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Everglades Moon Rockets


                                                           Moon Rockets- in the Everglades?!

                                  David Schneider


Note:  The author is a writer- not a scientist or engineer. Amplification and clarification by first
       hand experts in regard to the following would be most appreciated. Those of you aero-heads like
       me should enjoy the nuts-and-bolts of this, but if I get a little carried away with the technical
       stuff, forgive me.
       Regardless, it's a hell of a story.

 Dead End out to nowhere: 
                                                                                            5 miles long. Sraight as an arrow.


The fringes of America’s greatest swamp hide a secret. Out on the edge of nowhere sits a bunker. Walk past the bunker down the abandoned road and you’ll come to a large steel shed. A closer inspection of the surrounding asphalt reveals embedded supports, intended to facilitate moving the gargantuan structure laterally, and huge air handling equipment and ductwork snake through the structure’s roof. Oversized industrial window fans line one wall of this shed on steroids. Clearly, this is no ordinary building.

The Shed. The whole structure rolls on aircraft wheels
to the spot in the foreground.


         A look inside confirms.
            Analog electronic instrument racks populate the far wall. Overhead, a twenty-ton crane sits silent, its chains swaying in the whistling breeze that blows across the Everglades and through the open shed. Standing here, you start to get the fury feeling that there is something more here, and indeed, directly below you, there is.

It is a silo, plunging 180 feet down into the earth, and in it stands a rocket. A rusting, apparition ten stories high and as wide as a two car garage. It is the largest solid rocket motor ever built and it was intended to take us to the moon.

What is behind it all? You can’t help but wonder. I became determined to find out.

In the days that followed, as my research became more and more pointed, it became obvious that a lot of people wanted to keep this place a secret; The rocket's manufacturer would not cooperate with this investigation, and not one manufacture of the equipment I saw on site would return my emails. Even the Public Information Officer at Everglades National Park wouldn’t respond to my inquiries. Was it just the fact that I lacked credentials or was it something more?

 The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the agency that now controls the property, has erected a gate on the old arrow-straight access road more than five miles from the silo. It was admittedly designed to limit visitation only to those who;

a)     know about it.

b)     are willing to hike the five miles through intense heat, afternoon thunderstorms, swarms of biting insects, and the occasional alligator eying you from the adjacent canal. Stray from the road, and knife edged sawgrass and shallow water infested with poisonous snakes and reptiles surround you.

c)     willingly trespass into the buildings. The road is not posted; the approaches to the buildings are, though somewhat haphazardly.

d)     agree to commercial permit restrictions including, one source told me, digitally removing any gang-related graffiti from images taken there. The site has attained a sort of cult status (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oC_GM97bHoc&NR=1) to those few who know about it, and  Florida authorities are concerned about unauthorized access to the site. Understandably, safety and liability is an issue for the South Florida Water Management District, the agency of jurisdiction.

   The secrecy surrounding the place indicated a story too good for me to pass up. And what could be more compelling than a hulking factory complex that once built and tested the mightiest monolithic rocket motors in history rusting away, smack in the middle of the Florida Everglades?

                                                      'Lest you think I was exaggerating.
                                                             - Photo Courtesy Cindy Dawson


                                                                                            Early History

    America’s space program came to South Florida in 1963 when the United States Air Force gave Aerojet General, a Sacramento California rocket builder and subsidiary of General Tire’s GenCorp, $3 million to start construction on a manufacturing and testing site in Homestead Florida, less than five miles away from the entrance to Everglades National Park.

  Founded in 1942 by faculty of Caltech, Aerojet worked with the United States Air Force on several projects, including pioneering work on jet assisted take-off engines for Air Force fighters, before being acquired by General Tire and Rubber Company. It was a natural fit for General Tire's parent company Gencor, because certain rubber emulsions, natural and synthetic, were and remain to this day a key ingredient of solid rocket motor design.

  Sputnik had been launched five years earlier, sparking two space races- one between the United States and the Soviet Union, and one between the United States Air Force and the fledgling National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). During the early days of the space race, the Air Force had its own ideas on human space flight, touting its own super rocket known as Nova. It was the Air Force's way of hedging its bet on their X-Plane program.

