In his 30 years of photographing abandoned military and aerospace sites across the U.S., Roland Miller writes in his new book that he has only ventured alone into one of these deactivated sites once.
During a massive lightning storm, he visited Complex 34—the abandoned launch site of many Apollo launches and the site of the deadly Apollo 1 fire—without an official escort after a scheduling mishap. Huddled beneath one of the enormous legs of the rocket stand, he tried to photograph the dramatic structure but found himself overcome. "The storm, the history, the accomplishments, the tragic loss overwhelmed my senses. It is difficult for me to explain the atmosphere at Complex 34. Standing beneath the launch ring is a spiritual experience."
Miller is a professional photographer who has spent the past 30 years traveling around the country, documenting the sprawling ruins of these industrial landscapes, which range from research sites like the first large-scale wind tunnels to the launch pads and service structures from which rockets were sent into space. His new book, Abandoned In Place, collects hundreds of the stunningly beautiful photos alongside essays from photography historians, anthropologists, and historians. The title is borrowed from the official epithet spray-painted on structures the government has deemed too costly or difficult to demolish—including Complex 34.
More than just a remembrance of a lost age of infrastructure, Abandoned In Place is a meditation on landscapes of immense historical significance that are overlooked by historic preservation. "In a perfect world, I would love to see those things preserved. I tend to compare them to Civil War battlefields," Miller tells me. "We don’t have a lot of Cold War locations that you can point to."
His photos sometimes include portraits of the now-aging engineers, janitors, and other employees who once worked on them—in one, the original mechanical engineer of the 1960s-era Mercury Program stands amid a hulking, rusted-out launch site. He’s wearing his original program hardhat.
In his introduction Miller describes how one engineer told him "an entirely new method of demolition would need to be developed" to demolish the early rocket launch sites. Yet their days are still numbered: If they haven’t been partially demolished by the government already, they’ve either been repurposed, or left to crumble. Then there’s a much bigger specter looming on the horizon: climate change. "In 50 to 100 years, there’s a chance that some of those areas will be underwater," Miller says. "So how much do you do now to preserve them?"
Instead of advocating for their explicit conservation, Miller has served as an ad hoc preservationist through his photography. NASA even invites him to photograph sites that may not ever be accessible again. A few years ago, the government was preparing to finalize a 20-year-lease of Complex 39—the Kennedy Space Center launch site for Space Shuttle missions—to SpaceX. NASA called Miller in to document some of the most historic parts of the complex.
In the "bowels" of the complex, he got to explore the infamous "rubber room," built in the 1960s to provide a panic room for NASA employees should the rocket explode. Accessed by a 200-foot-long slide and literally walled with rubber, the room contained enough air, food, and water for employees to survive for three days in the event of catastrophe. Now, the complex is regularly used by SpaceX to launch its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.
Miller has an incredibly practical take on the structures he’s spent his career documenting. "I think some people have seen my work as an indictment of NASA or the Air Force for not taking care of these sites," he says. "To me, the opposite is actually true." He sees photography as the only real way to preserve these sites for the masses, and NASA and the Air Force as gracious collaborators in the project. "The amount of effort and money that would be involved with preserving these sites—right on the coastline in the harsh Florida sun—would be, no pun intended, astronomical," he says.
Yet it’s hard not to feel the melancholy that comes through in the photos—particularly of Complex 34, the site of Miller’s stormy, unaccompanied visit all those years ago, and the site of dozens of visits since. In one image, three people stand in a circle below the rusting legs of the rocket launch pad during a commemorative service for the three astronauts who died there in 1967. A portable speaker and a wreath of flowers sit on the cracked concrete around them.
"If one thing could come from this book—if it could preserve that one site, I would be very happy," he says. "It’s right by the ocean, it’s very peaceful, and it’s just a unique spot on Earth."
All Photos: © 2016 by Roland Miller/courtesy University of New Mexico Press