Before the very first television broadcast from space – before man first stepped onto the moon, Cordele acquired its own piece of space history: A decades-old Georgia landmark known as Air Force Pad No. 1.
In 1968 Cordele, Georgia, the “Watermelon Capital of the World,” became home to a surplus Titan missile. It was obtained by John Pate, who had spent a decade in the Air Force. He later became the president of the Cordele Rotary Club. When Pate learned that the Titan missiles were being retired, he saw an opportunity for a tourist attraction.
The Titan rockets, built as intercontinental ballistic missiles, were originally intended to carry nuclear warheads up to 10,000 miles. They were later commissioned by NASA, in 1960, to launch two-man Gemini space capsules.
Pate hoped that bringing a Cold War relic to Cordele would make the area stand out. And it certainly has become an eye-catching attraction. Through the connections Pate had with the military, he arranged for the missile to be flown to Robins Air Force Base in 1968.
From the moment it landed at the base, the missile caused quite a stir. A lack of communication meant that no one was really sure why the rocket had been flown in or to whom it belonged. Its arrival initially caused a good bit of confusion, but once its purpose became clear, the rocket was driven by convoy from Robins Air Force Base to its final resting place right off I-75.
The whole community oversaw the installation of the missile. The Rotary raised the money needed to transport and erect the rocket, and it was officially dedicated in July of 1968 on a patch of land provided by the owner of a Holiday Inn down the street.
Since then, aluminum has replaced the rocket’s radioactive panels, and a fence has been added to its perimeter in hopes of discouraging vandalization. Before the fence was built, some sightseers tried taking pieces of the rocket home with them as souvenirs.
Next to the Rocket is a sign declaring, “This is the site of Confederate Air Force Pad No. 1,” along with a plaque detailing the history of the giant rocket standing tall near the bottom of the Exit 101 ramp.
And that is where commuters, road trippers, and Cordele locals still see the rocket today. It’s hard to miss at 110 feet tall. Before smartphones and GPS were commonalities, the rocket acted as a landmark, helping people navigate the 355-mile stretch across Georgia that is I-75. It wasn’t uncommon for people to include it in directions like, “turn right once you get to the rocket.”
It has had its fair amount of fame. The rocket has made its way into the photo albums of travelers who couldn’t resist pulling off the interstate to snap a picture, and it has even made an appearance on the big screen in the film “The Crazies.”
The rocket is an eye-catcher, a reason to pull off the road for a few minutes and experience something unique. John Pate’s original vision to bring something different and fascinating to the area has lived on. Air Force Pad No. 1 will come up on its fiftieth anniversary this July.
Air Force Pad No.1 isn’t just a tourist attraction; it is a monument that Cordele locals take pride in as a piece of the community’s history. It is a truly unique sight, and its story and fame have made the community where it stands a bit legendary.
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