Friday, September 03, 2010


What I did this Summer: On this day we dove on the wreck of USS Vandenberg. This missile tracking ship was employed off Cape Canaveral during the Apollo era. The 520-foot Vandenberg can be found off Key West, Florida in 140 feet of water. Diving on this huge ship is adventure akin to spacewalking.

Hoyt S. Vandenberg was Commander of the Ninth Air Force during WW2 and later Air Force Chief of Staff. His name also survives in Vandenberg Air Force Base, site of many Space launches. This ship began life as USS General Harry Taylor, a transport launched at Richmond, California in 1943. In 1961 the ship was transferred to the Air Force and converted into a missile tracking ship. During the 1960's rocket launches from Cape Canaveral were of utmost importance. The renamed USS Hoyt S. Vandenberg played an integral part of America's Space program.

Over 20 years the Vandenberg tracked launches from both Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base. Her job completed, the ship was retired in 1983. On May 27, 2009 she was sunk as an artificial reef off Key West. Here we found the ship with her masts barely 50 feet below the surface.

We descended into the ocean fog, the ship only becoming visible a few feet away. Our group gathered on the main deck, 95 feet down. We swam in and out of various compartments and through the big radar dishes. Vandenberg has many swim-throughs, including the engine room. Having been underwater barely a year, the ship is barely rusted. I was even able to operate levers on the engine control panel.

File photo of a 50 foot radar dish aboard Vandenberg. Does anyone remember 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, the astronauts going EVA on the Discovery's big parabolic dish? The Space Station, only 220 miles from Earth, needs no such dishes. Until we build such big dishes in Space, this is the closest experience to 2001 we will get.

Already the local sealife has made USS Vandenberg a home. Hopefully in the future many more artificial reefs will add to the ocean ecosystem. This may help make up for the loss of reefs from other causes. Having served the cause of spaceflight, USS Vandenberg has become a happy home beneath the sea. This old sword beat into a plowshare shows how humans can create an environment for life.


Blogger nige said...

Exciting stuff! I'd love to dive in a sunken wreck. What are the spherical things in the first photo? I'm guessing they're very small translucent plankton particles in the water near the camera lens, which look disproportionately large (an optical illusion)?

11:40 AM  
Blogger L. Riofrio said...

HI nige, nice to see you. Actually those are mostly air bubbles. We were trying to get the big radar dish in the photo. It's back there, but visibility is very low at depths below 100 feet.

4:11 PM  
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