The following story is the first of two parts on the Cape Canaveral lighthouse by Judy Lovell, a photographer extraordinaire, who runs a WordPress blog called Janthina Images.
Besides this article, and the one following, please view her image gallery on her website as well. In the gallery she has some lovely photos of Florida lighthouses with prints available for sale. Enjoy, and drop by her website occasionally for different articles. If you wish to view the image gallery as a slideshow, please click here.
They fill that night with Knowledge. A thousand ships go by,
A thousand captains bless them, so bright and proud and high:
The world’s dark capes they glamour; or low on sand banks dread,
They, crouching, mark a pathway between the Quick and Dead —
Like star points in the ether
They bring the seamen ease,
These Lords of Wind and Weather
These Wardens of the Seas!
…Edwin James Brady…
Lighthouses have long stood at the edges of the world, lonely outposts maintained by devoted souls to ensure the safety of ships at sea. But, only one remarkable beacon was destined to illuminate the path for ships of space! But how did this happen? How did a lighthouse built on a hook of sand jutting out into the Atlantic to protect mariners from dangerous currents become a front row witness to the advent of the Space Age?
Described by Ponce de Leon as the “Cabo de las Corrientes” or “Cape of the Currents”, this area was a navigational landmark long before it had a name. The Ais were the first indians that Ponce de Leon encountered in 1513 when he tried to land at St. Lucie Inlet. Fierce and respected, the Ais fought off Spanish explorers invading the area with their cane arrows and another name endowed by the Spanish, “Cabo de Canaveral” or “Cape of Canes” is the name which has endured. From the age of exploration to now, this landmass has been an important crossroad in man’s inherent need to push the limits of his world!
Fast forwarding to the dawn of the space age, a site was needed on the east coast of the United States for rocket launches. West Coast launches simply were not ideal due to the earth’s rotation. So a search was begun along the Atlantic coast. Most areas under consideration were simply too densely populated to readily establish a rocket launch site. Then the realization came that the Coast Guard already owned a tract of land just perfect for the purpose. A tract of land, the cape of the currents, which the government owned because there was a lighthouse sending out its protective beam 18 nautical miles. It was the presence of the lighthouse which secured the location that would launch the United States into the Space Age!
On May 11, 1949 President Truman signed legislation establishing the Joint Long Range Proving Ground at Cape Canaveral, a site chosen for rocket launches to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation. The southerly location was ideal as the linear velocity of the Earth’s surface is greater nearer the equator. The Cape location allowed a rocket to be fired to the east with an added velocity push of 17,300 miles an hour due to launching in the same direction as the earth’s spin. Having the downrange area sparsely populated, in case of accidents or so booster rockets could fall harmlessly into the sea was also a practical advantage.
While the first rocket, Bumper 8, was launched in 1950, my favourite imagery is of the Redstone Rocket launches in 1953. Frank M. Childers, a member of the technical detachment present at the cape then, describes how the program director, Dr. Werner von Braun, utilized the lighthouse as an observation deck. The balcony around the lantern room was a perfect spot to monitor the launches from Pad 4. Even today the juxtaposition of natural Florida beauty, wildlife and the Canaveral Seashore with advanced technology structures offers striking contrast. So, I can just imagine the rocket scientist overlooking the expanse of the cape from the pinnacle of the lighthouse and watching the flare of rockets at the same time.
When the original lighthouse was built in 1848 who would have dreamt that one day the moon which pulls at the tides and drives the currents would mark the tread of human feet? All along the lighthouse was witness to our driving need to explore the furthest reaches of our domain in fragile ocean going vessels. Cape Canaveral Light is unique among lighthouses to have also witnessed the extension of human quest to push the envelope in the exploration of space. It now shares the Florida scrub with towering structures which have launched rockets and space shuttles. This does not diminish but rather enriches the role of this historic and stately beacon as it continues to illuminate our past, our present, and our future.
In an age when lighthouses with their marvelous Fresnel lenses and romantic histories are being systematically replaced by electronic beacons, many of these historic towers have been divested by the Coast Guard as no longer needed or worth the cost of maintenance. Canaveral Light is the only operating lighthouse now owned and maintained by the US Air Force, although the Coast Guard does still maintain the beacon as an active navigational aid. However, to help with the efforts to restore and preserve this special lighthouse, the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation, Inc. was formed in 2002. Below, are source links for this post and links for ways to help the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse with its restoration projects:
History of Cape Canaveral Lighthouse by Frank M. Childers, 1997
Drawn to the Light, The History of Cape Canaveral and its People by Sonny Witt, 2010
The Wardens of the Seas by Edwin James Brady – click for the full beautiful poem!
Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation Website – for information on all the latest in ways to help, events and gatherings
~ by Judy on November 3, 2012; reprinted here with permission from the author.