|City/Town: • Homestead
|Location Class: • Industrial
|Built: • 1963 | Abandoned: • 1969
|Status: • Abandoned
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit
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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.
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.
The AJ-260 Rocket Motor
Aerojet now needed a cylindrical chamber that would withstand the force and power and space-faring rocket would cause. After much research, they decided to subcontract the fabrication of 260-inch-diameter, 24m long chambers to Sun Ship and Dry dock Company located in Chester, Pennsylvania. 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 and SL-2. 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 of 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 rocket chambers were barged down from Chester, Pennsylvania down to Homestead via the Intracoastal Waterway and then trucked in from Biscayne Bay. A 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 50 km away, producing over 3 million pounds of thrust. SL-2 was fired with similar success and relatively uneventful. Despite having two chambers, a third test firing took place by reusing the SL-2. Dubbed the SL-3 and what would be the final test rocket, it used a partially submerged nozzle and produced 2,670,000 kgf thrust, making it the largest and most powerful solid-fuel rocket motor ever built.
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.
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 its 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 its 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.
Restoration of the Wetlands
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.
Due to the facility’s remote location, it has become the site of multiple murders and unsolved cases. In September 2013, 18-year-old Jesus Trejo went missing after leaving his home to meet some “white dude” out in the Everglades, according to his aunt. This information led police to Aerojet Road where Trejo’s car was found abandoned. After an extensive search, his body was found in the nearby canal with a gunshot wound to the head and bite marks showing signs that he was attacked by an alligator while in the water. His killer was never found.
Later that same year, 21-year-old Christian Joseph McKenzie left his house on November 14, 2013, and never showed up to work. Police conducted an investigation and found his truck in a remote area of southwest Miami-Dade. The following morning, an officer found his body along the Aerojet canal with a gunshot wound in his upper torso.
On January 23, 2015, detectives were able to recover McKenzie’s firearm and determined that he was shot with his own gun. Between physical evidence and witness testimonies, they found 21-year-old Juan Salgado as the culprit in the killing. Salgado was already incarcerated for unrelated charges at the time he was charged with murder. You can read about the old Aerojet Rocket Development Facility and many other abandoned places in my book, Lost Miami: Stories and Secrets Behind Magic City Ruins.
astronautix.com. (retrieved June 29, 2022). AJ-260