  While NASA’s Wernher von Braun worked on perfecting the smaller boosters that were part of the Mercury and Gemini programs, two separate schools of thought emerged regarding the rockets that would ultimately propel Apollo Astronauts to the moon.

   The issue was whether to use liquid rocket engines,  solid rocket motors (SRMs), or a combination of the two. Apollo would need massive thrust capability, enough to lift 100,000 pounds of orbital payload to space. That favored the solids. But once free of earth orbit, liquids seemed the way to go. From early on, von Braun would favor a liquid fueled Saturn rocket.

   Aerojet and it’s competitor Thiokol (which later merged with Morton-Norwich, the salt company, to become Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of today’s Space Shuttle’s boosters) were the two main players in the solid motor camp. Thiokol built segmented motors, Aerojet preferred monolithic- or one piece- design.

   Both companies, as well as the states and towns in which their plants were located, were banking on which technology von Braun would ultimately support. While both companies had other missile contracts, Apollo’s manned missions to the moon would be the candle on the cake. 



                                                                   The Town

   Homestead Florida is a small agricultural community about 30 miles south of Miami in Dade County. It’s location was perfect for Aerojet and the nation. For one thing, it was close to Cape Canaveral. A proposal was made to dig a canal from the plant’s location to Barnes Sound, south of Biscayne Bay. If the C111 canal project was approved, it would offer excellent deep water access for barges to carry NASA’s rockets between the homestead Plant and Cape Canaveral via the canal and the Intracoastal Waterway.
   This was a time of economic expansion for the region. Everglades National Park had opened 1947, but any environmental conflicts were downplayed in favor of economic development. The C111 canal would be dug for Aerojet and agricultural interests in the name of flood control.
    Homestead ultimately won the competition for Aerojet, beating out sites in California, Texas and Daytona Beach, Florida. The C111 canal was dug and paid for at tax payer expense after being expedited- with environmental considerations bypassed by the U.S. Senate- in the name of national security. South Dade County residents were ecstatic; the space race was coming to South Florida!


                               The Rocket

    Solids vs. Liquids: Both solid and liquid rocket technologies had their advantages and disadvantages; solids offered reliability, relative simplicity, and most importantly, lower cost. President Kennedy’s call to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, as well as the Soviet Union's lead in space technology made the solid motor’s shorter development window an important factor. Liquids, on the other hand, offered greater thrust potential and the use of a vectored nozzle. In other words, it could be steered. Also, a liquid engine could be throttled or even  shut down once ignited. This could not be done with a solid motor. The key question was whether these pros and cons could be manipulated, eliminated or perfected in a machine of here-to-fore unimaginable proportions.
The Chamber. The first thing you need when building a moon rocket is a cylindrical chamber strong enough to withstand the monumental forces of space flight. After researching several possibilities with the assistance of the U.S. Air force, Aerojet subcontracted the fabrication of a 260 inch diameter chamber made of 18% nickel maraging (low carbon, iron alloy) steel to Sun Ship and Dry Dock Company of Chester, Pennsylvania. Sun’s location on the Delaware River would facilitate shipment via barge of the chamber to the Aerojet facility in Florida.(1) They were short length designs; half the length of the planned final version, hence the test designations SL-1, SL-2, and SL-3.
 Two rocket chambers were ultimately delivered to Aerojet, the first in March of 1965. The C-111 Canal was not yet finished, so the rocket chambers were barged down from Sun Ship to Homestead via the Intracoastal Waterway and then trucked in from Biscayne Bay. The rocket chambers were used in three static test firings at the Everglades site.

   The fuel and binder: After you've got a chamber, you need the fuel, or propellant.Formulation and process development work at Aerojet’s laboratories in Sacramento led to the selection of an 86% solid PBAN, a polybutadiene copolymer first developed and used for the 260”, and now being used in today’s Titan III and Space Shuttle boosters. The fuel would be manufactured at three batch plants on site, then poured, and roll-cured at 135 degrees F, all at the Everglades facility.

