While rollerblading along the seemingly endless Aerojet Road towards the Aerojet Dade Rocket Facility, I could not wait to personally see and experience the history and nature of its existence. This had been the first trip we had taken as urban explorers and were eager to get out and go! We were on a mission to capture and share as much beauty and history as possible since having learned much about the facility’s objective, although stunted, as well as its unfortunate and abrupt ending.
In the early 1940’s, four colleagues from the California Institute of Technology — Dr. Frank J. Malina, Dr. Martin Summerfield, John W. Parsons and E.S. Forman — had assembled with Dr. Theodore Von Karman, a renowned aerodynamicist, to passionately discuss sending rockets into space. Thus, Aerojet was born with their innovative development of critical new technology known as Jet Assisted Take Off (JATO), which served well for the improved safety of allied pilots during WWII.
During the 1950’s, Aerojet had formed a new landmark for itself. Aerojet relocated to Sacramento from Southern California and quickly began manufacturing systems for guided surface-to-air missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as submarine-launched missiles.
Come the 1960’s, in course of the great “Space Race”, Aerojet had its hands full with its support of the TITAN program, several other revolutionary projects, as well as the company’s increased workforce which was now at an astonishing 34,000 employees! With spaceflight evolving from launching hardware towards transporting human beings, in 1965, Aerojet‘s liquid-rocket boosters propelled the TITAN vehicle to deliver the first manned Gemini flight into orbit.
1963 literally brought tons of excitement to southern Floridians, residing in Dade county, with the announcement of a new Aerojet facility! Aerojet solid fuel technology was under consideration for use in the first stages of Apollo’s Saturn V. Therefore, the U.S. Air Force provided Aerojet General with $3 million in funding to start the construction of a manufacturing and testing site in the southwest region of Homestead, Florida. The once SW 232nd Avenue would now be known as “Aerojet Road”. Aerojet acquired the land for the plant less than 5 miles from Everglades National Park, where a facility was constructed for the manufacturing and testing of its motors.
The next step was to construct a cylindrical chamber vigorous enough to withstand the monumental forces of spaceflight. A concrete silo, 260 inches in diameter, was constructed to house a colossal 21 foot-diameter rocket motor designed to send us into space, yet still to this day sits alone, deteriorating 180 feet deep below the Everglades. Such a gargantuan rocket motor was way too large to be transported by rail so the plan was to transport the rocket motors by barge to Cape Canaveral. Canal C-111, now known as Aerojet Canal, was dug to facilitate those barges.
Between September 25, 1965 and June 17, 1967, three static test firings were performed: SL-1, SL-2, and SL-3. The first test firing was at night. SL-1’s motor was jump-started by “Blowtorch”, a knocked-down Polaris missile B3 first stage ignition motor. The blast was astonishing, producing over 3 million pounds of thrust with the flame clearly visible from Miami, nearly 32 miles away. SL-2 was fired with similar success. SL-3, the third and final test rocket, was constructed with a partially submerged nozzle and was the largest solid-fuel rocket ever, with it producing 2,670,000 kgf (kilogram force). During the third test, problems arose near burnout. The rocket nozzle was ejected causing propellant made of hydraulic acids to be spread across the wetlands in the Everglades along with a few crop fields and homes in Homestead. This, unfortunately, effected many residents of Homestead with paint damage to their cars and the loss of thousands of dollars in crops.
During 1969, NASA made the decision to use liquid-fuel for the Saturn V rockets. This created hardships for the Everglades employees as they were laid off and the facility left abandoned. 17 years later, in 1986, NASA had awarded the Space Shuttle booster contract to Morton Thiokol, of Utah. Aerojet then sued the state of Florida, exercised its options, then pulled out of southern Florida for good. The land was then sold to the South Dade Land Corporation for $6 million. An attempt at farming the land was made but to no avail, therefore the corporation sold the land to Florida for $12 million. County and federal courts would be held up for years, from the point, dealing with lawsuits between Aerojet, Dade County and the state of Florida. The 5,100 acres that surround the facility are currently under control of the South Florida Water Management District.
To this day, the abandoned AJ-260-2 rocket motor still stands alone in a dark, 180 foot-deep concrete silo. In 2013, the silo’s cover was broken down and removed then replaced with several 33 ton concrete beams. Also within that same year, Aerojet was merged by GenCorp with the former Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne to form the now known, Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Decades after the abandonment of the facility, a glimmer of hope arises. In February of 2010, Rodney Erwin, on behalf of the Omega Space System Group, proposed to resurrect the Aerojet facility as a new rocket plant. Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman and the Homestead City Council supported the proposal stating the importance of “jobs, jobs, jobs”. However, that glimmer of hope perished when the idea was, without hesitation, shot down by the Water Management District.
Fast-forward to the current year of 2018. The abandoned Aerojet Dade Rocket Facility still stands within the Everglades, slowly deteriorating under the promising presence of southern Florida’s sun and rain. As time goes on, eventually the site will be forever gone and with it, the wonders of the amazing “Space Race” missions at hand, the people involved, the promising future it offered and ultimately the screeching halt it all came to.