Image: Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral in 1963
NASA
This aerial view of Launch Complex 14 (LC-14) at Cape Canaveral was taken in 1963. Project Mercury Rising proposes to restore and revive LC-14 as a classroom.
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updated 8/31/2010 11:19:23 AM ET 2010-08-31T15:19:23

The launch pad used by the first United States astronauts to enter orbit around Earth may soon be revived as an engineering classroom for a new generation of rocket builders, where laid off space shuttle technicians are the teachers.

Jennifer Scheer, who will soon end her eight-year career servicing NASA's orbiters, conceived the idea, which she has dubbed "Project Mercury Rising." She has proposed restoring the Complex 14 launch pad Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to give students hands-on engineering experience working with a replica Mercury-Atlas rocket.

This space camp for budding rocket builders would then trade the replicas for the real thing, sending payloads the students build into space on commercial rockets launched from a nearby active pad.

"This idea (behind Project Mercury Rising) formulated as something that could both refurbish the launch complex and educate and inspire kids after the shuttle program is over," wrote Scheer in an e-mail. "It would also employ former shuttle program workers and help the area economically."

As Scheer envisions it, engineers and technicians who have or will soon lose their jobs as a result of NASA's shuttle program shutting down next year would act as instructors and mentors.

The rise and fall of Complex 14
Erected in 1957 to support the development of the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile, Launch Complex 14 (LC-14) was the departure point for four Mercury missions that launched the first U.S. astronauts into orbit, including John Glenn's history-making three orbits in February 1962. (Photos: Mercury astronaut John Glenn in orbit)

The same pad later supported the unmanned Agena target vehicle launches during NASA's follow-on two-man Gemini program before the pad was deactivated in 1967.

In the decades that have passed since it was abandoned as a launch pad, LC-14 has evolved into part conference center, part monument, and part ruins.

In 1976, the almost 150-foot mobile service structure that towered over the pad's concrete ramp and launch stand was toppled and scrapped after falling victim to excessive rust.

The nearby blockhouse with its 10.5-inch thick walls was renovated in 1988 to host meetings for the Air Force. A monument installed on the ramp and another outside the complex perimeter stand to remind visitors of the historic role the pad once served.

Showing rather than telling
Scheer thinks that the pad should actively demonstrate its history, rather than have markers describe it.

"I don't feel that the site is living up to its potential," she said. "It gets occasional visits from tour groups, but from what I have been told, the tour buses from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex no longer even go to the site itself, they stop at the monument in front only."

"If Project Mercury Rising was approved, it would breathe new life into the site. Students would go there to learn and become inspired. Aerospace experts would share their knowledge with the next generation of space workers."

"I truly care about making the site a fitting tribute to the astronauts who launched there and those on the ground who made it all possible," Scheer said.

Continue reading at collectSPACE.com about the balance between the pad's historical restoration and making it safe for students.

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