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Category: Archeology and monuments (Page 1 of 7)

S-IVB-504 BEING INSTALLED IN BETA STAND NO. 1. S-IV-B-209 ON TRANSORTER IN FOREGROUND.

The rocket-testing ruins of Sacramento

Sacramento is California’s sixth-largest city, but apart from being the state capital, it isn’t known for much. It lacks the mystique of San Francisco, the sex appeal of Los Angeles, and the prestige of San Diego. Far from being a center of information technology or mass culture, Sacramento is surrounded by miles and miles of irrigated farmland in the Central Valley. I have been visiting Sacramento my entire life, because one branch of my family has lived there since 1964. Apart from the state capitol complex, Sacramento always seemed a generic place to me.

I was a space nut growing up, and I was thus astonished when I learned just recently that Sacramento played a small but crucial role in the Apollo moon-landing program. Between 1962 and 1969, Douglas Aircraft Company tested upper stages of the Saturn rockets at a test range south of the city.

For the past three years, I have lived just two counties west of Sacramento, in Napa County. Once I learned about Sacramento’s link with the Apollo Program, I resolved to go to the old rocket-testing site to find out if there was anything left to see there. Thus I headed down to Sacramento one weekend for a bit of space-age technological tourism. Here is what I saw.

Douglas and the Saturn upper stages

The Douglas Aircraft Company test site was called Sacramento Test Operations, or SACTO for short. It was carved out of a larger facility owned by Aerojet, the rocket engine manufacturer. Technically, SACTO was located in Rancho Cordova, well outside of Sacramento proper. This was a precaution for safety, in case the rocket stages were to explode during testing (which happened a couple of times). The site was covered with mine tailings left over from the Gold Rush, and it wasn’t useful for agriculture or development—or really anything aside from testing rocket stages.

SACTO was originally constructed to static-test Thor missiles in the mid-fifties. In the early sixties, Douglas shifted to test Saturn upper stages there. The Saturns were some of the largest rockets ever flown, and they were developed in three phases:

  1. Saturn I: an R&D program to test clustering of engines and other concepts needed for large rockets.
  2. Saturn IB, originally “Uprated Saturn I”: a booster used for testing the Apollo spacecraft in Earth orbit.
  3. Saturn V: a very large booster used for launching crewed Apollo missions to the moon.

The Saturn rockets were developed under the direction of the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The lower stages of the first Saturn rockets were built in-house at Marshall, while later stages were built by contractors.

Common-scale drawing of the three Saturn rockets: the Saturn I, Saturn IB, and Saturn V. All three rockets had upper stages built by Douglas and tested in Sacramento. (Source: NASA)

Common-scale drawing of the three Saturn rockets: the Saturn I, Saturn IB, and Saturn V. All three rockets had upper stages built by Douglas and tested in Sacramento. (Source: NASA)

The Douglas Aircraft Company won the contract to build the upper stages for all three versions of the Saturn. The upper stage of the Saturn I was called the S-IV. It used liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for propellants, which were considered to be high-tech at that time and required some special attention in the design process. The stage used six RL-10 engines for a total thrust of 90,000 lb.

One of the challenges faced in the design of the S-IV was insulation for the liquid hydrogen tank. Liquid hydrogen is extremely cold—cold enough to freeze air solid! It was imperative that the tank was insulated so that air did not freeze onto its outside surface. Douglas applied blocks of insulation to the inside of the tank. When searching for a material to use for the insulation, Douglas considered lightweight balsa wood, although this was eventually rejected because there was not adequate supply of balsa to line the tanks of all the rockets that were planned to be built. Instead, the Douglas upper stages used a type of fiberglass that mimicked the properties of balsa wood.

Cutaway drawing of the Saturn I S-IV stage. (Source: NASA)

Cutaway drawing of the Saturn I S-IV stage. (Source: NASA)

The S-IV stage for the SA-9 mission, undergoing weight and balance tests before launch. (Source: NASA)

The S-IV stage for the SA-9 mission, undergoing weight and balance tests before launch. (Source: NASA)

The upper stage of the Saturn IB and Saturn V was called the S-IVB. Although it had bigger tanks and a different engine (a single J-2), the stage was basically the same as the S-IV. The Saturn IB S-IVB had a thrust of 200,000 lb, while the Saturn V version had a little higher thrust and also needed to be restartable for the trans-lunar injection burn that would send the Apollo spacecraft on its way to the moon. Both versions of the S-IVB had their own thruster system, the Auxiliary Propulsion System, for attitude control during burns and the coast phase in Earth orbit before trans-lunar injection.