                          Nozzle, Cone and  Core: 

    The heart of a rocket is its nozzle and exit cone. The nozzle especially so, since this is where all the fiery force of the burning propellant is concentrated and jammed into the exit cone and out to the atmosphere to propel the rocket.
   The spatial tolerances are minute with a motor this size, forces trying to blow the whole thing apart are enormous. Thus, materials and manufacture are critical. Aerojet had their work cut out for them.
   In addition, Aerojet chose to test a new “submerged” nozzle design which might allow for the first “steerable” solid rocket motor. The nozzle assembly consisted of maraging steel and a type 3003 aluminum exit cone. The nozzles would utilize an ablative design, that is, intentionally burning off a protective layer between chamber and outer skin. To do this, Aerojet used 5000 lbs of trowlable synthetic rubber and phenolic resin impregnated cloth as the ablative material.(3)
The company used a 72” throat (the narrowest part of the nozzle assembly) diameter for tests SL-1 and SL-2, and an 89” throat diameter with the submerged vector-able nozzle for SL-3. 


    Before the chamber could be filled with propellant, it had to be  insulated and lined at the General Processing building in the Everglades. Insulating the chamber is key to confining the massive pressure and heat of the burn, as well as allowing an even, non-stick curing of the propellant inside the chamber. This was done inside the huge processing building
(shown in illustration 1, below) with massive steal blast doors.
    A substance known as V-44, an asbestos and silica filled nitrile rubber (a synthetic rubber like that used in rubber gloves) was used to thermally insulate the chamber cylindrical and dome walls. Then an epoxy liner was bonded to the rubber insulation (2). Finally, the whole thing was heat treated to 900 degrees F for eight hours. Then the chamber was trucked three additional miles down the straight asphalt road separating the General Processing Building and the silo.



The first building you come to walking the road is
                             the General Processing Building. 
The General Processing Building. Notice the
                                     ring: 260"- The rocket's diameter.
Processing facility interior.                          The whole east wall was filled with this
            These blast doors lead to a smaller                    insulation or filtering material along w/
            welding and set-up room.                               large boilers and air handling equipment
                                                                   to facilitate lining and heat curing
                                                                   the chamber
  Meanwhile, the solid propellant was being mixed and analyzed at the batch plants and quality control lab adjacent to the General Processing facility. (Blgs 3-6, illustration 1).                                                 
     Two vertical mixers, built by Littleford Day, and a UK continuous mixer were used. The resultant PBAN propellant was constantly monitored-properties such as pot life, rate of cure, viscosity, ballistic and steady state were evaluated and improved at the quality control lab and sent back to the batch plant for refinement.

One of two batch plants, where fuel and oxydizer were mixed.

         Inside the Batch Plant: 
What looked to be the main control board.      This enunciator clearly shows water and nitrogen were
              Notice the scale in the middle.                 part of the batching.
              It handled up to 2200 kg. And, of
              course, the graffitti.
              Yes, it's there.

                                    SPACE-AGE HOPPERS...
These valves may have been where the mix was deposited
                                    into the fuel pots...

            ...then winched out the door...                          ...
to waiting trucks for transport to
                                                                     the quality control lab and the silo.

         Mechanical properties were tested on each batch after cure, and small ballistic test motors were fired. After officials were satisfied with the propellant, it would be produced in sufficient quantities to fill the rocket motor chamber, now standing ready, having been placed vertically in the distant underground silo. 


Aerial Photo of entire Aerojet site shows Processing Facility
                        (enlarged in Illustration 1 below), the "Mystery Mound" and the
                         Test Center (enlarged in illustration 2) , including the Ignition
                         Bunker and Cast and Cure Shed (directly over the silo) bottom of frame. 
                         The C-111 canal is at right. I am guessing the canal at bottom of
                         the General Processing Complex was being dug out to join it when
                         the facility closed down.

        Illustration 1:
An aerial photo of the Processing facility shows the General Processing
           Building upper left. The Batch plants are upper right. Quality Control is middle left.
           Aerojet Road is to the left running North/South. The unfinished canal out to the C-111
           is bottom of picture.

                   Illustration 2:
The Test Center showing the Ignition Bunker 
                          to left and Cast and Cure Shed middle-right.
                          During test firings the shed would be moved to the left
                          of the concrete slab shown in middle.
                          Notice the canal to the right of the shed which was to be
                          extended to the C-111 canal. It was where the ignition motor
                          was guided to after being extracted by cable-sled, post ignition.



