There is no space-age claim to fame in this town.
Not a single native son or daughter has ever skipped across the stars or wiped moon dust from their feet. The local chamber of commerce has a mission statement, but no mission control.
It’s true the gas station out by the interstate sells Moon Pies and Orbit chewing gum. But that has nothing to do with the rusting rocket ship in the far corner of the parking lot near the bottom of the ramp at Exit 101.
For almost 46 years, it has been one of Interstate 75’s most visible landmarks, a roadside curiosity for tourists and a point of pride for a community named after the daughter of a railroad man, not a rocket scientist.
“You’ve got the big peach in Byron and the big peanut in Ashburn, and we’ve got our big rocket right here in the Watermelon Capital of the World,” longtime resident Jimmy Black said.
It is somewhat of a show-stopper for travelers. After all, it’s human nature to rubberneck a rocket.
Said Black, “They’re not going to stop to look at a John Deere tractor.”
The 110-foot high Titan missile has stood tall at what the locals affectionately call “Confederate Air Force Pad No. 1” since July 1968. That wasn’t long after I-75 first came through Cordele and you could fill up your car for what a gallon of gas costs these days.
The rocket became a landmark in the cross hairs between I-75, which covers 355 miles from Georgia’s head to toe, and U.S. 280, which bisects the state along a 230-mile jagged line between Columbus and Savannah.
Back in the days before GPS, when folks kept folded road maps in their glove compartments, many a southbound traveler used it to get their bearings.
Take the Cordele exit and turn right at the rocket.
It has been the focus of countless camera shots and a backdrop for thousands of Kodak moments. Stories have been written about it everywhere from Roadside America to United Press International to the Los Angeles Times. It can be seen in the 2010 movie “The Crazies.”
It’s about the tallest thing to come out of Cordele, including Wayne Rollins, a 7-foot-1 professional basketball player whose nickname was “Tree.”
So how did it get here, scraping the sky like some misplaced silo and rising above the smell of Krystal hamburgers next door?
Well, you could subscribe to this theory: Mac Hyman was one of Cordele’s most noted hometown heroes. He wrote “No Time for Sergeants,” which introduced the world to actor Andy Griffith, who introduced the world to Don (Barney Fife) Knotts. And Knotts starred in the 1967 movie “The Reluctant Astronaut.”
But that would be a real stretch.
This is what really happened.
John Pate spent 10 years in the Air Force and was visiting Cape Kennedy in 1967 when he learned the Air Force was decommissioning the Titans. They originally were developed as an intercontinental ballistic missile designed to carry nuclear warheads and later used by NASA to launch the two-man Gemini space capsules in the 1960s.
Pate, who was president of the Cordele Rotary Club, envisioned it as a tourist attraction.
“I wanted to do something that would make this community stand out,” he said. “It was near Robins Air Force Base and right on I-75.”
Pate used his military connections to acquire a surplus Titan missile that was originally flight-tested in February 1959. It was dismantled in California and flown by a C-5 airplane to Robins. Pate arranged the transfer with the base commander, but not everybody got the memo.
“When it landed at Robins, nobody knew who it belonged to,” he said, laughing.
It caused another stir when the Department of Transporation had it transported by convoy on the interstate. The surplus missile was a gift, and local businesses and civic groups provided everything from the land to the crane to covering the costs of erecting the rocket ship -- not an easy feat in the middle of a scorching summer.
It officially was dedicated on July 17, 1968, during the glory days of the country’s ambitious space program. It was just three months before Apollo 7 beamed history’s first live TV broadcast from a U.S. spacecraft. And almost a year to the day later -- July 20, 1969 -- Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon.
The Cordele rocket has never had a liftoff, although it has had a few face-lifts. In the late 1980s, a chain-link fence was built around the base to prevent vandalism. In the mid-1990s, Air Force engineers replaced the missile’s radioactive panels with aluminum.
It has remained a fixture, surviving the encroachment of billboards and the widening of the interstate. It will be approaching its landmark 50th year in 2018. Pate said local groups are being asked to help to raise money to have the aging rocket refinished before its golden anniversary.
I don’t know about you, but every time I drive down I-75 I start looking for it.
It’s our very own Rocket of Ages.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.