Cutaway drawing of the version of the S-IVB stage used on the Saturn V. (Source: NASA)

Cutaway drawing of the version of the S-IVB stage used on the Saturn V. (Source: NASA)

An S-IVB stage with a technician at Kennedy Space Center.

An S-IVB stage with a technician at Kennedy Space Center. (Source: NASA)

Douglas built the S-IV and S-IVB stages at a couple of facilities in southern California. The tank walls were milled in Santa Monica, then formed into a curve in large presses at Long Beach. Final assembly took place in Huntington Beach, in a specially-built factory building. The assembly building had external rather than internal bracing for cleanliness, because internal beams could provide a place for dust to gather before falling onto the stage and contaminating it.

Once the stages were complete, they were shipped up to SACTO for testing, either by barge or purpose-built aircraft, the Pregnant Guppy and Super Guppy.

Two S-IVB stages undergoing checkout at Huntington Beach. (Source: NASA)

Two S-IVB stages undergoing checkout at Huntington Beach. (Source: NASA)

The Pregnant Guppy transporting an S-IV stage. (Source: NASA)

The Pregnant Guppy transporting an S-IV stage. (Source: NASA)

Rocket testing at SACTO

SACTO had several test areas, named after letters of the Greek alphabet. The original testing area was the Alpha test site, which was first used for testing Thor rockets and then was converted to test S-IV stages. When it came time to test the S-IVB, Douglas built an all-new test site to the west, the Beta test site. At both sites, the rockets were test-fired in a vertical position in stands that consisted of a concrete base and a steel superstructure, which made the stand look rather like a shortened launch pad. The test areas also had propellant storage tanks and blockhouses for test personnel.

A smaller test area, the Gamma test site, was used for testing the Auxiliary Propulsion System. SACTO also had an administration area, with a Vertical Checkout Laboratory where stages were checked out before tests and sometimes stored afterward.

Most S-IV and S-IVB stages were tested at SACTO before they were flown. This was important for safety, because small flaws in manufacturing could lead to catastrophic destruction of a rocket stage. This happened more than once at SACTO, most notably on January 20, 1967, when S-IVB-503 blew itself to pieces in the test stand. S-IVB-503 had been slated for use on AS-503 or Apollo 8, the first manned launch of the Saturn V. Without static test-firing, the stage may have blown up in flight and killed the crew.

Two S-IVB stages at SACTO at the same time. The stage in the foreground was used in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project backup vehicle. It was never flown and is now on display at Kennedy Space Center on a Saturn IB. In the background, the Apollo 9 third stage is being installed in Beta Test Stand 1 for launch. (Source: NASA)

Two S-IVB stages at SACTO at the same time. The stage in the foreground was used in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project backup vehicle. It was never flown and is now on display at Kennedy Space Center on a Saturn IB. In the background, the Apollo 9 third stage is being installed in Beta Test Stand 1 for launch. (Source: NASA)

The Apollo 10 S-IVB stage being hoisted out of the Beta Test Stand 1 at SACTO after its static firing. (Source: NASA)

The Apollo 10 S-IVB stage being hoisted out of the Beta Test Stand 1 at SACTO after its static firing. (Source: NASA)

The Apollo 6 stage during static-firing in Beta Test Stand 1. (Source: NASA)

The Apollo 6 stage during static-firing in Beta Test Stand 1. (Source: NASA)

The interior of the Vertical Checkout Lab with an S-IVB. (Source: NASA)

The interior of the Vertical Checkout Lab with an S-IVB. (Source: NASA)

The SACTO ruins in 2021

According to Sacramento’s Moon Rockets, a local history book that I read before visiting the SACTO site, the rocket testing stands were demolished in 2013 to make way for a housing development, after environmental remediation had made the area safe for development. As of 2021, though, no houses have been built on the old SACTO site, and there is no sign of any new construction.

The most intact part of the SACTO site is the administration area, which has been repurposed into a light industrial or commercial area called Security Park. The Vertical Checkout Lab still stands and is recognizable from photos from the 1960s. The administration building and guardhouse are also clearly 1960s vintage. There is even an old Douglas Aircraft Company sign standing outside of the gate, but there is no explanation about what it is doing there!

The SACTO Vertical Checkout Lab, still standing tall after all these years.

The SACTO Vertical Checkout Lab, still standing tall after all these years.

