CAPE CANAVERAL — They supported some of the nation’s first launches of weather and communications satellites, helped to send probes to other planets and to establish the GPS constellation now so embedded in everyday life.
But in an instant Thursday morning, the twin launch towers at Launch Complex 17 collapsed in a cloud of dust, brought down by controlled explosions as about 100 spectators looked on a short but safe distance away.
Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, presided over a brief demolition ceremony that closed a storied chapter in Cape history, while opening another that could see the private sector take a lead role in exploration.
“Keep your fingers crossed that I won’t mess this up,” Monteith joked before initiating the charges just after 7 a.m. “We are getting ready to leap into the future.”
With a warning siren, a final 3-2-1 countdown and cry of “fire in the hole!”, explosives flashed with loud bangs near the bases of the nearly 200-foot-tall mobile and fixed towers at pads 17A and 17B, sending them toppling sideways in opposite directions.
The crowd cheered.
Complex 17 was activated in 1957 for test launches of Thor ballistic missiles, and was later known for space missions by Delta rockets. In all, it hosted 325 launches.
Most recently, the site was home for more than 20 years to United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Delta II program, which flew the last of its 110 missions from the Cape nearly seven years ago, sending a pair of gravity mapping probes to the moon for NASA on Sept. 10, 2011.
The $2 million demolition project had been in the works since then.
Delta II rockets launched multiple orbiters and landers to Mars, including the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2003. Opportunity remains active on the Red Planet today.
The rockets launched nearly 50 Global Positioning System satellites from Florida for the Air Force, helping to establish a precise navigation and timing system that transformed military operations and that ordinary citizens rely upon daily for everything from driving directions to financial transactions.
One more Delta II launch remains, planned Sept. 12 from California.
"I have had such an incredible opportunity to participate in what we’ve always felt was a really special team environment with the Delta II team," said Tim Dunn, a NASA launch director with Kennedy Space Center's Launch Services Program. "Now part of that is definitely physically going away, although we’ll always have the memories of the team at 17."
Launch Complex 17 and neighboring Complex 18 now are occupied by Moon Express, a private company developing small lunar landers that NASA may use to send science instruments to the lunar surface in the next few years.
Moon Express will test engines and landers at the site, but launch them atop rockets elsewhere on the Cape pads or potentially from other locations. No launches or hazardous activity will be performed at Complex 17.
“A lot of the reconnaissance of the solar system — the knowledge that we have, the journeys — started here," said Bob Richards, Moon Express CEO. "So there’s a huge amount of history and legacy. Moon Express is now entrusted with carrying this forward into the future."
"We are transforming 17 and 18 from the legacy of the past to an opportunity for the future," he added. "We’ll be launching our robotic explorers from Cape Canaveral and they’ll be built right here at 17 and 18. Within a year or two, we’ll be landing on the moon.”
The Launch Complex 17 towers were the oldest intact at one of the Cape's original launch sites, but others have been knocked down over the years to make way for new programs, including at complexes 36, 40, 41 and at 13 — the latter now a landing zone for SpaceX rockets.
Old structures may have lead paint or other environmental liabilities, and don't fare well in the Cape's hot, salty weather once launch programs stop paying to maintain them.
"They’re the last of their breed, so it’s almost like an iconic form of architecture being gone, on one hand," said Roland Miller, author of "Abandoned in Place," about historic Cape launch sites. "On the other hand, the location of those towers being on a secure military base and so close to the ocean, there’s no practical way to preserve them historically."
"It’s truly the end of a phase in American spaceflight history, with the last towers on one of the original launch facilities on Cape Canaveral coming down," said Miller.
Launch Complex 17 had been Cape Canaveral’s southernmost launch site, offering spectators close-up views from Port Canaveral and the beach near Jetty Park just a few miles to the south.
"That was the closest rocket launch that the public could see," said Dunn.
The towers grew over the years to accommodate larger Delta rockets, but had looked much the same since at least the late '60s, changing in color from red to steel gray along the way.
Looking north from the public beaches of Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, a view that sweeps up the coastline to the historic Cape Canaveral Lighthouse, the towers were for many the first landmarks symbolizing the space program's presence here.
"It’s part of history, which is what we’re doing every single day out here on the (Eastern) Range," said Monteith.