There are no shortage of things to see at the Kennedy Spaceflight Centre, particularly for space lovers – the place really is Disney World for space nerds. One of the most interesting sites for Apollo enthusiasts is the one thing on site that no one can see: the blast chamber and infamous rubber room underneath launch pad A. Not only is it underground and out of site, but it’s protected as an historical site and off limits to the public. But if you know the right people, which I happily do, you can make your way inside this fascinating piece of history.
I hadn’t heard of the rubber room before I went to Kennedy two weeks ago. I’ve since gone through some of the more comprehensive historical documents I have and some candid popular histories that might have a mention of the room from an astronaut, but in all written accounts the blast chamber is as unseen as the real thing. There are a few emergency egress reports that reference a blast room or blast chamber, but nothing really goes into its history, specifications, and construction.
After digging around, and receiving some brilliant insights from two friends who work at KSC (those “right people”), I put together a general picture of the rubber room and blast chamber. In short, it’s an underground bomb shelter designed to protect Apollo astronauts and pad crews in the event of a Saturn V exploding on the launch pad. If the 363 foot rocket exploded, the resulting fireball would be 1,408 feet wide and burn for nearly 40 seconds reaching a peak temperature of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Not something you want to be close to.
In the base of the mobile launch platform, the giant crawler that carried the Saturn V from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad, there was a door that gave crews passage to a 200 foot long slide. The slide didn’t carry the men away from the launch pad. Rather, it twisted and turned to deliver them to a room 40 feet underneath the launch pad.
That room, into which astronauts and crews were delivered along a flat trough at the base of the slide, is made entirely of rubber ostensibly to cushion their speeding arrival. A 6-inch steel door opens onto a short tunnel that leads into the blast room, which, like a missile silo, is mounted on huge springs so an explosion overhead won’t rattle anything inside.
The blast room is lined with 20 huge chairs, big enough for an astronaut in a full pressure suit to sit in comfortably. Other amenities include 20 fire blankets, a toilet, and enough carbon dioxide filters and chemical oxygen candles to keep up to 20 men alive for a full 24 horus. By then, the air above them should be clear making it safe to leave. There are two ways out, long tunnels that crews can follow to a safe point far from the launch pad. Alternatively they could wait for recovery crews to come to them. (For a more complete look at the rubber room and blast chamber, check out my article on Discovery News.)
The door leading from the mobile launch pad to the slide and the opening at the base of the launch pad have been cut off. But the rubber room and blast chamber are still there. They’re closed off from the public, protected by a sign proclaiming the area to be an artifact and a man that checks your badge before giving you the key to get inside.
And they’re both looking a little worse for their disuse. The rubber room is still bouncy and feels like it would be a nice place to slam into after careening down a 200 foot slide, but the plastic is starting to peel and flake off in some places. The blast room is now without fire blankets, possibly because they were made of asbestos and were just a looming health hazard (this is a point I still need to confirm). The chairs are all still there complete with restraints, though they don’t look incredibly inviting. And the toilet is still there, too, looking equally uninviting tucked behind one of the big chairs next to the small tunnel leading to the rubber room.
One of the really neat things that looks almost good as new is the chart on the wall that tells occupants how to maintain breathable oxygen for everyone inside. There are four scenarios – what to do with 1-5 people, with 6-10 people, with 11-15 people, and with 16-20 people. With more people, carbon dioxide filters have to be changed more frequently and oxygen candles have to be lit. There’s also reference to a crank that needs to be turned a number of times per hours, but I still haven’t figured out exactly what the crank was and how it worked. The chart is perfectly clear, an appropriate way to give men possibly terrified hiding from a massive explosion overhead vital life-saving information.
The rubber room and blast chamber were never used – thankfully no Saturn V every exploded on the launch pad – and were abandoned in place when the Apollo program ended. Another Apollo emergency egress method had the astronauts ride slide wires from the top of the launch pad to the safety of a bunker on the ground. Shuttle astronauts opted to use the slide wire as their primary emergency egress method, taking gondolas from the gantry to the ground.
I love learning new things about NASA’s history, and getting to walk right inside that history was sort of incredible. If I make it back inside, I’ll be sure to bring a better camera than my iPhone. I did get some pictures of the egress tunnels and up the slide, but the flash is just too weak to really light things up and capture any detail.