The 1960s-vintage guardhouse and throwback Douglas Aircraft Company sign.

The 1960s-vintage guardhouse and Douglas Aircraft Company sign.

Security Park and the distant Sierra Nevada.

Security Park and the distant Sierra Nevada.

When I visited the SACTO site, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that the Beta test area for the S-IVB stages really does seem to have been demolished. I couldn’t actually see anything, and there was no place to stop for a closer look as I zipped past in my car on busy Douglas Rd. To my surprise, though, the Alpha test area still stands! The steel superstructure of the test stands have been demolished since the 1970s, but the concrete bases are still there, clearly identifiable through binoculars. The Gamma test site also seems mostly intact. It consists of a concrete structure with a series of bays for testing the thruster units; as such, it looks rather like a self-service car wash.

Wide-angle view of part of the former SACTO site. There just isn’t much here.

Wide-angle view of part of the former SACTO site. There just isn’t much here.

Annotated view of the remains of the Alpha test site.

Annotated telephoto view of the remains of the Alpha test site.

Closeup of Alpha test stand 1 and the blockhouse.

Closeup of Alpha test stand 1 and the blockhouse.

The remains of the Gamma test site, where the APS were tested. The houses in the background were not there in the 1960s when SACTO was operational.

The remains of the Gamma test site, where the APS were tested. The houses in the background were not there in the 1960s when SACTO was operational.

I was gratified to see that some of the ruins of the test site still stand. It was stupid and wasteful to tear down the Beta test site, because it has been eight years and the area still hasn’t been developed for housing. What was the rush to tear it down in 2013? At least the Alpha test site still stands. I hope it can be saved. Rather than being demolished, it should be stabilized and incorporated into the design of whatever housing development gets built there. It is a relic of a little-known time when Sacramento played a small but important role in the moon program.

Sacramento’s other Douglas (Logan) and SACTO

My father, whose name is coincidentally Douglas, spent his formative adolescent years in Sacramento, from the time his family moved there in 1964 to when he headed off to college in 1969. Like probably every engineering-minded kid in the 1960s, he followed the space program as it built up toward the first landing on the moon. He built model rockets and got up early to watch Gemini launches with a school friend.

But even though Douglas Aircraft Company was his neighbor in Sacramento, Douglas Logan had no idea that they even had a presence there, much less that they were testing rocket stages bound for the moon. When I told him about my visit to the SACTO site, he said that he had never heard about any Douglas rocket tests in Sacramento. All people talked about in those days was Aerojet, which was supposed to be a good place to get an engineering job.

After some thinking, though, my dad said that while he never heard people talking about the Douglas rocket tests, he probably actually heard the rockets being tested! He remembers hearing an indistinct roar off in the distance from time to time in the mid-to-late sixties in Sacramento. At the time, he thought the Air Force must be testing jet engines at McClellan Air Force Base—but prop planes were based at McClellan. What he heard must have been the rocket tests!

Apart from the noisy rocket test-firings themselves, Douglas must have kept a low profile in Sacramento. When my dad listened to the Apollo 8 broadcast on the radio at Christmastime 1968, or watched the Apollo 11 landing on TV in the summer of 1969, he didn’t know that the rocket stages that got both of those missions to the moon had been tested near his home in Sacramento.

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Splendid little monuments

(and not-so-little monuments)

On a street corner in Walla Walla, Washington, the town where I went to college, a gray stone soldier stands silently on a gray stone pedestal. Monuments like this blend easily into the urban landscape, and for years I didn’t pay any attention to it. When I passed by it, I simply assumed that it was a Civil War monument, based on the uniform worn by the soldier and ignoring the chronology. (The US Civil War ended in 1865 but Washington didn’t get statehood until 1889.) When, in my fourth year of college, I finally stopped to look at the monument up-close, I was startled to find that it was not for the Civil War but for the next big war in US history, the Spanish-American War.

Like the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War of 1898 isn’t much remembered or talked about in the United States anymore. But unlike the war with Mexico, the war with Spain inspired a frenzy of monument-building. Some of them, like the Dewey Arch in Madison Square, New York, were temporary structures, but many still stand, dotting the American landscape and blending right into it like the statue in Walla Walla. Once I noticed that this statue was for the Spanish-American War, I started to see monuments to the war all over the place. Here are some that I’ve seen and had the chance to photograph.

