Area map of the NASA rocket range

An area map showing the Keweenaw (keé-wa-naw) Peninsula, Canadian border and the NASA site.

Probably the greatest thing about geocaching is that it takes you places you would otherwise never know about or go to. Our September 2012 trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan took us to some wild and wooly territory.  It’s not the kind of place where you would expect to find an abandoned NASA rocket launch facility, but there is one – and of course, somebody put a geocache there.  We went to check it out.

In 1962 the University of Michigan proposed a launch site near the center of the North American continent. This would fill in a gap in the US Army’s Meteorological Rocket Network. Following a survey of available sites a location on the Keweenaw Peninsula in Lake Superior was selected. The site was in use from 1964-1971.

The site was to be mainly used in the winter, in order not to endanger shipping on the lake. The first launches were made from a portable telescoping tower of ARCAS sounding rockets in August of 1964. In 1970-1971 NASA launched two Nike-Apache sounding rockets from the site and was preparing to launch surplus Redstone rockets (the same ones that launched the Mercury astronauts).  The Canadian government protested these much larger rockets being fired so close to their border.  The site was abandoned and never used again.  It definitely qualifies as off the beaten path.

I started wondering about the who what when where of the site.  When did they do this?  Who was it?  What did they launch? What happened to it?  Nobody seemed to know much about the place, so I went looking.  I found a bunch of stuff and learned a few things in the process, not all of them rocket related.

This is a photo post with background info in the captions.  Most of the rocket talk came from the Encyclopedia Astronautica.  Enjoy.

NASA launch site

This grainy newspaper photo gives a good overhead view of the site. There was nothing permanent here except concrete slabs. The telemetry vans near the top of the photo were dragged in by bulldozer for each launch. The missile storage building is down near the water’s edge. At the bottom of the photo is the shoreline of Lake Superior/Keweenaw Point.

Rockets

This schematic shows the types of rockets that were fired from the site. All were sounding rockets used for research. A sounding rocket is an instrument-carrying rocket designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments during its sub-orbital flight. The rockets are used to carry instruments from 10 to 130 miles above the surface of the Earth, the altitude generally between weather balloons and satellites.

ARCAS launch

A photo of an ARCAS launch, date unknown. ARCAS stands for All-Purpose Rocket for Collecting Atmospheric Soundings. The ARCAS was a pop gun compared to the Nike but was used extensively from 1960 to 1990. It could also be launched from buoys in the water. The single-stage rocket could lift a 12 pound payload 10 miles up.

Nike Apache Launch

A Nike-Apache launch in 1970. The Nike Apache was a two-stage sounding rocket used to carry a variety of payloads for a wide variety of subjects including radio astronomy, meteorology, aeronomy, atmospheric conditions, plasma physics, and solar physics. The maximum payload weight was 80 lbs and the maximum altitude about 125 miles. A total of 636 of them were launched worldwide between 1961 and 1978. Two of those were launched at Keweenaw Point in 1970 and 1971. Those were the site’s last launches.

Ground Zero for the Keweenaw geocache

This pad is where the launch in the previous picture occurred and is Ground Zero for the cache. This particular cache is a virtual geocache, meaning you have to get somewhere and find out about something that is already there. There’s no box to find. The lake shore is just beyond the trees.

Mission accomplished. We had to get a picture of the marker with our GPS in sight. The drive out here was long and treacherous. The last two miles is an ATV trail which we deftly negotiated with our Saturn Vue. The metal band behind the marker was part of the Nike launch assembly.

Keweenaw Point

Keweenaw Point. This is as far as you can go on the Upper Peninsula. Off in the distance is Manitou Island. It has a lighthouse on the far right hand side. This is one of the most treacherous stretches of water in the Great Lakes. When a ship transits Lake Superior, it has to make five major course corrections. Keweenaw Point is one of them. The rocks and shoals here have claimed many ships over the years. In fact, the rocks in the lower left hand corner of this photo are a wreck site. The steamship “Scotia” met its doom at this very spot on October 24, 1884, driven into the rocks by a storm. The crew survived. The waves broke the ship apart. The bow section hung here for two years. The stern sank in ten feet of water. A salvage company cut her up for scrap, leaving only a skeleton. Parts of it lie 150 feet offshore. It is a popular dive site since you can do a shore dive. There are two other steamship wrecks that can be dove on from here – the City of Bangor and the Altadoc.

Propeller from the Scotia

Here’s one last bit of maritime trivia. This is one of two propellers from the aforementioned “Scotia”. Salvaged off the lake bottom in the 1960’s, it now sits on display on the grounds of the Copper Harbor Lighthouse. The ship had two props. Presumably, one of them is still out there.

That’s it until next time.   Hope you liked it and/or learned something.  We sure did.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha