Roland Miller’s Abandoned Wonderland: Deserted Facilities by NASA and the U.S. Government
As humanity continues to excel in going beyond human abilities through technology, the victory comes with a price: American photographer Roland Miller travels to abandoned places once found useful by the space exploration organization NASA and the U.S. Army and collects their remnants as memories.
Hi Roland! Firstly, your series “Abandoned in Place” covered deserted places of the U.S. government, such as facilities of the army and NASA. What inspired you to photograph them?
I was working as a photography instructor at Brevard Community College (Now Eastern Florida State College) in Cocoa, Florida. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center are only a few miles from the college.
I received a phone call from an environmental engineer who was remodeling an old office build on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The building included an old photography lab, and it contained left over photography chemicals. He requested I help him determine how to properly dispose of the photography chemicals.
In the process of that work, he took me to Launch Complex 19, the launch site of the Gemini space missions. I knew instantly I wanted to photograph this launch site. It soon became apparent that there were a number of other deactivated launch complexes that could be photographed.
Did you face any challenges prior to taking photos of them — such as getting special permits?
All of the sites I photographed for Abandoned in Place are located on secure NASA, military, or private commercial facilities. This necessitated that public affairs or security personnel escort me when making these photographs. It took a couple of years to acquire the level of access required to document these sites in the manner I desired. Once I had made a couple of excursions and showed the photographs I made to NASA and the Air Force, they then gave me their blessing to continue the work.
What’s the most enjoyable moment you got from taking their photos?
I enjoyed exploring and photographing these launch complexes and test facilities that had been the site of so much history. It was a real privilege to experience them. Along with making the photographs, I met many amazing people who worked at these sites. They were all gracious with their time in answering my questions and telling me stories from the heyday of early spaceflight.
This sort of places tell a lot of stories. For you, what’s the story behind them?
There are many stories in many different contexts, and I think the most important one is that humans, as a species, are capable of accomplishing truly amazing and difficult goals when we work together.
It has been nearly 50 years since we first landed on the Moon, and it will likely be a long while before humans again set foot on that most marvelous satellite. I also find it fascinating that these launch and test sites, which were once the focus of the world’s attention, were largely forgotten after the end of the Apollo Program in the early 1970s.
Are you a fan of NASA and did you dream of going to outer space?
Oh yes! When I was a child, the space program was one of the highlights of my early years. It was science fiction come to life. I absolutely wanted to be an astronaut, but poor eyesight and a childhood aliment indicated that there was no chance of it. The opportunity to work at the early spaceflight facilities has been a truly special experience for me.
Technology continues to rise, and newer facilities (both publicly known and in secret) are also being established. Do you think these abandoned places should be reworked instead of being abandoned? Why so?
I think that some of them should be preserved, and others should probably be re-purposed — as is already the case in several instances. It is a question of conservation versus preservation. In general, I think it is more important to continue to explore space. Cape Canaveral and some of the other locations I photographed are unique real estate for launching rockets. If every deactivated launch complex were preserved, then there would soon be no room for new program facilities. The costs involved in maintaining deactivated launch sites at Cape Canaveral coupled with their location by the Atlantic Ocean and its saltwater environment makes preservation of these facilities daunting and expensive.
There are a few sites that I do think should be preserved. Launch Complex 34 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was the site of the first manned Apollo launch, Apollo 7. Complex 34 is also the site of the tragic Apollo One fire. The significance of these events makes it worth preserving.
Complex 34 also has a very powerful atmosphere — more so than any of the other remaining launch pads. The remaining structures are reminiscent of Stonehenge. Launch Complex 31/32 was a Minuteman Missile test launch facility. What makes it unique and preservation worthy is the fact that the remains of the Space Shuttle Challenger are buried in the two missile silos. I consider both Complex 34 and Complex 31/32 to be hallowed ground. Thankfully, I know of no plans to disturb or re-purpose either site.
Did you pick up a lesson/insight during/after taking their photographs?
Yes, definitely. It was fascinating to see what a combination of truly high and low technologies were united to create these facilities. The ingenuity of the design and engineering was amazing and creative. I also found the aging of these sites reflected the temporal nature of our human lives.
These places now stand almost similar to historical ruins. Personally, how do you think these places can be deemed significant in the American landscape and identity?
Much like Civil War battlefields or the Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, these historic ruins define a period of American and World history that was truly unique. Unlike the rockets and spacecraft in museums around the country, these ruins are still in the spatial and landscape context from when they were in use — as archaeologists say, in situ. They speak to a level effort and ingenuity that I don’t feel has been matched since that time.
Lastly, what do you think of the idea of making these places as cultural heritages and tourist spots?
There are some tours available of a few of these sites, but in general, it is difficult to visit these sites due to their location on secure NASA and military sites. The deactivated sites themselves are often surrounded by active launch facilities with hazardous operations. I wish it were possible for these sites to be accessible to the general public. I think it would ignite interest in space exploration. However, for the foreseeable future, access is likely to continue to be limited.
If you loved our one-on-one with Roland, visit the series site or his personal website for more of his works. You can also support Roland and his photography buy purchasing his book Abandoned in Place on Amazon. All images used are with permission from Roland Miller.