About the Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War took place over the course of just under four months in 1898, late-April to mid-August. The United States fought with Spain over its last remaining colonial holdings in the Caribbean, Cuba and Puerto Rico, as well as the Philippines. Because the war was over so quickly, it was nicknamed “The Splendid Little War” by people who didn’t participate in it, but it was in reality a bitterly-fought war, with American forces suffering high casualties from enemy fire as well as tropical diseases and conditions for which they were totally unprepared.

Before the war began, on February 15, 1898, the battleship USS Maine had blown up in Havana harbor, killing 261 sailors and sparking public outrage in support of a declaration of war against Spain. The fiercest fighting in the war took place in Cuba, as Spanish forces fought against Cuban revolutionaries and American forces that were supposedly supporting the Cubans. There was also a huge naval battle in Manila, in which the US Navy under the command of Admiral George Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. In Puerto Rico, the Spanish forces surrendered without offering hardly any resistance.

After the war, Cuba gained its independence, but only nominally. The United States reserved the right to meddle in Cuban affairs whenever there was a dollar to be made. (This created resentment that led to Cuba’s communist revolution in the 1950s.) The Philippines became an American colony, although Filipinos themselves resisted US control for three years in a bitter, bloody insurrection that left thousands dead on both sides. The Philippines finally gained its independence from the United States after World War II. Puerto Rico also became an American colony, and it remains one to this day, having never been fully integrated into the United States or granted independence.

It isn’t hard to see why we in the United States don’t like to remember the Spanish-American War. Although this country has always been an imperial power, we were able to convince ourselves that our expansion across the North American continent was somehow inevitable (although it definitely wasn’t). But in the Spanish-American War, the United States became an overseas imperial power, just like Britain and France and apparently no better than them. In the end, we were probably worse imperializers. While France has legally integrated its overseas territories like Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guyana into France, the United States continues to refuse to make Puerto Rico a state or grant Puerto Ricans full citizenship rights unless they move to the mainland.

Relics of the Battleship Maine

Parts were salvaged from the battleship Maine after it blew up, and some of them have found their way into permanent public monuments.

A mast of the Maine stands atop a monument in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Battleship Maine mast

Mast of the Maine in Arlington National Cemetery

Predictably, some parts of the Maine have ended up in the state of Maine. Portland has a gun from the Maine and Bangor has its impressive frilly bow decorations.

Battleship Maine gun

A gun from the Maine in Fort Allen Park, Portland, Maine.

The gilded filigree that used to decorate the bow of the Maine, on a monument in Bangor.

The gilded filigree that used to decorate the bow of the Maine, on a monument in Bangor.

Detail of the shield from the bow of the Maine.

Detail of the shield from the bow of the Maine.

USS Maine plaque in Bangor

The plaque of the Bangor USS Maine monument.

The monument in Walla Walla

The Spanish-American War monument in Walla Walla honors Company I of the First Washington Volunteer Infantry. Being from a West Coast state, the regiment shipped out to the Philippines rather than Cuba. It arrived after the Spanish had surrendered, but it participated in the fierce fighting with the Filipinos. It was dedicated in 1904.

View of the Spanish-American War monument on Alder St. in Walla Walla, Washington.

View of the Spanish-American War monument on Alder St. in Walla Walla, Washington.

Detail of the front inscription of the monument.

Detail of the front inscription of the monument.

Detail of the inscription on the right side of the monument, with the dates and places of battles that Company I fought in during the Philippine War. An inscription below this declares that the unit was “204 DAYS ON FIRING LINE.”

Detail of the inscription on the right side of the monument, with the dates and places of battles that Company I fought in during the Philippine War. An inscription below this declares that the unit was “204 DAYS ON FIRING LINE.”

With the help of my mother, I took a rubbing of the inscription on the front side of the monument on Memorial Day weekend last year. It now hangs on the bulletin board in my office.

With the help of my mother, I took a rubbing of the inscription on the front side of the monument on Memorial Day weekend last year. It now hangs on the bulletin board in my office.

Dewey Monument in San Francisco

The biggest Spanish-American War monument I have seen is the Dewey Monument in San Francisco’s Union Square, which honors the hero of the Battle of Manila Bay. The Dewey Monument is an 85-ft-tall monumental column, crowned by a statue of the goddess of victory carrying a trident. It is an impressive monument, but it blends imperceptibly into the urban environment. The vast majority of shoppers at Macy’s and the other stores on the square probably have no idea what the monument represents.

The Dewey Monument in San Francisco’s Union Square. It was dedicated in 1903.

