Whoops, I Lost My Nuclear Missile: The Archaeological Rediscovery of a Forgotten Ballistic Missile Crash

On September 15, 1959, the US Army launched a test missile with the potential to travel nearly 4,000 miles.  This so-called Jupiter missile took off from Cape Canaveral almost exactly 10 years before Apollo 11 lifted off at the same site (Wade 2019, 13).  But unlike the rocket that put the first humans on the moon, the Jupiter missile (Figure 1) had an ill-fated launch.  The failure of a connection joint 13 seconds after takeoff meant that the rocket’s final resting place was in a crater that formed just a few hundred feet from the launchpad inside of a Western Florida beach (Penders 2012, 235).  

Figure 1:
The ill-fated Jupiter AM-23 missile shortly before takeoff in September 1959. Source: US Army Website, http://www.redstone.army.mil/history/archives/jupiter/jupiter_am23_16sep59_01.jpg

The physical impact and the potential cultural ramifications of the failed missile launch were largely ignored at the time.  More than 80% of the rockets launched at Cape Canaveral failed during the 1950s, and the government simply continued its launches, with more than 30 missiles launched in 1957 alone (Wade 2019, 13).  The Jupiter AM-23’s fragments were quickly cleared from the crater site, and apart from an environmental investigation in the 1990s, the crater has been largely ignored ever since (Penders 2012, 235-237).  However, in 2012, archaeologist Thomas Penders undertook a surface survey of the crash site, determining which missile caused the crash and offering further insight into the less-documented legacies of the space race.  

Penders’ initial goal was to rediscover the crater, a structure that had not likely maintained its original form due to its proximity to the Florida coastline.  He used an aerial image from 1960 as a reference for the crater’s position (Figure 2) and loaded the image into a GIS that helped his team locate the crater without needing to use a grid-based surface survey (Penders 2012, 234).  

Figure 2: Aerial photograph from 1960 showing missile impact crater. Source: US Air Force (cited in Penders: Aerospace Archaeology, p. 233).

The area around the crater contained 412 artifacts from several different launches, including debris from the explosion of a Delta II rocket (in addition to the Jupiter missile Penders was interested in).  But typological analysis allowed Penders’ team to distinguish between the two rockets; the Delta II artifacts consisted mainly of carbon-fiber sheets or foam, whereas the Jupiter AM-23 fragments were made of aluminum or steel (Penders 2012, 236).  Penders’ team also documented the crater’s structure, allowing him to classify it as a vertical-impact crater and rule out several of the rocket launches with more haphazard flight paths that could have formed the crater.  

Penders’ rediscovery of the Jupiter missile crater is an important and necessary step towards telling the full picture of the history of the space race.  For every successful rocket that launched humans closer to the moon, there were another seven that crashed and burned, leaving holes in the landscape and wildlife of the area.  While the US government may keep its records of failed launches largely hidden from the public, the mark they made on the American landscape and history will remain, left in the hands of archaeologists to uncover what has been left out of our historical narratives.  


Penders, Thomas. Aerospace Archaeology and the Study of Missile Crash Sites: An Example From the Jupiter Crash Site (8BR2087), Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Brevard County, Florida. 2012. DOI.org (Datacite), https://doi.org/10.48512/XCV8458233.

Wade, Mark. “Jupiter IRBM,” 2019. http://www.astronautix.com/j/jupiterirbm.html.

Further reading

Jupiter Missile (May 31, 1957). Accessed December 2, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZmJGSpelMQ.

Darrin, M. Ann Garrison., and O’Leary, Beth Laura. On the Nature of the Cultural Heritage Values of Spacecraft Crash Sites in Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology, and Heritage / Edited by Ann Garrison Darrin, Beth Laura O’Leary. Advances in Engineering (Boca Raton, Fla.). Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2009.

