CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - From America's first satellite to its first reach for the stars, some of the Cape Canaveral sites built to launch the country's space race and defense programs now look like ancient ruins.
"The salt air is corrosive, so a lot of the metal parts are eroding," explained Tom Penders, the cultural resources manager for the Air Force's 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base. "Every time there's a tropical storm or hurricane, we have storm surges and large wind and rain events, it damages these launch complexes."
The damage is leaving some Cape Canaveral Air Force Station sites beyond repair.
"So the only alternative we have is to document them," Penders continued. "There is traditional documentation aspects, but high-definition 3D laser scanning can do it and for a quarter of the time and a quarter of the price."
That's where University of South Florida digital heritage and humanities professor Lori Collins and her team are helping.
"If so much is being lost so fast, how can we maybe use technology to document this before it's gone?" she offered.
The team is now traveling from Tampa to Cape Canaveral to document the dilapidated sites in painstaking detail using laser scanners and 3D imaging.
"We have the whole entire site down to sort of milling metric scale, down to the rivets, and you know how that rust is impacting the metal. When you have the 3D data you can really start to see how all these things fit together to actually create the engineering that got people into space."
Collins reports her findings to Penders to help him decide whether a site is worth restoring.
"The data they provided me was incredible," he said. "I could literally look in between the blocks and see the damage that was done in between each individual block."
Some of the researchers working on this project remember watching the famous moonwalk on their black-and-white TV's. Now they're the ones making history, creating ways for future generations to enjoy Cape Canaveral's historic sites through virtual reality.
"We're using these tools to document the way they are now, to know where it started where it is now and where it's going to be in the future," Collins added.
Penders says seven launch sites have been documented so far and that he hopes to have the entire cape scanned and recorded by 2023.