                                                                                Fueling and Curing


   So now the trucks began to roll, one after another, out the straight asphalt road to the silo (illustration 2), safely distant in case of catastrophe.

   Out at the silo, the movable shed (sometimes called the "cast and cure shed") was moved over the rocket chamber, and a clover-leaf shaped core was inserted into the chamber using the shed’s overhead travel lift. The core's shape facilitated the fuel's burning.

Fueling-Cast-cure was done using the “bayonet” process, which involved forcing the propellant down a 6” hose from cast pots into the motor chamber. This took approximately two to three weeks followed by another three weeks for curing. Finally the core was removed to reveal the hardened clover leafed shaped fuel, now called a “fuel grain.”

        After final inspections, the ablative nozzle and exit cone were attached using TIG welding. The shed was then moved back. When ready to test fire, the rocket chamber was 81 feet high and weighed nearly two million lbs(5). 


                                                                                       Static Testing


    Three static test firings were conducted between Sept 25, 1965 and June 17, 1967.                     

   SL-1 would produce more than three million pounds of thrust, as measured by the silo’s accelerometers and other instruments. An ignition  motor, a knocked down Polaris missile B3 first stage known as “Blowtorch”, was used to start the 260" motor. It was mounted inside the SL-1’s nozzle and then ejected via 2 ½” extrusion cables attached to a propulsion sled after the 260’s ignition(4). Remants of all this- the cables, poles, and concrete slabs are still on site

      Wernher von Braun himself came to the test of SL-2, a spectacular night test firing. Witnesses told me that the flames could be seen as far away as Miami. Thrust measurements were even higher than SL-1. By the third test, however, Werner von Braun and NASA had already decided that liquid fueled engines would power Apollo’s Saturn V moon rockets. 

                                                            Night Static test firing of SL-2.
                                                            Note the scale of plume to the Cast and Cure Shed 
                                                                                               Photo Credit: Aerojet

   Still, much was being learned, and SL-3 tested the new vectored nozzle, grain design, ablative materials and propellant types. Measured thrust surpassed five million pounds(6).  

      But SL-3 had its problems as well, including ejecting its nozzle and spewing tons of loose propellant made up of hydrochloric and acrylic acids across wetlands and avocado fields. Downtown, locals complained of damage to their automobiles’ paint finish from the fallout and avacado farmers threatened to sue. By then, however, Aerojet and Homestead had too much invested to simply stop and walk away. Both would continue to walk this boondoggle until the bitter end. In this writer's opinion, Homestead and Dade County would ultimately be the big losers; most local workers were laid off before the last test. Aerojet General, however, had already packed its golden parachutes.


                                The Aftermath


      When Aerojet came to Homestead and Southern Dade County Florida, the people wanted them there. Local, County and State Government paved the way for them- literally. The Federal Government even carved out the C-111 Canal- later to be known as the Aerojet Canal- for them. The U.S. Senate expedited the appropriation through congress, calling it a “National Security Priority”. Nearby Everglades Park and the National Park Service said little or nothing, and the locals opened their arms for them- all in the name of economic development. Aerojet and Homestead/Dade County Florida

    Aerojet purchased the land the plant now stands on with the help of Real Estate giant Arvida, already rich off the Florida land boom. They paid $2.50 an acre per year for an annual lease- with an option to buy up to 25,000 acres more at nickels on the dollar. After Apollo’s Saturn V went liquid the site sat vacant and abandoned, its workers laid off. Later, in 1986 after NASA had awarded the Shuttle booster contract to Morton Thiokol of Utah (the chairman of the Senate Committee of Space and Technology was from that state), Aerojet sued the State of Florida, exercised its options, and pulled out of South Florida for good.   

   The company made some very lucrative deals, including selling most of its land holdings to the South Dade Land Corporation for $6 million. After which the SDLC settlerd with the State of Florida for twice that(10). So land that initially cost Aerojet less than $200.000 ultimately was sold to the State of Florida for $12 million.
    County and Federal courts were kept busy for years with lawsuits between Aerojet, Dade County and the State of Florida.(7)

After losing the Shuttle contract in 1986, Aerojet traded its remaining 5100 acres of South Dade wetlands for 55,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land belonging to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in New Mexico(8)- then later sold part of it to a developer with ties to Senator Harry Reid, now U.S. Senate Majority Leader(9).

