CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. --
At first glance, Thomas Penders' job with the 45th Space Wing may seem like walking a tightrope.
As an aerospace archaeologist and cultural resource manager at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., he ensures the 45th SW can continue to be America's premier gateway to space through unhindered development on the Cape. On the other hand, he has a responsibility to protect the Cape's 5,000 years of history from that very development.
The two missions, however, go hand-in hand.
Mr. Penders has one goal in mind: to help ensure the 45th SW and the Air Force are stewards of the past while continuing their space mission. He must survey each of the Cape's 16,000 acres before a construction project must be stopped because excavators have found a pre-historic migratory camp, a 150-year-old unmarked grave or part of a 50-year-old launch complex buried by vegetation.
Once sites such as those are found, studied and documented, developers are free to plan and build new launch complexes and support buildings.
Mr. Penders said before he leaves the 45th SW, he wants to have every historical site identified and classified so the person who replaces him will have nothing to do but manage.
"I want all the cultural resources accounted for," he said. "I'm out here looking at the future plan and getting the stuff done way ahead."
Finding and documenting those sites, while preparing for the future, is also what enables him to look toward the past and preserve it, another Air Force responsibility.
Depending on the age and nature of a newly discovered historic site, Mr. Penders has to coordinate preservation or restoration with the appropriate agency. If a site contains Native American human remains, he will contact a local federally-recognized Native American tribal leader, as directed by the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, to discuss the best course of action. He recently had to do this when he and a team of volunteers found human remains that dated back to around 1,000 A.D. at a site not far from Launch Complex 17. Those remains were reburied and work at the site continued.
The excavation at that site uncovered a unique type of pottery that is causing scientists in the archaeological arena to consider moving the ending date for what they call the Malibar Period from 750 to 1,000 AD.
"We're keeping the DOD, the Air Force and the 45th SW in compliance [with the National Historic Preservation Act], but it also makes me feel good about the fact I'm contributing something to science," he said.
Mr. Penders has considerable experience encountering sites dating back to the Europeans' arrival at the Cape about the same time as Ponce de Leon's 1513 discovery of Florida.
Much of Mr. Pender's recent focus is on the Cape's settlement period, starting in 1843 with the construction of the still-working lighthouse and the arrival of the Cape's first permanent European settlers.
The descendants of those settlers visit the Cape annually to visit their ancestors' gravesites, which date back almost 200 years, presenting a challenge for Mr. Penders.
"The fences that were put around the cemeteries here were a best guess," he said. "The fences were put up in the '50s and '60s when the cemeteries were 100 years old. Many wood headstones would have rotted. Are these fences marking the actual boundaries of the cemetery? It's good to know now instead of clearing land later for a development project and finding new graves, which would stop the project."
Mr. Penders plans to partner with students at the University of Central Florida to use ground-penetrating radar to define the boundaries of the gravesites that dot the Cape. Getting these volunteers, he said, isn't easy.
"I go to a lot of conferences and do a lot of networking," he laughed. "I do a lot of begging."
The settlement era lasted until 1946 when a committee formed by DOD officials chose Cape Canaveral for a missile test center. Mr. Penders offered his archaeological services to the 45th SW because he was drawn to the Cape's space program. "I grew up with the Apollo and Mercury programs, so when this job opened up, I knew it would be a win-win," he said.
His arrival at the 45th SW five years ago marked a win, especially for the preservation of the historic space program that drew him there. Mr. Penders is fighting one of the most corrosive salt-laden environments in the country, along with the invasive and perpetually spreading Brazilian pepper tree, to save what remains of the birth of the American space program.
Before Mr. Penders began his program, the metal structures of Launch Complex 14, where John Glenn launched and became the first American to orbit the earth, were crumbling from the salt air. Mr. Penders has had steel supports installed and has ordered corrosion-control measures to preserve what remains.
Brazilian pepper trees were growing like weeds from the cracks in the concrete in LC 18 where space engineers launched Viking, Vanguard, Thor and Scout rockets vital to the development of today's cruise missiles. The building, which had been designed to withstand a nearby rocket explosion, was falling apart. Mr. Penders said it feels like he's fighting an uphill battle when it comes to saving our space history from one of the most destructive plants in the U.S. "They're like a cancer," he said.
He's fighting that cancer one step at a time with technology and a little help from his friends.
Removing the trees, which were brought to the Cape from the Brazilian rain forest and planted as ornamentals, stops much of the degradation," he said. The process requires no special technology: the plants are removed painstakingly, one-at-a-time, by hand.
"The next step is to design stabilization projects for the complexes, or components of the complexes," he said. To help in planning that stabilization, Mr. Penders has turned to 3-D laser scanning provided by the University of South Florida.
The blockhouses for launch complexes 31 and 32, used to hold equipment and engineers during launches, are the only of their kind in the world. They were built as concrete domes, then surrounded by concrete-filled burlap sacks, giving them their "beehive" appearance. The Minuteman I, II and III ICBMs were tested there.
After the vegetation was removed from the seemingly endless crevasses in the structures, a volunteer team from USF traveled to the Cape and used the laser scanner to find underlying damage. The scanner can chart structures to a sub-centimeter level. "They picked up a lot of damage that couldn't have been seen by the naked eye or through photographs."
Not all the structures on the Cape, however, can be saved. Mr. Penders is hoping to use the 3-D scanner to record the buildings in a more detailed fashion than photos can provide before the environment consumes them.
"You have to make hard decisions on which buildings you're going to restore and stabilize."
LC 14 is one of the complexes designated to be saved. In addition to being the launch pad for America's first orbital mission, all four Project Mercury manned orbital flights were launched from LC 14. At the close of Mercury in 1963, it was used to launch all of the unmanned Gemini target vehicles, which the astronauts used to practice rendezvous and docking techniques during the Gemini program between 1964 and 1966. It was deactivated in 1967 and abandoned in place in 1973.
"We have the double whammy here [with LC 14]," Mr. Penders said. "Not only is this on the National Register of Historic Places, it's also a National Historic Landmark. That means this site is one of the most important historic sites to our nation."
Complex 14 is part of Cape Canaveral's national historic district. The district also includes complexes 5 and 6, used during the Redstone, Mercury and Jupiter missions; Complex 19, used for the Titan, Titan II and Gemini programs; Complex 26, Launch site of Explorer 1, the first successful U.S. satellite; and Complex 34, the site of the Apollo 1 fire that killed all three of its crew members: Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee.
Though not in the historic district, the Cape's Hangar C is also on Mr. Pender's and the National Historic Preservation's list to maintain and restore. Hangar C was the first permanent structure on the Cape and held Dr. Wernher von Braun's office. Dr. von Braun was a German-born rocket scientist and is considered by many to be the father of the American space program.
Mr. Penders said he's exploring methods to reveal schematics Dr. von Braun reportedly scribbled on his office walls, which are now hidden by glued-on wall covering.
Whether or not Mr. Penders is able to reveal the covered schematics, he has gone a long way to recover, maintain and reveal America's rich space history.
"This is the gateway to space," he said. "This is where it all started."
Story and photos courtesy of Airman Magazine January/February 2011.
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