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NASA Launch Pad Set For Blast

When the countdown reaches zero next week at historic Launch Complex 41, the entire pad will be blasted to pieces -- deliberately, as part of a modernization project.

In a business where even the word "blastoff" touches a nerve (rocket scientists prefer "liftoff"), the very idea was unsettling, especially for the safety officers at the Air Force station where the pad is located.

"They spend their lifetimes trying to make sure we don't blow things on the pad," said Adrian Laffitte, a Lockheed Martin Corp. launch manager. "They went, 'Hel-lo, are you guys on something here?' But once we explained the process, then they said, 'Hey, that sort of makes sense'."

Blowing up the 34-year-old pad that launched innumerable spy satellites as well as NASA's Viking spacecraft to Mars and Voyager probes to the outer planets is the quickest, cheapest way for Lockheed Martin to renovate the place for its new line of Atlas V rockets.

It also happens to be the most fun. Next Thursday's demolition -- the first at Cape Canaveral in 23 years -- is turning into a party and charity fund-raiser.

Hundreds of workers are expected to gather a safe 2,500 feet away to watch the two steel launch towers come tumbling down within milliseconds of each other. Hundreds if not thousands of others at Cape Canaveral Air Station and NASA's adjacent Kennedy Space Center will almost certainly stop wherever they are to watch.

A countdown will precede the 10 a.m. demolition.

"5-4-3-2-1 and then figure out what the right word is," said Laffitte, laughing. "How about boom? 3-2-1-boom, kaboom. I'm trying to think what Wile E. Coyote said."

At the precise moment the 180 pounds of explosives are detonated, the winner of a Demolish-the-Pad raffle will push a make-believe plunger.

Hundreds of $5 raffle tickets have already been sold. Also going like speeding rockets: $10 T-shirts with the words "Blasting Out of the Past" and a picture of a rodent pushing a detonator. (Launch pad workers call themselves "pad rats.") The money will go to needy families at Christmas.

The last time a launch pad was deliberately blown up, in 1976, the Army was called in to do the job. Launch Complex 14 -- John Glenn's pad -- had become too dangerous, and the Air Force lacked the money to fix it.

The much larger Launch Complex 41 will be brought down by demolition experts hired by Lockheed Martin.

Built in 1965, Complex 41 was the starting point for 27 Titan flights, most of them military. The last two, in August 1998 and April 1999, ended in failure: one rocket blew up seconds after liftoff; the other dumped a satellite in a useless orbit.

On Monday, demolition workers used blowtorches to weaken the legs of the 200-foot umbilical tower, from which propellants once flowed to the rockets. The 300-foot mobile service tower, which shielded the rockets until just before liftoff, stands 500 feet away.

The towers won't be needed for Lockheed Martin's poweful Atlas V, which will be transported from a still-unfinished building to the pad a mere 12 hours before liftoff, a process intended to speed up launches. The first flight is set for 2001. The Atlas V also will soar from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California; an old launch pad there will be razed the same way.

Laffitte figures it will take 60 seconds for the two towers at Complex 41 to fall and a month for the 7 million pounds of steel to be hauled away for recycling. To dismantle everything piece by piece, the traditional method, would have taken three months.

Emotions are mixed going into the countdown.

"It's a complex that has certainly seen a lot of launches, has meant a lot to the space program of this nation," said Ken Dinally, an explosives safety manager at Cape Canaveral Air Station. "The optimistic way of looking at it, though, is it's progress."

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