From wooden ships of the 1860s to rocket ships of America’s space age, the lighthouse at Cape Canaveral, Florida has stood as a sentinel for both sea faring and space faring travelers. The first lighthouse at Cape Canaveral was built in 1848 but was not tall enough at just 65 feet to be seen or its light capable of reaching beyond the shoals it was meant to warn against.
Construction of a second lighthouse that stood some 150 feet was begun in 1859, but then was delayed due to the Civil War. It was completed and lit for the first time on May 10, 1868 with a new 1st order Fresnel lens replacing the optics of the first lighthouse. The wide black and white stripes that serve as the daymarkings were added in 1873. When it was feared that beach erosion would endanger the seaside tower, it was disassembled and moved about a mile inland to be reconstructed at its current location in 1892-1894.
Before dawn broke over the Cape on July 24, 1950, the lighthouse flashed its beam past a new type of ship about to take sail. About half of a mile from the tower was a rocket being prepared on Launch Complex 3 for liftoff later that morning. The rocket, known as Bumper 8, was a German V-2 missile captured at the end of World War II with a smaller U.S. Army WAC Corporal rocket mounted to its nose to serve as a second stage. At 9:28 a.m. a new sensation was experienced across the Cape: the thunderous roar of a rocket engine that could be felt as well as heard for miles when Bumper 8 became the first rocket to be launched from the area. At the time the launch site area was known as the Joint Long Range Proving Ground; today it is the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The 1950s was a time of rapid growth at the Cape and test launches soon became as common, as several per day were conducted. New rockets and missiles were brought to the Cape so they could be launched safely out over the Atlantic Ocean and downrange along a string of islands such as Grand Bahama, Eleuthera, Ascension, Antigua, among others, where radar tracking stations were built to follow and record their progress.
Some of the early missiles such as the Matador, Mace, Bull Goose, Navaho, Bomarc, and Snark had wings and looked more like airplanes than missiles. Others like the Redstone, Jupiter, Thor, Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman became our nation’s Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). The U.S. Navy launched its Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident missiles from launch pads at Cape Canaveral before putting them on submarines to be tested at sea off the coast of the Cape.
By the late 1950s and throughout the decade of the 1960s, the rockets got bigger and bigger, and so did the missions they flew. More than 30 launch pads dotted the coastline north and south of the lighthouse. Along with new non-military scientific rockets, those boosters that were once developed as weapon systems were now being modified to carry Earth orbiting satellites, deep space probes, and humans into space.
At 10:48 p.m. on January 31, 1958, the brilliance of the lighthouse beam was no match for how the liftoff of a Jupiter-C rocket from Launch Complex 26 lit up the night sky. Aboard the rocket was Explorer 1, America’s first satellite. Just over three years later, on May 5, 1961, the Canaveral lighthouse felt the rumble of a Mercury-Redstone rocket lifting off from Launch Complex 5 as it carried Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut,ed into space.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the launch of the 365-foot tall Saturn V rocket from Launch Complex 39 at nearby Kennedy Space Center that propelled missions to orbit and land astronauts on the surface of the Moon. It was reported that the launch of a mighty Saturn V could break windows and cause things to vibrate off of shelves in homes and stores more than 20 miles away from the launch area.
In 1981, launch of the first Space Shuttle reverberated through the lighthouse, a sensation it would experience a total of 135 times until 2011. The sound vibration was intense enough to set off car alarms several miles away from the launch pad, and a night launch of the Shuttle was so bright that it would turn night into day for several moments. On 78 occasions, the Space Shuttle returned to Earth by landing at the Kennedy Space Center’s 3-mile long runway. Each landing was preceded by twin sonic booms that could be heard over much of Central Florida.
Years of intense vibrations caused by the noise of launches and sonic booms so near the lighthouse began to take a toll on its Fresnel lens. In 1993 the lens and associated mechanism was removed and taken to the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, about 50 miles north of Cape Canaveral, where, after being restored, it was put on public display in 1995 at the Ayres Davies Lens Exhibit Building. A directional code beacon (DCB-224 marine beacon) was installed in the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse as a replacement for the lens and remains in use today.
Many of the great achievements in American space exploration history have originated from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center area, and the Canaveral Lighthouse has stood watch over every one. Each of the rover vehicles that have landed on the planet Mars and sent back the pictures that have amazed us all on the nightly television news, the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft that have now flown beyond our solar system, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, and every manned mission from the United States, has lifted off from this historic stretch of Florida’s coast, known by many as the Space Coast.
Newspaper articles from the late 1950s and early 1960s relate how local residents tried to get unsuspecting tourists and members of the media to focus on the lighthouse, thinking that it was the rocket that was about to launch. In some cases the prank must have worked because the lighthouse earned the nickname of “old fooler.”
Around the year 1961, a 4-minute long film called The Lighthouse That Never Fails was made, showing the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse being launched like a rocket. The film starts off with an Air Force sergeant climbing the 167 steps to the top to take in the panoramic view. Moments after he reaches the top, he feels a shaking and the camera pulls back to show the lighthouse superimposed over a rocket as it is lifting off. The next scene shows the sergeant yelling to “put it back down; you shot the wrong one off!” The final scene is of a man sitting at a console pressing buttons and switches as a narrator is heard saying that it was a fine launch and commenting that the man must have had plenty of experience. The man at the console says, “no, that was my first launch; I’m really a lighthouse keeper, but I like to think for myself”! A copy of the very funny film can be found online at youtube.com.
Since 1989 the Canaveral Lighthouse has witnessed the launch of more than 50 Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites from the Cape which have revolutionized land, sea, and air navigation, and made lighthouses all but obsolete. Additional GPS satellites have been launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. In the days long ago mariners looked to the stars to navigate; now they look to satellites that are up among the stars.
Today the Atlas V and Delta IV are the two major launch vehicles in use at the Cape. The Falcon 9 booster built and operated by the SpaceX Company has also conducted several launches, including one in October of 2012; the first private mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. New boosters and new manned spacecraft are being designed and built that will soon fly from the Cape, making its future as bright as the beam of the lighthouse that has flashed over the area for more than 140 years.
In the year 2000 the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse became owned by the United States Air Force. Other than a nearby Indian burial mound, the lighthouse is the oldest manmade structure on the Cape. The Canaveral Lighthouse stands among the rockets as it remains ever vigilant, flashing out its message to anyone who would attempt to travel the vastness of the sea or space. It was built decades before humans acquired the ability to fly, and for the past six decades has witnessed our efforts to leave our planet on journeys to other worlds.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2013 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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