Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Docent Thing To Do

Launch Complex 26 as it appeared in March 1967. In the distance is Launch Complex 5/6, where Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom launched in their Mercury flights.

On September 9 I posted a blog about the free Cape Canaveral Air Force Station tour offered through Patrick Air Force Base. It's on the second Wednesday of every month.

The tour is organized by the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Museum Foundation. Its volunteers staff both the History Center and the Space and Missile Museum on base at the site of the nation's earliest launches.

Click the arrow on the above image to watch a newsreel report of
the Explorer I launch from LC-26 on January 31, 1958.

After the tour, I submitted an application to volunteer as a docent, and was accepted. Today was orientation for the trainees, my first glimpse behind the scenes at a historic site I'd visited many times over the years.

Trainees are given a volunteer handbook that covers mostly operations, policies, guidelines and procedures. To lead tours, a docent must learn the essential facts in a seven-page museum briefing used in a walking lecture given to LC-26 visitors.

Here's a sample:

... On January 31, 1958, at 10:47 p.m., Explorer I lifted off from the launch pad which you can see through the window to your left by the large weight scale indicator. That window, by the way, has forty-five panes of glass in it, three laminated of fifteen panes each, separated by pressure pockets. It is mounted in a wall that is two feet (60 cm) thick. This was to protect the launch crew in case of an on-pad explosion.

Inside the LC-26 blockhouse.

"Volunteer" means, of course, there's no money in it. For me, the compensation is succeeding the original generation of docents, many of whom were individuals who actually worked for the U.S. Air Force on military or NASA programs.

That generation is about to pass on into history. I've visited LC-26 many times since the 1980s, enjoyed hearing all the stories told by the space program's "greatest generation," and wondered what would happen once they pass on. Someone has to step forward when the torch is passed to a new generation, so I decided to be one of them. It seems to be the best way to honor their contribution to the future of humanity.

I look forward to exploring all the historic sites at CCAFS. One such site is Space Launch Complex 17, all too close to LC-26.

This August 1967 photo shows Complex 17 all too close to the museum site.

SLC-17 has been in service since 1956, and the site of Delta II launches since 1989.

Its most infamous launch was on January 17, 1997, when a Delta II carrying a GPS satellite exploded seconds after takeoff.

Click the arrow on the above image to watch the Delta II explosion.

In the above video, you'll see debris rain down on the complex.

According to NASA's online schedule, the last Delta II launch at CCAFS is scheduled for September 8, 2011, the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) project.

After that, it appears that Complex 17 will be retired from service.

We docents will have a front-row seat. Although after watching that 1997 video, I may prefer the balcony.


  1. Congrates on the new gig. It's not the communicator job that you hoped for but I know that you will enjoy it. I emailed you last month that I was moving down to titusville and I arrived last week. I will be in touch with you about how to take the monthly tour. Someday we should get together to watch a launch with other area space geeks.

  2. Not to sure about the headline but congratulations on the post. Maintaining a sense of history is vital so that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past. Well one can hope!

  3. Robin, welcome to town. The monthly tour is through Patrick AFB: there's a link in the above article with the phone number but it's also in the earlier article which is also linked.

    Apparently not a lot of people know what the word "docent" means. It's just a fancy word for tour guide. To quote from

    "A person who is a knowledgeable guide, esp. one who conducts visitors through a museum and delivers a commentary on the exhibitions."