The Vasa Shipwreck: A Rare Glimpse Into Life in 17th-Century Sweden With the Help of Bioarchaeology

On April 24th, 1961, a crowd watched as a massive ship emerged from beneath the waves near a Swedish harbor.  This ship was the Vasa, a Swedish military vessel that sank in 1628 and had been sitting on the ocean floor for hundreds of years.  Incredibly, the Vasa remained in good condition, with over 90% of its wood and many artifacts remaining, including coins, shoes, and partially-preserved human remains (Laursen 2012).  While the rediscovery of the Vasa (Figure 1) presented unprecedented challenges for archaeologists, the successful preservation of the objects and remains on board provides valuable information about life in 17th-century Sweden.  

Figure 1: The Vasa, preserved at the Vasa Museum. Retrieved from https://www.vasamuseet.se.

One of the primary factors that allowed the Vasa to be preserved was the cold, brackish water that surrounded it (Robson 2009); the salty water killed microbes or other pests that would have normally eaten the ship apart.  As a result, archaeologists could easily observe the ship once it was raised.  Somewhere between 17 and 20 skeletons were found on the Vasa, with some even containing fingernails and hair (Larsson 2022).  The first step to categorizing the bodies was identifying whether or not they were human (Renfrew 2018, 233-234).  Upon investigation, archaeologists found bones from cats, birds, pigs, cows, and fish on the ship, in addition to humans (Figure 2) (Larsson 2022).  One of the most notable facts about the human bodies was how short they were, with the tallest person being around 5’9″ (Larsson 2022).  This was likely due to their diet, with lack of access to food being common in cold Swedish winters.  In contrast to their diet on land, however, there was plenty of food available on the ship.  In addition to the varied sources of meat mentioned earlier, the sailors also brought fishing equipment and hunting weapons to replenish their food supply if necessary (Larsson 2022).  

Figure 2: Two facial reconstructions of individuals found on the Vasa. Retrieved from https://www.vasamuseet.se.

The archaeological remains aboard the Vasa also provide insight into the culture of the time as they demonstrate the social dynamic aboard the ship.  As an example, the bodies of two women and children were found aboard, supporting the notion that Swedish sailors brought their families onto warships when not in battle (Larsson 2022).  In addition, many of the bodies bear some of the first documented evidence of work-related injuries, with patterns of damage along bones suggesting that they were crushed or scarred by parts of the ship (Bjarvall 1994).  The ages of the sailors recovered also indicate that the men aboard the ship were conscripted into service, with most bodies being somewhere between 18-65 years old.  

Overall, the natural and archaeological preservation of the ship combined with bioarchaeological analysis of the humans and animals on board create a vivid depiction of Swedish naval life in the 1600s.  The archaeological techniques that have been so successful at revealing the culture inside a ship that sat for centuries under the ocean remain a model for what’s possible in the world of bioarchaeology today. 



Bjarvall, Katarina. “Skulls Telling Tales of Ancient Mariners : Sweden: Skeletons from a 1628 Shipwreck Give a Glimpse of How the Sailors Looked and Lived. Hollywood’s Portrayals Turn out to Be Pretty Accurate.” Los Angeles Times, 10 July 1994, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-07-10-mn-13813-story.html.

Larsson, Martina. Studies of the Skeletons Tell Us about the People Onboard the Vasa. https://www.vasamuseet.se/en/explore/research. Accessed 29 Sept. 2022.

Laursen, Lucas. Vasa’s Curious Imbalance – Archaeology Magazine Archive. Aug. 2012, https://archive.archaeology.org/1207/features/vasa_warship_sweden_stockholm_harbor.html. Accessed 29 Sept. 2022.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson. 2018.

Robson, Sandra. “Ghost Ships of the Baltic.” Nautical Archaeology Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 1.  Spring 2009, https://nauticalarch.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/36.1-sm.pdf.

Further Reading

Larsson, Martina. The Vasa Museum homepage. https://www.vasamuseet.se/en. Accessed 29 Sept. 2022.

Wheatley, David. Saving the Swedish Warship, VASA. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MU1jA9jnNJ8. Accessed 29 Sept. 2022.