Mothballed Launch Sites Stand as Monuments to the US Space Program
Roland Miller spent 25 years photographing aging NASA sites. Now, his images of the historic structures have been brought together in a new book
Should a civilization in the distant future discover the remains of ours, what will they see? Typically the most visible signs of past societies are religious monuments — churches, burial formations, pyramids, things built to last and to embody for posterity a people’s highest ideals and aspirations.
Perhaps the most relevant and lasting evidence of the United States will be the remains of an achievement unprecedented in human history and, to many, just as sacred as any religious monument: the sites from which we launched ourselves into space.
Shot with a reverent eye, NASA’s sprawling launch sites and structures, gleaming test facilities, and rusting machinery come together as a visual document and testament to 21st century humanity’s ever-extending reach into the cosmos. Mute monuments to what were once our most lofty ideals.
“I’m a child of the ‘60s, and for anybody that was growing up during that time it was so exciting, it was like science fiction come to life — they were going to try to land on the moon, and they did,” says Miller. “And here we are almost 50 years later and we couldn’t land it on the moon — I doubt we could make the same nine-year window if we started now.”
With the scrapping of the Space Shuttle, public excitement over space exploration seemed to reach an all time low, along with NASA’s budget. But whether due to a combination of private innovation by the likes of SpaceX, the effective popularizing of science by figures like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or a renewed schedule of NASA programs (including missions to Mars), a second golden age of space exploration may be dawning.
Some of Miller’s photos come across as essentially documentary, showing the current state of a once gleaming endeavor. Others are more abstract, revealing textures and colors and forms that allude to something ineffable. An aesthetic that’s as much part of science fiction as science fact, conjuring notions of space and worlds beyond our own, and how we might get there.
Even some 50 years past its prime, the signs of the space race still seem contemporary. Maybe it’s because they remind us of a future we’ve been told for years is just around the corner. Much of our modern ideas of the future draw from the decades of gleaming rockets and satellites and visions of sci-fi that conquered the wider public imagination starting in the 50’s. No amount of rust can obscure such a potent notion.
Maybe it’s because rockets and space-y paraphernalia just look cool. Either way, it doesn’t take a space expert or cultural historian to sense the power in the settings and devices that Miller captures. The idea of going into space still sets the imagination whirring. Few are immune to its allure.
The era of the space race also conjures notions of politics, technology, a general sense of heady times and the not-as-near-as-we-hoped future they pointed to. But they also bear a visual resemblance to the more overtly spiritual monuments of old. The ziggurats of ancient Egypt and henges of prehistoric England aren’t all that different from the rocket pads and launch scaffolds of 1960s Florida or Texas.
The skyward gaze and reach of those ancient monuments speak to a relationship with the stars themselves — the pyramids of Giza were apparently built with shafts for “launching” souls to the heavens. Something about craning the neck to gaze up into the arc of a rocket nozzle conjures the vision of a cathedral’s vaulted ceiling. It all speaks to an immutable something shared by humanity across the ages, an aspiration for something above and beyond our own world, in every sense of the words.
Beyond the aesthetic and historical suggestions in Miller’s photographs are their human dimensions. Complex 34 (above) for example, is where Apollo 7, the first of NASA’s manned Apollo missions, lifted off. But it’s also the site of the Apollo 1 fire, which killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. In a real sense, the places depicted in Miller’s images are monuments to the men and women whose efforts made the grand endeavor of space exploration possible.
“The knowledge that it’s the site of that tragedy, plus just the structures that are left, it has a very Stonehenge-esque quality to it,” says Miller. “There’s this large four-legged rocket stand with a big round ring that was part of the deluge system, so there’s this big round orifice pointed up to the sky. There are certain aspects of it all that are very spiritual.”
Miller began photographing the project 25 years ago, after getting hired to teach photography at Brevard Community College in Florida in 1986. One day, quite by chance, he found himself helping an engineer at Cape Canaveral — literally walking distance from the college — in disposing of a supply of old photographic chemicals that had been sitting around the site for many years. In the process, he was taken through Complex 19, where Gemini was launched.
“As soon as I saw it I thought, I have to photograph this. It was just amazing.”
To some this all may just seem anachronistic. After all, space exploration is re-entering the public imagination, NASA’s budget is stabilizing. The space program is well documented, visually and otherwise. And of course the space race was largely sold to the public on idealism, masking what amounted to a disguised arms race between the powers of East and West.
“You think of preserving civil war battlefields,” says Miller, “Well, these were the cold war battlefields — we weren’t firing shots at each other, we were firing missiles into space.”
But the contributions of the era documented by Abandoned in Place looks beyond mere historicity. Unlike monuments of the past, which sought to represent and establish something permanent — whether the images of gods or the memory of the dead — the signs of our efforts to reach beyond our planet represent a struggle against permanence. They’re a reminder of things that a nation strove for, things it still can and, arguably, must achieve.
We should be excited about our ability to meet challenges that are easily thought impossible. Unlike the pyramids, which point forever back to the time in which they were built, the monuments in Miller’s book better serve as signposts pointing to a time better than their own and our’s alike. They’re reminders of how high we ought to be setting our goals as a society, and that’s a lesson that extends well beyond the space race.
Abandoned in Place can be read as a reverent tour of history, but it’s also a touchstone to a way of looking at the world and the future that unified a nation in ways that few things ever have. War is perhaps its sole competitor. But for all the dark roots it shares with militarism and empire, the space race also tapped into an essential longing in our species, and brought out some of what’s best in us. That’s something worth remembering.
Abandoned In Place is available through University of New Mexico Press, for $45. 176 pages. 13 x 11. 113 color photos, 1 map. Cloth cover.