Friday, October 23, 2015

That Sinking Feeling

Click an image to view it at a higher resolution. All images in this article are copyright © 2015 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to

Last May Cape Canaveral Air Force Station officials suspended public tours of the facility. They cited a general unspecified threat against U.S. Air Force military bases by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Because the public hasn't had access in nearly six months, no one outside badged employees has been able to witness the deterioration of several historic sites.

Today I visited Launch Complex 34. Originally built for the Saturn I program, it's most famous for the site of the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967.

I found barricades blocking vehicular entrance to the pad, and barricades around the pedestal where the Saturn I and IB launched.

Several places around the concrete pad seem to be suffering from uneven settling. I have to wonder if this is due to environmental remediation of trichloroethylene poured into the ground near the pad. According to this 2011 USA Today article:

From 1959 to 1968, during Apollo when NASA launched Saturn rockets from Launch Complex 34 at Cape Canaveral, trike went straight into the ground.

An estimated 88,000 pounds of the solvent soaked into the soil and groundwater.

Kennedy's sandy, alkaline soils are thought to neutralize most metals and other contaminants before they become a problem up the food chain. But trike dies hard.

And workers kept pouring it into the ground in the early years of the shuttle program, thinking it would evaporate.

This 2008 consultant report described LC-34 as “Florida’s largest known dense non-aqueous phase liquid (DNAPL) site.” It described the site as “a complexly layered island hydrogeologic system.”

A 2008 Geonsyntec consultant presentation described LC-34 as “330 acres of groundwater negatively impacted by historic releases of chlorinated solvents (1 mile by ½ mile plume).” It stated that groundwater contamination existed to 118 feet below the land surface, which was described as “Sand aquifer with inter-bedded silt, clay, and shell layers (8 Layers).”

The source of the contamination was the Engineering Support Building, which once existed to the southwest of the blockhouse. The ESB was long ago demolished. These illustrations from the 2008 Geosyntec presentation show the location of radial groundwater flow and the distribution of contamination:

Is the treatment plan responsible for the uneven settling at Pad 34? I've no idea.

I'm sure that Dr. Kurt Debus and the rest of the design team in 1960 gave little thought to the long-term stability of the pad. The Saturn 1 program itself began with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in the late 1950s. It transferred with Dr. Wernher von Braun and his ABMA team to NASA in 1960.

Watch a 1962 NASA documentary on construction of Launch Complex 34. Video source: AF Space & Missile Museum YouTube channel.

Whatever the cause, I'm simply documenting that it's happening.

The first three photos are to document when the site was constructed. Individuals scrawled dates into the concrete.

This one says “1-4-61” but it's almost impossible to read. It faded in recent months after someone placed a barrier atop it.

These are easier to read:

These next photos are from around the pad. They speak for themselves.

The remaining photos are of the abandoned LC-34 blockhouse.