of reaching the Moon had been accomplished. When this was reduced to just the Skylab program and Apollo-Soyuz, NASA deemed it more economic to modify a Saturn V mobile launcher and fly the Saturn IB from LC-39 instead. As a result, the Saturn I pads were never reactivated, and eventually, their towers were demolished.

Boeing rebuilt Space Launch Complex 37B to support its Delta IV rocket, which first flew in 2002 and continues to fly from the pad in its Delta IV Heavy configuration, as it approaches retirement.

Finally, at the most south-easterly point of Cape Canaveral, beyond LC-36, is Space Launch Complex 46. This was built to test the Trident II missile in the 1980s and continues to be used by smaller rockets today. These have included Lockheed Martin’s Athena, Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur, and most recently Astra’s Rocket 3.3.

Just as rockets flying from the iconic towers along Missile Row in the 1950s and 1960s helped to develop America’s spaceflight technologies and industries, the return of rockets to these launch pads will help to drive the push towards lower-cost and more advanced launch vehicles in the present and future.

(Lead image: NASA.)

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