Go to an old rocket site or astronaut training ground and you feel as if you’ve stepped into the ruins of the future. Across Europe and the States, broken fragments of our bygone space age litter the countryside – half-forgotten relics of a more romantic time. Here we guide you around the 8 most awe-inspiring monuments to our abandoned dreams:
(Images: Robsv, reproduced with permission)
A concrete desert is all that’s left of Launch Complex 19, departure point for the Gemini missions of the 1960’s. Surrounded by miles of empty swamps and everglades, this deactivated space port veers between a sort of peaceful desolation and broken melancholy – a feeling helped along by the giant rusted skeletons of the launch pads proper. The ground is littered with discarded bolts, piping and rubble, while organic matter is few and far between; giving the impression less of quiet decay than the twisted remnants of some catastrophic nuclear mishap. Indeed, a gigantic Titan 1 rocket spectacularly self-destructed on these very pads some fifty years ago – going up in a fireball which shook the whole county and spelled another set-back for America’s fledgling space programme.
Complex 34 (Florida)
More comprehensively cleared out than its older cousin, LC-34 survives today as a vast blank space on the Florida map. Closed down in 1968, following the Apollo 1 fire which claimed the lives of Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, the complex was completely deconstructed – leaving only the concrete launch platform itself: a sombre marking point commemorating the tragedy. Open to the public until relatively recently; the site became the focal point for several fanciful tales concerning the dead astronauts – including a rather grim belief that their dying screams could sometimes still be heard (a feat that would require the trio to have had vocal cords capable of out-matching a 150ft inferno). The plaque remembering their deaths and those of other astronauts featured, perhaps bizarrely, in the 1998 action-flick Armageddon.
Buran Flight Complex (Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan)
(Images: English Russia)
In 1974, the Soviets launched the Buran Flight programme in an attempt to rival NASA’s shuttle. Although an unmanned flight was completed in 1988, the meltdown of the union and subsequent economic collapse left the project in limbo. All that now remains of the near-resurgent space race is a vast, desolate array of launch pads and test centres: rusted, withered and empty. Situated in the middle of a high-desert plain, the remains of the Buran complex constitute possibly the single most-complete set of space age ruins in the world; left-standing through a combination of inaction and Russia’s refusal to knock them down (other parts of the Baikonur Cosmodrome continue to be used to this day). Battered, haunted and weirdly-beautiful; the disused launch pads stand today as a monument to what could have been.
Museum of Strategic Missile Troops (Ukraine)
Technically, it’s not abandoned. In 2011, the Ukrainian government re-opened their old nuclear launch site as a museum, complete with guided tours. But, taking a step away from the crowds, it certainly feels abandoned: from above, this former doomsday site resembles any barren stretch of Central Ukraine – bar the eerie conical towers with their iconic warning colours. Deep below the Earth, however, it’s another story. Deactivated control rooms, corridors seemingly ripped from an old episode of Dr Who and – yes – missiles jostle for space in a complex once intended for nothing short of global annihilation. In summer, the sight of poppies growing alongside the abandoned missile casings is a strange sight indeed.
Aerojet Rocket Facility (Florida)
Many miles from the nearest town, on the edge of a swamp sits the deserted Aerojet Rocket facility. Built by a private company in 1963 after being awarded a $3million contract, the facility operated for six years before being shut down and left to rot. Although largely unremarkable when seen from ground level, the old silo nonetheless houses a strange secret. Beneath a loose metal floor in one of the empty sheds sits a 150ft high rocket, as if still waiting for launch day after all these years. On the fringes of the facility, the decaying remains of the barges used to bring the rocket to the base can still be found – alongside the specially dug canal. The experimental rocket – designed to run on solid rather than liquid fuel – was only tested three times; but each launch is said to have created a blast that lit up the Miami skyline, 50 miles away.
LC-39 Blast Room (Florida)
(Images: NASA via Peter Aylward’s Space Centre)
Sealed off, buried under concrete and near-forgotten; the ‘blast room’ at NASA’s Complex 39 may now be impossible to access. But that hasn’t stopped a disparate grouping of geeks, wannabee astronauts and urban explorers from keeping its memory alive. Designed as a life-saving measure for astronauts in the event of disaster, the blast room was a heavily-padded spring-mounted chamber almost directly below the rocket that was only accessible via a single slide tube. Were a fire to break out, or the rocket show signs of exploding before launch, the crew would race to the slide, strap themselves into the room and ride out the ensuring blast. Never once put to use, the room was eventually sealed off and left to gather dust – a strange relic waiting to be dug up and pondered over by some future civilisation.
44th Independent Command and Measurement Complex (Kazakhstan)
(Image: Eric Lusito, reproduced with permission)
Originally built to keep track of Sputnik, this crumbling ruin in modern-Kazakhstan was once one of the most-sophisticated observation bases on Earth. Surrounded today by a wasteland of grit, dust and Soviet-era relics; this empty shell contains no remaining trace of the vital function it once performed. As so many of these former-Soviet sites, it was apparently left to rot at the collapse of the Union – with the cold, dry air of the Kazakh mountains preserving the abandoned base accommodation, observation centres and radar equipment. It still cuts a strange site, sticking out the steppe as if the base itself – though long abandoned – continues to reach for the stars.
On the outskirts of Moscow, a piece of history has been left to decay for two decades. The first control centre to successfully help pilot a man into space, Institute-4 is now little more than an urban ruin – a home for the homeless and drug addicts abandoned by Muscovite society. Decrepit, dangerous and prone to collapse, the crumbling rooms nonetheless have a certain quality about them: one both sad and faintly troubling. Seeped in history and memories of triumph, Institute-4 is like a tangible ghost – a wandering relic from another era just waiting for the time to come when it will be allowed to finally crumble into dust.