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'Abandoned in Place': Forgotten space launch sites left to the sands of time

Photographer Roland Miller has made it a mission to document space launch sites abandoned across America.

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Launch Pad and Gantry with Hermes A-1 Rocket, V2 Launch Complex, 33 White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico 2006 © Roland Miller. Used with permission of Roland Miller.

The 1950s in America were a time of brightness and hope. The war was over, the world was in recovery, and the time had come to look to the future -- in particular, space: that wonderful, shining, final frontier (inspired, in part, by war engineering efforts). Even better, there was a competitor motivating the US efforts -- its former ally, now foe, Russia.

The space exploration program boomed, with launch sites blossoming across the country. Throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s, both nations achieved great things -- but, in July 1969, when America landed Apollo 11 on the moon, it spelled the end of the race. Such a large number of launch facilities were no longer required; and, over the next two decades, most of them closed, one by one.

It is these empty monuments that have captivated photographer Roland Miller, who has spent over 25 years photographing space programs and astronauts.

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Sunrise, Launch Complex 34. © Roland Miller. Used with permission of Roland Miller.

"Abandoned in Place," he said, was created almost by accident.

"I was consulting an environmental engineer from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station regarding the proper disposal of old photographic chemicals that had been found at a building the Air Force was renovating. He took me to see Launch Complex 19, the Gemini Program launch facility, and I knew instantly that I wanted to photograph this facility and others that were on Cape Canaveral," he explained of the project's genesis.

"In 1993, while preparing for an exhibit of Abandoned in Place at the Huntsville Alabama Museum of Art in Alabama, the curator asked if I would make some photographs at the NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center located there in Huntsville. I agreed, and I quickly realised I should photograph at other NASA and military facilities related to the space program."

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Wind Tunnel Test Chamber with Model, 7 X 10 Foot Wind Tunnel, NASA Langley Research Center, Virginia 1997 © Roland Miller. Used with permission of Roland Miller.

It's not, he says, merely the beauty of the sites, but also their place in the history of space exploration and cultural significance.

"I was drawn to photograph these launch pads and research facilities for many reasons. Obviously their history made them worthy of documenting years after their useful life had ended. The colour aspects and unique design made them visually intriguing. The fact that these sites were once the focus of the world's attention and now were abandoned reminded me of the temporal nature of life," Miller said.

"Finally, they connected me to my childhood. I grew up in the 1960s, and as young boy the space program seemed like magic. It has been an amazing experience to explore and photograph these launch complexes and test sites that had such an impact on me as a child."

Named for a notice NASA sprayed onto a wall at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 34, his collection of photographs has toured the US and is now being collated into a Kickstarter-funded book containing around 100 colour photographs from the series -- a way to preserve the sites, many of which have since been demolished. Miller estimates that around half the facilities he photographed for the series no longer exist -- torn down to remove the costs of maintaining and securing them.

And it's not as if anyone can just visit one of the remaining launch pads for themselves, either.

"You have to understand that all of these launch complexes and test sites are on secure military bases or NASA and contractor operated facilities with numerous security considerations and hazardous operations," Miller explained.

"It wasn't hard to get out and photograph for a short period of time, but I knew I need extended time and numerous visits to accomplish the project I had in mind. It took about two years of attempting different avenues to get the access I required. Once I was able to make a couple of excursions and then show the work to NASA and the Air Force, they were supportive of my visits."

The images themselves are poignantly beautiful -- the sites reminiscent of ancient, crumbling, monumental wonders. The photographs will be accompanied in the book by poems by sci-fi author Ray Bradbury and essays by art historian Dr Betsy Fahlman, aerospace journalist Craig Covault, retired NASA astronaut Colonel Pamela Melroy and space archaeologist Dr Beth O'Leary.

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Launch Ring, Launch Complex 34, (Apollo Saturn), Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, 1990 © Roland Miller. Used with permission of Roland Miller.

"Launch Complex 34 is my favourite," Miller said. "LC34 is the site of a number of unmanned test launches of the Saturn I and IB rocket. The first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7, lifted off from Complex 34. It is also the site of the Apollo One capsule fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. There is a spiritual quality to Launch Complex 34. The launch pedestal with its large round opening to the sky gives it the look of some ancient astronomical archaeological ruin -- something like Stonehenge."

Abandoned in Place is due for a release in August 2015, published by the University of New Mexico Press. Interested parties can email Roland Miller for updates and more information, and more pictures can be found on the Abandoned in Place website.

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ABANDON IN PLACE/PEACE, Launch Complex 34, (Apollo Saturn) Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida © Roland Miller. Used with permission of Roland Miller.