Home / Top Headlines / Summer 2014 / Shoot for the Moon, Land Among A Small Georgia Town

Shoot for the Moon, Land Among A Small Georgia Town

Written by: Cole Edwards

Watermelons, peaches and friend chicken more often than not come to mind when considering Cordele, Georgia’s “claims to fame,” but rarely is space travel or rocket ships generally associated with the small Southern town, located two hours below Atlanta.

 

The Gas ‘n Go gas station right off the interstate may sell Moon Pies and Orbit chewing gum, but it has nothing in common with the enormous rocket ship it shares a parking lot with, despite the close proximity between the two.

 

Even the nearby Krystal restaurant shrinks in the shadow of the missile, a towering figure of both aluminum and mystery.

 

For over four and a half decades, the rocket has served as a visible landmark for those traveling Interstate 75, offering both strange curiosity as well as a unique backdrop for family photos for tourists making their way to and from Florida.

 

The rocket becomes an even stranger story when considering it makes its home in a town named after the daughter of a railroad man, with no scientist or NASA engineer in sight.

 

While history books may mark Cordele as the “Watermelon Capitol of the World,” it is arguably more recognizable to mere passerby because of the giant missile.

 

“That rocket has been a part of this town longer than I have, and I’ve lived here my whole life” said Thomas Keller, who has lived in Cordele all 45 years of his life. “It’s one of those things I almost forget about until I see it through other people’s eyes.

 

Keller, who has written three books on the history of Cordele and Crisp County, described the rocket as a 110-foot high Titan missile, bought to Cordele not long after I-75 was first built through the South Georgia area. He said the spot the rocket stands on is often referred to as “Confederate Air Force Pad No. 1,” effective as of July 1968.

 

Back then, travelers could fill up their car for what one gallon of gas costs nowadays. Even now, with GPS so prevalent and unavoidable, the rocket still offers an identifiable location, a marker for road bearings and travelers seeking direction along the busy interstate.

 

“It’s funny that people generally stereotype a place like Cordele as peaches and corn and such, yet our main attraction – or, at least, our best regarded – is something so high-tech and foreign looking for this area,” Keller said. “Simply put, that rocket is a show-stopper for our town.”

Though the rocket often declines interviews, it has received a great share of the spotlight in recent years with feature stories ranging from “Travel Magazine” to the “Los Angeles Times.”

 

Even the 2010 horror movie “The Crazies,” filmed in various locations all across Georgia, featured a cameo of the famous rocket in a key scene.

 

The rocket’s origins begin with John Pate, who was president of the Cordele Rotary Club in the late ‘60s. While on a visit to Cape Kennedy in 1967, Pate learned that the Air Force was soon planning to decommission the Titan missile, which had served NASA in 1959 as an intercontinental missile designed to carry nuclear warheads.

 

Through his connections he had gained while serving a decade in the Air Force, Pate was able to convince the Warner Robins Air Force Base to secure the rights to the rocket, and he envisioned a chance “to make the Cordele exit memorable, to make it stand out.”

 

“When it landed at Robins, nobody knew who it belonged to,” Pate said. “The rocket was dismantled in California and flown by way of a C-5 airplane to Warner Robins and then carried straight down the interstate to Exit 101.”

 

Amidst the heyday of America’s space program, the rocket was officially dedicated on July 17, 1968, just a mere three months before the first live TV broadcast from the Apollo 7 beamed into millions of homes across the nation.

 

While the rocket may have never seen actual liftoff from Earth, steps have been put into place to ensure it stays in good condition: A chain-link fence was built around the base in 1989 to prevent a rise in vandalism; in 1995, Air Force engineers replaced the missile’s radioactive panels with aluminum to prevent erosion.

 

Despite the rapid rise in billboards and the current construction cluttering the exit, the rocket still stands tall – proudly – just a few years shy of its fiftieth anniversary in the town.

 

Pate is already gathering area groups and clubs to raise money to have the rocket refinished before it celebrates its golden anniversary in 2018.

 

“We want to get it sparkling, just like all the stars in the galaxy,” Pate said.

 

 

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