The Dewey Monument in San Francisco’s Union Square. It was dedicated in 1903.

There is also a statue honoring Spanish-American War veterans on the grounds of the California State Capitol in Sacramento.

Spanish-American War veterans monument in Sacramento.

Spanish-American War veterans monument in Sacramento.

Bonus: Wheeler Dam on the Tennessee River

Wheeler Dam is a Tennessee Valley Authority dam in northern Alabama, and I have already profiled it in “A gallery of Alabama dams.” Of course, strictly speaking, this isn’t a Spanish-American War monument, but I include it here because it is named after a prominent officer from the war, General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, who commanded troops in Cuba. He had earlier been a Confederate officer in the Civil War.

Wheeler Dam pan

Panoramic view of Wheeler Dam in northern Alabama.

Links

Forgetting the Mexican-American War

This post is a follow-up to my piece from last year, “Remembering the United States intervention.”

The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 was a hugely important event for both nations involved. At the end of the war, a defeated, humiliated Mexico lost nearly half of its territory. The United States gained this territory, including the strategic harbors of San Francisco and San Diego and the gold- and silver-rich Sierra Nevada. The aftermath of the war would lead to bitter civil wars in both countries, the War of the Reform in Mexico (1857-1860) and the American Civil War in the United States (1861-1865).

Given its importance, it is not surprising that the Mexican-American War is well-remembered in Mexico, with huge monuments in the capital and streets honoring the heroes of the war in cities across the country. In the United States, though, it is another story. There is very little cultural memory of the war, and virtually no monuments to it. (I am not including monuments to the Bear Flag Revolt in California, because the monuments never portray the conflict as a part of the bigger war.) I never even heard of the war before I was in 11th grade, and my students in college-level US History 1 know little or nothing about it.

Why do we not remember the Mexican-American War in the United States, even though it was so important? That is a question I have pondered for some time. I unexpectedly came across an answer to this question when I found an article about memory of the Mexican-American War while researching a different topic.

The article is by Amy S. Greenberg, and it appeared in the October 2009 issue of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association. According to the article, it was between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the Spanish-American War in 1898 that Americans forgot about the war with Mexico. There were a couple of reasons why collective amnesia set in during this time. One was that the heaviest fighting in the war had taken place in territory that was still a part of Mexico, and there were thus very few soldiers’ graves on US soil to pay homage to on the new holiday of Memorial Day. (To this day, the US government maintains a cemetery of American war dead in Mexico City.)

There was also a political reason. In the Second Party System, the Democrats had been in favor of the war with Mexico while the opposition party, the Whigs, were opposed to it, seeing it as nothing more than a brazen land grab. (Great Whig statesman John Quincy Adams collapsed on the floor of the House of Representatives while railing against a proposal to honor the generals from the war with Mexico. He never recovered and died shortly afterward.) The Whig Party fell apart shortly after the war, splitting north and south over the issue of slavery.

In the North, most former Whigs joined the nascent Republican Party. After the Civil War, Whigs-turned-Republicans maintained their dislike of the Mexican-American War. From their perspective, the Civil War had been a righteous crusade to preserve the Union and liberate the slaves, while the war with Mexico had been a shameful attempt to seize more land for slavery. Republicans blocked the efforts of veterans’ groups to build a national memorial for the Mexican-American War or to preserve battlefields from the conflict.

As it is, I have seen precisely one physical monument to the Mexican-American War on American soil, and it isn’t much of one. The waterfront in Vallejo, California, on the northern end of the San Francisco Bay, has a display of a couple of cannons. One of them has a plaque stating that the gun “participated in the capture of Guaymas and Mazatlan” in 1847.

And that’s it. If you want to see much more than this, you are going to have to go to Mexico!

24-pounder cannon plaque

Plaque for a Mexican-American War cannon on the waterfront at Vallejo, Calif.

Naval cannons in Vallejo, Calif.

The cannon from the USS Independence in Vallejo (foreground). The other cannon is a post-Civil War cannon from the USS Hartford.

References

  • Greenberg, Amy S. “1848/1898: Memorial Day, Places of Memory, and Imperial Amnesia.” PMLA 124 no. 5 (Oct. 2009): 1869-73.

Links

  • https://www.nps.gov/paal/index.htm Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park in Texas. The first clash of the Mexican-American War took place north of the Rio Grande on land claimed by both countries. The battlefield was not preserved as a historic park until more than a century after the war.

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