Cape Canaveral Light – Warden of the Sea, Launchpad to the Stars!

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?

NASA Photo - 1972 Atlas-Centaur Launch

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:

>>U.S. Air Force: Latest Keepers of the Light.

>>Cape Canaveral Lighthouse History: Lighthouse Friends

>>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

Photo: Rocket Launch with Canaveral Lighthouse is courtesy  NASA

~ by Judy on November 3, 2012.

16 Responses to “Cape Canaveral Light – Warden of the Sea, Launchpad to the Stars!”

  1. That is amazing!

    • Sea and Stars has fascinated man from the beginnings of time. The Sea with its immense power and Stars for that inkling of something beyond ourselves. Not everyone is aware, I don’t think, of the relationship of Cape Canaveral Lighthouse with both!! And, it is kind of a bridge between early exploration and exploration yet to come.

  2. Judy, Thanks for the post. It’s lovely. Your writing is so inspiring. Did you take the photograph in the post?

    • Suzanne, I only wish I had taken that picture! I am not sure the exact date of it, but it still had the fresnel lens then. Although the lens wasn’t removed until 1993 because the frequent launches were shaking the priceless lens to pieces! It now has rotating beacons in the lantern room. The original fresnel can now be seen at the museum at Ponce Inlet Lighthouse. And, if its from the 50’s, I was just a wee tot!!

  3. Suzanne, according to the website, the photo was taken in 1972 at the launch of an Atlas-Centaur rocket. It’s a marvelous photo! Martha

    • Martha, it was my omission for not acquiring that detail and posting it with the image. I really appreciate you bringing that date into the conversation! I appreciate that and the comment. It is a killer photo isn’t it?!!

      • Yes, it’s an awesome photo! I so enjoy your journals and pictures and blogs. You bring such joy to my heart and eyes after all the political junk that invades my computer.

  4. What an amazing image… And such a BEAUTIFUL post! So very poetic and lovely. You really should submit this somewhere.

    • I owe the information to the sources I used and definitely would encourage learning more because the history is long and rich. But, most especially, it was Sonny Witt who asked me (when we were there in 2/2010) if I knew why the Space Program was located at Cape Canaveral. Until then I had no idea that because of the lighthouse being there first, the space program found a home. It is destiny!!

      The 1972 NASA photo does tell it all and in fact that image of the lighthouse and the rocket going off next to it has become an emblem for the Cape. I have a bronze coin with that depiction which Sonny gave me. The gateway parallelism is just mindblowing and beautiful to me!

      At the time of my visit, Sonny Witt was not pubished yet with his book, Drawn to the Light, The History of Cape Canaveral and its People. But, it is an impeccably researched, definitive volume on the life of that light and the cape..complete with keeper’s journal entries, letters and interviews.

      It is good that our historical places have people who love and want to preserve as without that we lose our link to who we were and all the possibilities yet to come.

      • Utterly fascinating. My father worked at the Cape, on all the Apollo missions — and my brother was born on Dec. 7, 1972, which made it PARTICULARLY tricky!!

        I remember him speaking a bit about the reasoning behind NASA’s location, but being a child I never paid much attention — there was a lot of that non-listening of NASA-speak. 🙂 So this was particularly interesting and much easier to digest.

  5. […] Cape Canaveral Light – Warden of the Sea, Launchpad to the Stars! […]

  6. I’m always so late getting to the best stuff! This is a marvelous post, both the history and that utterly compelling photo. I had no idea of any of this, being esentially Florida ignorant. 😉 But I’m learning, and your archives are a great place to do that.

    Both of these posts about the Canaveral Light are so inspiring. I agree with the commenter above – it’s a delight to find things like this in my inbox!

    • I am so glad you did enjoy this post. You know I have been in Florida for a long time and always have been interested in science and space. My interest in lighthouses specifically a bit newer. But, with all that I never knew until 2010 the role of the lighthouse in relationship to NASA being at the Cape. The world is full of interesting things absolutely.

  7. is there any way that you can buy prints of this amazing photo?

    • Shelly, I don’t actually know off hand since it is a NASA Photo. The Lighthouse Foundation might know and I could ask about it. It is a wonderful image and I would have loved to witness one of those shots nearby the lighthouse!! It is just one of those amazing intersections of the past, present, and future in one view.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: