Tucked away in the palmettos of Smyrna Dunes Park, stands a giant white sphere of curiosity. While a few people know the true purpose of this facility, others are left in speculation, or assuming it’s just a weather station.
The true purpose dates back to 1979 and the NASA shuttle program. Throughout the Apollo program that preceded the shuttle, NASA had used MILA, also known as the Merritt Island Launch Annex, which was a spaceflight tracking and data network station. It provided communications and data services between NASA and the Apollo spacecraft.
The induction of the shuttle program and its solid rocket boosters came with new challenges to MILA. The boosters burn a mixture of ammonium perchlorate and atomized aluminum power, which when ignited, creates aluminum oxide gas. The downside is the aluminum oxide exhaust blocks all radio waves, which cut all communication between MILA and the Shuttle for over a minute and half during launch until the boosters separated.
The solution to this new problem was to build another station 40 miles to the north in New Smyrna Beach, FL., on property owned by the US Coast Guard. The Ponce De Leon Inlet Tracking Annex (PDL) was developed to provide communication and data tracking from an alternate angle, and serve as the temporary link during the minute and a half that MILA was blocked by the exhaust plumes. Once booster separation occurred, MILA would resume as the primary link between NASA and the shuttle.
PDL handled the voice and data tracking over the span of 30 years and 135 missions until the shuttle program came to an end on July 21st, 2011. Along with the retirement of the shuttle program, both MILA and PDL were terminated as part of cost saving measures.
However, that’s not where the story ends. In 2011, NASA began development of the Space Launch System (SLS) to further deep space exploration. SLS will again utilize solid rocket boosters in order to get into orbit, which again creates the same communication issues as the shuttle program. Along with the construction of a new station and tracking system, NASA also completed restorations on the Ponce De Leon Tracking Annex. PDL received a new antenna and updated equipment to once again serve as the temporary link during the launch of the much anticipated SLS Artemis.
SLS is expected to make its first launch attempt sometime after August 2022.