Photo by Naaman, 2010

Aerojet-Dade Rocket Facility

1965 260 in. motor
The rocket motor as it arrived into Homestead.

In 1957, Sputnik was launched, being the first human-made object to orbit the Earth; an event that sparked a space race of who can get to the moon first, between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1963, the U.S. Air Force gave Aerojet General, a major rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer, $3 million to start construction of a manufacturing and testing site in Homestead.

Aerojet acquired land for the plant, less than five miles from the Everglades National Park, paying $2.50 an acre per year for an annual lease with an option to buy up to 25,000 acres more at nickels on the dollar. A proposal was made to dig a canal from the facility to Barnes Sound on the Atlantic Ocean. The C-111, now known as Aerojet Canal, was dug even though it was close to the Everglades National Park, as economic development of the region won in favor of any environmental conflicts the canal would cause. The canal would be used to barge the rockets from the facility to Cape Canaveral as well as barging the needed equipment in.

Photo by Bullet, 2012
Photo Credit: Bullet, 2012

A small debate arose on whether to use liquid-fuel rocket engines, solid-fuel rocket motors, or a combination of both. Solid-fueled rockets were best favored in the initial launch, able to lift over 100,000 pounds of payload through the atmosphere. But once free of Earth’s orbit though, liquid-fuel seemed to be the best route to go.

Aerojet now needed a cylindrical chamber that would withstand the force and power and space-faring rocket would cause. After much researching, the decided to subcontract the fabrication of 260-inch-diameter, 24m long chambers to Sun Ship and Dry dock Company located at Chester, PA. The chambers were designed in short-length, meaning half the size of what the final product would be, hence the names given to the test rockets, SL-1, SL-2 and SL-3. Both motors used a propellant burning rate and nozzle size appropriate for the full length design and were capable of about 1,600,000 kgf thrust for 114 seconds.

In March 1965, two rocket chambers were delivered to the plant. At the time, the C-111 canal was not yet complete, so the the rocket chambers were barged down from Sun Ship to Homestead via the Intracoastal Waterway and then trucked in from Biscayne Bay. The large amount of propellant needed for such a rocket was manufactured at the Everglades plant. As the chamber was trucked three miles south of the main facility to the test firing site, the propellant was mixed, analyzed, and produced to fill the rocket motor chamber.

Between Sept. 25, 1965 and June 17, 1967, three static test firings were done. SL-1 was fired at night, and the flame was clearly visible from Miami 50km away, producing over 3 million pounds of thrust. SL-2 was fired with similar success and relatively uneventful. SL-3, the third and what would be the final test rocket, used a partially submerged nozzle and produced 2,670,000 kgf thrust, making it the largest solid-fuel rocket ever.

Near burnout, the rocket nozzle was ejected, causing propellant made of hydrochloric acids to be spread across wetlands in the Everglades and crop fields and homes in Homestead. Many residents of Homestead complained about the damage done, which included paint damage to their cars and killing thousands of dollars worth of crops.

Photo by Bullet, 2012
Photo Credit: Bullet, 2012

By 1969, NASA had decided to go with liquid-fueled engines for the Apollo’s Saturn V rockets, causing the workers of the Everglades plant to be laid off and the abandonment of the facility. In 1986, after NASA had awarded the Space Shuttle booster contract to Morton Thiokol, Aerojet sued the State of Florida and sold most of it’s land holdings to the South Dade Land Corporation for $6 million. After many unsuccessful attempts to use the land for farming, the land was sold off again to the state of Florida for $12 million. Aerojet would later trade it’s remaining 5,100-acres in South Florida for 55,000 acres in New Mexico.

In February 2010, Rodney Erwin, representing the Omega Space Systems Group, made a proposal to the Homestead City Council to resurrect the vacant Aerojet facility as a new rocket plant. Though Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman supported the plan, pushing the need for jobs, the water management district immediately shot down the idea.

Photo by Naaman, 2010
Photo Credit: Naaman Fletcher, 2010

In early-2010, the district made plans to overhaul the damage done to the wetlands by the C-111 canal. The canal had been sucking water that once flowed into Florida Bay and piping it 20 miles the wrong way, ever since it was dug. Parts of the facility have been scrapped and the doorways to the buildings have been blocked off by mounds of dirt.

South Florida Water Management(SFWMD) dismantled the shed which sat over the silo around May 2013 and the silo itself was covered with concrete bridge supports. Aerojet Road, which ran 3 miles south of the facility to the test firing site, is now a nature trail. The future of the space relic remains unknown.

Photo by Drew Perlmutter, 2013
Photo Credit: Drew Perlmutter, 2013