Column: I Had a Front-Row Seat at Launch of Final Manned Mission to Moon
Forty years ago today the final manned moon mission, Apollo 17, began with an extraordinary night launch of its Saturn V rocket. I was there, standing at the edge of the lagoon that lies between Pad 39A and the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. As a college sophomore with a week between classes and finals, the NASA press credentials I got for the asking gave me backstage access.
My primary reason for going had nothing to do with filing a story for the Cornell Daily Sun, where I was a staff photographer. Like many, perhaps most, of the photojournalists and reporters on site, I was there to experience a childhood dream come true, to experience a “rocket summer” like the kind Ray Bradbury described in his famous short story that describes the heat and light of a rocket launch transforming a wintry landscape. We reveled in our good fortune, standing just three miles from the rocket. We had the front-row seats; nobody in the open air was any closer.
The launch had a departure window of between sunset and the early morning hours that would allow the astronauts to reach their landing spot easily. Ideally, blastoff would take place just before 10 p.m. The Saturn V rocket was huge, almost 40 stories tall on the pad, yet lithe and beautiful, just 33 feet in diameter at the base, tapering in four steps to the Apollo command module. The five engines of the first stage generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust for 2 minutes, 43 seconds, which got the 6.4 million pound rocket moving at a rate of 7,779 feet per second while burning up 5 million pounds of fuel. Afterward, the second stage got the rocket into high Earth orbit, and the third sent the spacecraft on to the moon. Nobody really knew what it would be like to see one fired up in the darkness.
The weather was warm, like July in New England. Across the lagoon stood the rocket, bathed in a glorious pyramid of light created by a score of huge high-intensity searchlights. It gleamed brilliantly — the embodiment of every science-fiction fan’s fantasy. The VIP and press stands were filled, the line of photographers extended all along the shore, and now, under the stars, we all waited.
The countdown proceeded, and as time slipped away, the conversations quieted, and then gave way to silence as we listened to the voice of Mission Control. “One minute ... 45 seconds ... 30 ...” Suddenly, “We have an automatic sequencer cut-off at the T-minus 30 second mark.” For the first time in the Apollo program, a launch had snagged.
There were several minutes of anxiety. In the command module, I would learn later, astronaut Gene Cernan had his finger on the escape button. The problem was sorted out in short order, though, and the clock reset to T-minus 22 minutes. There would also be a two-hour hold. It would be a midnight launch.
I wandered over to the CBS booth and stood and watched Walter Cronkite, the great anchorman of my youth, speaking earnestly with Frank Borman, the astronaut who read from the Book of Genesis while Apollo 8 circled the moon during a Christmastime television broadcast in 1968. One topic, of course, was what it feels like to be sitting atop a Saturn V rocket, waiting to leave for the moon. But they also engaged in a long conversation about the American space program and how this launch was the end of the era of capsules and command modules on single-use rockets. The Apollo program, originally 24 missions, fulfilled President Kennedy’s national challenge to put a man on the moon, but President Nixon, never much interested in the space program, had cut it to 17, and given the go-ahead to work on the Space Shuttle.
After 90 minutes of leg-stretching, I returned to my place along the shore. The countdown resumed. The crowd had loosened up. Up and down the line people shouted encouragement toward the rocket. We passed the 30-second mark, and cheers came from the stands. “T minus 10,” announced Mission Control. Cameras whirred, shutters clicked. “Ignition!” was the call, and there, at the base of the rocket, a clearly visible, dull orange flame glowed, followed by huge clouds of smoke and steam billowing up on either side of the launch pad. “Five, four” the countdown continued, and the rocket gleamed in the spotlights, its engines revving up. But there was no roar, no sound from the rocket. Being three miles away, it would take 15 seconds for the sound of the engines to reach us. “Two, one, liftoff!” The Saturn V began a slow, sexy ascent off the pad. The engines cleared the base of the pad.
Suddenly the night exploded into daylight. Flocks of birds rose out of the lagoon. The rocket was making midnight noon! From the stands came a collective gasp. The sky was a clear, pale blue. The rocket rose, slowly, steadily, powerfully, smoothly. A ripple in the lagoon approached the shore, the rocket was just above the launch tower, and out of the obliterating light came the sound of a lifetime.
The blast wave pushed us back a step like an impatient drill sergeant forming up a line of recruits. We shouted. We could not hear each other’s shouts. We shouted at the top of our lungs. We could not hear ourselves. The rocket climbed, the night was day, the sound was everywhere around us and in us, settling into a rumble, rumble, snap!, rumble, rumble, snap! that made the body vibrate and then plucked at the spine. It was the only time in my life that every single nerve ending in my body sent signals to the brain. I could feel my rib cage and shoulder blades and spine, my lungs and intestines. The rocket rose in the sky, the roar abated, the light receded, a new star moved brightly toward the east, and the last rocket summer of the Apollo era came to an end.
F. X. Flinn, a Quechee resident, owns an information technology consultancy and is a member of the Hartford Selectboard.