Welcome to historic Launch Complex 26 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, the place that launched America’s absolute first venture into space. This complex operates two launch pads, 26A and 26B. On January 31, 1958 at 10:48 PM EST, our first satellite, Explorer 1, lifted from launch pad 26A, shown in the top two photos. The launch tower and platform are now gone, but some remnants and scorch marks remain. This place really started it all. Explorer 1 proved Wernher von Braun’s capabilities as a space engineer, and set him on a road that would lead humanity all the way to the moon.
Standing in the cramped quarters of launch control gave a real feel for how raw and real everything was in those days. There were no digital systems involved whatsoever. The blockhouse was positioned 400 feet from the launch pad, because that was the maximum distance they could transmit a clean signal along a wire to the rocket systems. Each launch controller looked at a panel of analogue instruments and gauges for every individual system. Now, there are so many systems that software has to monitor all of it. We simply don’t have the manpower to watch each aspect, as the early launch controllers did.
This launch complex reflects a time in which every launch was truly a gamble. The opportunity for complacency wasn’t there, because of the ratio of failures to successes. Every time you launched, you really didn’t know what would happen. The blockhouse that contains launch control has 2.5’ thick steel and concrete walls and a 7’ thick roof. The windows, one set facing directly toward 26A and the other facing 26B, are each 45 pane thick safety glass. This was to protect the launch control crew against a catastrophic failure, which happened frequently in those days. Speaking with a former launch controller, he said that a failure “really made a mess of the place.” Living through all of those failures must have made victory that much sweeter when we successfully launched Explorer 1.