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Preserving Florida’s Space History

Five-year Cape Canaveral project helps build educational opportunities for students across the state

A digital rendering of Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 19. Credit: USF Libraries Digital Heritage and Humanities Center

A five-year project to document and digitize the historic launch sites at Florida’s Cape Canaveral is helping preserve an important part of America’s space history for generations to come.

The project, initiated by researchers at the University of South Florida, has produced detailed digital renderings and 3D documentation of a large portion of Cape Canaveral’s former launch sites, many of which are now abandoned and in disrepair. Perhaps the most famous location, Launch Complex 14, a National Historic Landmark, is best remembered as the launch site for the Friendship 7 and the Mercury manned missions, including John Glenn’s first orbit of Earth.

“These complexes are such an important part of our history and it really is an honor to be part of preserving that history,” said Lori Collins, PhD, co-director of the USF Libraries Digital Heritage and Humanities Center (DHHC). “Our hope is that these digital collections will be able to help educate and inspire students and researchers for many years, perhaps long after these now aging and fragile sites are gone.”

An interactive 3D model of Launch Complex 19.

Collins, along with DHHC co-Director Travis Doering, PhD, have been researching and working on heritage preservation at the Cape since 2014. In collaboration with the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, they have utilized both 3D laser scanning techniques and remote sensing methods to build intricate virtual renderings and understandings of these complexes.

Using existing infrastructure within USF Libraries’ Digital Collections, the DHHC team will make the 3D models available to people around the world. Users will be able to take virtual tours of the launch complexes and conduct their own research and teaching using the USF-developed resources.

Along with the project’s focus on digitization, Collins says the preservation component is of equal importance to researchers and their federal partners. The launch facilities were built throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with many going unused for more than 50 years. With the Cape’s proximity to the coast, many of the complexes have experienced severe degradation, in part due to salt from the Atlantic Ocean and climate change. The virtual renderings, created by the USF team, will give those responsible for maintaining the site a new tool in their efforts to conserve these historic complexes.

“Most of our grants and work with agencies, such as the US Air Force (USAF), are very applied in nature and have lasting outcomes that help preserve and protect important historical structures and sites,” he said.

USF’s work on the Cape has also helped spur new collaborations with the USAF and the University of Central Florida (UCF). The Cape Canaveral Archaeological Mitigation Project (CCAMP) gives students at both universities the chance to learn about a variety of specializations while utilizing the historical landscape at the Cape.

Researchers and professors use the surroundings to teach resource management, archaeology, conservation and preservation during semester-long field camps. Collins, Doering and the rest of the USF DHHC team, also introduce students to the technologies they utilize in their work – giving them a detailed look at the latest tools in geospatial and 3D mapping.

“Having UCF and USF working together brings each school's specializations to provide the highest caliber data on the sites and for student success in Florida,” said Thomas Penders, the Cultural Resources Manager with the USAF 45th Space Wing, who started the collaboration between universities doing work on his facility. “USF brings their 3D laser scanning and GPR and GIS expertise. UCF brings ethobotany and human osteology expertise. It’s all complementary, and students and the fragile heritage resources benefit.”

The USF Libraries Digital Heritage and Humanities Center plans to release much of its collection of virtual renderings from the Cape Canaveral Space History project later this year. To learn more about this project, visit DHHC online.

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