   In 2004, the State of California brought suit against Aerojet for its handling of hazardous waste at its facility in Rancho Cordova, CA. It became a Superfund site and Aerojet agreed to pay $1.2 million dollars. To my knowledge no study of soil or water samples taken at the Everglades site has ever been made public- I certainly couldn’t find any such study.
    Some folks say the Aerojet site should be a museum, but the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is just that- land and water managers. They told me they do not have the budget or the inclination to run a museum. And to date no private or joint effort has been forthcoming.
    In February 2010, the Homestead City Council entertained a proposal by one Rodney Erwin representing the Omega Space Systems Group to resurrect the Aerojet facility as a new rocket plant. Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman actually voiced support of this lunacy stating "jobs, jobs, jobs." (
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcE8Raky44o). SFWMD, of course, immediately shot down the idea.
    So the spot in the Everglades that once made rockets to go to the Moon now sits like the crazy Aunt that no one wants to talk about. A pity.


                                                                  My Visits

     I visited the site on four separate occasions. For my last visit, I contacted the South Water Management District and met their Director of Communications at the site.  

 One very interesting thing happened during an earlier visit; exactly 1.5 miles from the General Processing facility, as you head south towards the silo, a mound appears out of nowhere. But there is a gravel “driveway” that runs up to it. Approach, and you’ll see a concrete block sticking out of both sides of the mound and through the block run three 6’’ PVC pipes. They go all the way through. A vent of some sort? Maybe the mound protected a forward observation post for the tests, protected by earth? No. Not a door or hatch to be found. Just that “vent”. 
     What’s in there that has to be vented?

       The "driveway" to the Mystery Mound...                  The "Vent":
                                                               I looked in these pipes. They go straight through...


 An Eeriness pervades throughout the site; everything is quiet except for the wind whistling through broken windows and the distant thunder of the ever-present Everglades rain machine. Rust blows across the concrete floors and dislodged aluminum and steel siding swings and bangs in the breeze. My first impression of the place was Tombstone brought forward; a space-aged ghost town, with the biggest, baddest ghost of all lurking in that 150 foot deep hole out on the edge of town.

260" SL-2 Rocket Motor used in third and last test,
                      still resting in its silo out in the 'Glades.
                      Notice the General Tire Logo. Red lettering to left
 reads NASA.

    The Aerojet site in South Dade County Florida is, to this aerospace fan, perhaps the most interesting story I have ever stumbled upon.

To walk amongst the dials and switches and boilers and then, finally, to bend to my knees and look down at the mighty rocket itself with all that history was something I will never forget- even if others would like me to.


1&2. Crimmins, Cousineau, Arojet et al, ASEE Joint Conference June 20, 1999.
3&5  NASA/Aerojet General Corp report CR-72289 260-SL-3 motor report, July 31, 1967.
4.   NASA CR-54454 260-SL Motor Aft-End Ignition System Development, August 20,1962.
6.   Cohen, William, NASA, Office of Advanced Research and Technology, 
     July 1965.
7.  Levin, Ted, Liquid Land, University of Georgia Press, c2003.     "Test of 260" Diameter Motor SL-3
8.   Aerojet General Corp v. Reuben Askew, Governor of the State of Florida et al, #31018,
     United States Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit, Dec 9, 1972.
     State of California v Aerojet-General, Superior Court of the State of california, March 3,1974. 
9.   Florida Sun Sentinal, July 23, 1988.  
10.  LA Times, "Advocates Sue Over Navada Land Exchange" August 29,2006.

References and Sources

Continental General Tire Company website
NASA National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NACA National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics archives
NASA Lewis Research Center
Homestead Historical Society
City of Homestead
Google Earth
ATK Thiokol Inc.
South Florida Water Management District
Aerojet Dade: An Unfinished Journey, A Doug LaRue Film, c. WKLG
Yeoman's Chicago Corporation website
Ametek Corporation website
"The Urinals of Aerojet" http://.urinal.net/aerojet
Aerojet General Corp website.
National Park Service
Everglades National Park
Office of Dade County Clerk of Courts

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