CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – With the push of a button early Thursday, twin towers at one of Cape Canaveral’s most storied launch sites tumbled to the ground, leveling landmarks that have touched the skyline since the early space program.
Just after 7 a.m., Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, initiated detonations that simultaneously brought down the mobile gantries and fixed towers at Launch Complex 17, just a few miles north of Port Canaveral.
The towers’ demolition comes nearly seven years after the complex last hosted a launch, when United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Delta II rocket flew from Florida for the final time with a pair of lunar probes.
“We have launched some super-exciting missions — Mars missions, all sorts of GPS missions, missions to all sorts of fun planets — so it is definitely a little emotional for me to see,” said Scott Messer, ULA’s Delta II program manager, of the launch complex’s demolition. “With 61 years of history and 325 launches, it’s been a pretty incredible piece of the space community for many years.”
The roughly $2 million demolition project had been planned for years while awaiting funding, and was postponed from last year.
In addition to the two towers, the contract as of last year called for the removal of more than 30 launch complex facilities, associated structures and pavement. Contractors Ames 1 and Alliance Steel Construction planned to recycle approximately 1,700 tons of steel and 2,000 tons of concrete, according to the Air Force.
Pads A and B at Space Launch Complex 17, or SLC-17 — variously referred to as “Slick 17,” "LC17" or just “17” — date to the Air Force’s first launch of a Thor intermediate ballistic missile in 1957.
ULA says the site hosted the first launches of communications satellites, weather satellites and early probes researching the space environment.
The twin launch gantries began to resemble their current form by the late 60s or early 70s as they grew to support Delta rockets. For years they were painted red prior to applications of anti-corrosive coatings in the early 90s.
The Delta II rocket flew the first of 110 missions from the site on Valentine’s Day in 1989, lifting one of 48 Global Positioning System satellites that became a defining legacy of the rocket and launch complex.
Other high-profile Delta II missions that captured the public’s imagination included three Mars rovers — Sojourner (aboard Pathfinder) in 1996 and Spirit and Opportunity in 2003 — and in 2004 the first probe to orbit Mercury.
“It’s kind of a poignant moment thinking back over all of the years of successful Delta missions,” said Tim Dunn, a launch director with Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Services Program. “It gives me a great feeling to remember all of the wonderful missions that I’ve been able to be a part of. At the same time, it is the final closure of the Complex 17 book, and with that, a little melancholy.
Dunn presided over countdowns in which the mobile service towers would roll back roughly the length of a football field to reveal the 132-foot Delta II rocket about 10 or 12 hours before liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Up to nine solid rocket motors sometimes were strapped to the booster for added power.
Amid all its successes, Launch Complex 17 played host to one of the Cape’s most spectacular rocket failures of the modern era, when a Delta II exploded a few hundred feet off pad 17A on Jan. 17, 1997.
Chunks of flaming solid rocket propellant rained down on the pads, destroying cars parked nearby and forcing smoke inside the shaken blockhouse where the launch team was gathered. No one was injured.
Dunn and Messer now are preparing for the Delta II program’s final launch, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in mid-September.
Complex 17 already has a new tenant, Moon Express, a private company that plans to perform short-hop tests of a small lunar lander that could fly missions for NASA and other customers.
The complex was the Cape’s southernmost launch site, giving the public spectacular views from just a few miles away at the Port and Jetty Park and down to the Cocoa Beach Pier.
For many local residents and beachgoers since the 1960s, Launch Complex 17's twin launch towers were the first landmarks looking north that symbolized the U.S. space program, followed a little further up the coastline by the historic Cape Canaveral Lighthouse.
Over decades, the site helped deliver missions to space that supported national security and achieved breakthroughs in science and exploration.
“They all started right there on the hallowed ground of Complex 17,” said Dunn.