As something of an artist in my early years, I delighted in taking crayon to butcher's paper like a madman with my tongue hanging out the side of my mouth. The subject was most often crudely drawn rockets and spacecraft that my proud mother displayed on the kitchen wall. Once the next door neighbours took a holiday in the USA and returned bearing gifts - a navy blue baseball cap emblazoned with NASA in bold red stitching. I wore that cap until it disintegrated. My childhood dream was one to day see a real rocket.
QX and I sat upon a rusty gate staring vacantly down a rough asphalt road that veered not an inch far as the eye could see. Below a cloudy winter sky it split the swamp neatly in two. Beside it ran a line of rotting power poles, looking like an army of withered old men simply waiting for a good break in traffic to cross. A chill wind spurred us to action and we dropped from the gate and began to walk.
Clear minded and relaxed we wandered through the marsh feeling further and further removed from all civilisation. The tall marsh plants rustled in the breeze and I forgot how tired I really was. On two hours sleep we'd boarded a 5am flight, missed our connection, been bumped to first class, arrived 4 hours late into Florida, lost our drivers license, sweet talked the car hire place, gotten lost, gotten found and finally arrived at the one road in the entire world we wanted to be. Far in the distance a white vehicle grew from a speck and approached slowly. Despite having walked passed two locked gates he just rolled on by without a second glance - happy to share this road to almost nowhere.
After a mile we passed a cluster of buildings - the primary research site. It was loosely guarded by rocks and rusty wire, faded tags on the rooves showing the local kids had long ago braved these security measures. In this marshy wilderness the dozen buildings stood decayed and silent but for the birds and wildlife who had come to reclaim their lands. We pressed on.
As the cluster shrunk behind us a single outline on the horizon grew larger and larger. Over the next 3.5 miles the corrugations upon the roof became visible and slowly the harsh shape of a solitary shed grew bold. Long weeds overflow from cracked concrete and sheet metal roofing littered the ground as we approached the shed. The spacious interior was barren but for scrap metal and discarded relics of the US space program. A suspicious checkerplate circle 60ft in diameter filled the center of the floor. We'd arrived.
The checkplate was broken up by a small rusty hole, through which we dropped a piece of debris. Seven seconds later it clanged against metal and splashed into something liquid. The echo was immense. We geared up, warpped ourselves in protective astronaut attire and climbing gear and squeezed ourselves in into the chasm below. Inside the 190ft deep, 60ft wide concrete abyss I rotated slowly feeling the incredible freedom of my limbs in the stale damp air. Two spiral staircases bolted to the nearby wall promised an easier descent into the black pit below, their turquoise hand railings contrasting strongly against the silo's grey interior. Rows of massive concrete and steel anchors protruded from the walls at 3m intervals encircling the space. Presumably the rocket engines were tied down during tests. I spun slowly towards the silo's centre and came face to face with the beast. An 260-SL, the world largest solid rocket motor. I vainly tried to reach out and touch its smooth metallic surface but all sense of proportion and perspective was lost from my vantage point.
The silo is divided horizontally into two sections by a large hexagon of mesh floor. It's not quite as decrepit as the levels above confluence but give it another 40 years and it will be close. Opposite the stairs, on the backside of the rocket, we finally found our proof. Halfway up its length in faded red faded letters it said: NASA.
From the underside it was clear the rocket engines were dropped nose first into the firing pit with the tail of the rocket sitting at ground level. According to my research there were 3 such engines, the rumour being this engine has never been fired. This is an old photo taken by Jack Levi shows a test firing of a 260inch solid rocket engine. Originally the shed was on wheels to be moved during these tests.
The key to exiting the hole gracefully seemed to be hunch right over, get your hand ascender as high as possible then stand up through the hole. Once topside the ropes were checked for wear, derigged and stowed; lost lens caps were found and we scuttled out from the lone shed into the crisp night. Drained and weary we began to walk and the adreline high slowly slipped away. The rope bag and camera gear never seemed so heavy.
With eyes closed we wandered back taking in the scent and sounds of the marshes. We'd just seen something special, the likes of which we may never see again. I doubt many know or care what's hiding below that thick steel floor but I couldn't be happier - I'd finally seen my rocket. When I arrive home I'm going to dig out that old NASA cap and sport it like a G.