Thursday, July 16, 2009

Apollo launch to the moon

Camp Connell, CA -- I was one -- of many-- that went to the moon with Apollo.
Forty years ago today I was working as Aerospace Writer for the TODAY newspaper and Gannett News Service, covering the launch and moon mission of Apollo 11.
My wife Pat had only recently quit her job at NASA where she worked in the public information office She was at home, pregnant and dealing with morning sickness, glued to the television.
I had worked till midnight the night before the blastoff, and drove to the Kennedy Space Center before dawn so I could be there to watch the Apollo crew walk in their spacesuits from their crew quarters to a special bus that carried them to the launch site.
My family had driven down from Georgia and Alabama and were parked alongside a causeway, looking over the waters of the Banana River at the launch site with hundreds of thousands of other people.

No one who knew anything about the space program assumed the astronauts would survive that day, or that week. We all knew that great risks were involved. And great rewards.

But the crew was happy to be heading for the moon, as confident as only test pilots could be.

The goal of landing on the moon before the end of the decade, established by President Kennedy shortly before his death, was shared and accepted by most of America and the world.
The press site at the space center was a zoo. Thousands of people had managed to get press credentials, including more than a few barmaids from Cocoa Beach who had befriended the television folks from New York or newspaper publishers. The TV people all had trailers, some of them fancy, with air conditioning and refrigerators and chairs and gofers to run errands.
Most newspaper reporters had a work space in the press bleachers, with a telephone and a place for a portable typewriter. My typewriter was inherited from my father who used it for his work in the 1940s and 50s. (I still have it.) There wasn't a single laptop anywhere to be seen, not that we would have known what the word meant.
The countdown moved along and when Jack King's voice started the famous backward chant "ten, nine, eight...." the tension was incredible.
The rocket engines flashed into life, and by the time the sound reached the bleachers, rattling the roof and making the light fixtures dance, the rocket was clear of the tower and headed into space.
It was an enormously emotional moment for everyone who witnessed it, in person or on television. A woman standing near me was groaning loudly and crying, causing one of her companions to joke about the source of her ecstasy. More than one reporter cried with joy.
I was taking notes, watching through binoculars, and trying to help with a live radio broadcast. One of my jobs was to provide color and expertise to the newspaper-owned radio station. Another was to help my excitable friend Louis DeRoche with his instant reports to Agency France Press.
Once the astronauts were out of sight and well on their way, we were all glued to the communications system that provided a constant flow of information.
When things settled down enough to be sure the crew was safely in earth orbit, I went back to the newspaper office across the river and worked at my desk into the night. I had a radio link wired into my desk so I could monitor all the Apollo communications with Mission Control, and help the other reporters working on different aspects of the story.
Because we were THE local newspaper for the Cape Kennedy area, it was the biggest day in the newspaper's history and no detail went uncovered.
Around mid-night I finished working on the next day's stories, and went home for a few hours sleep.
The next morning, as the astronauts headed for the moon, I flew to Houston to cover the rest of the flight from the Mission Control Center.
At the time of Apollo 11 only a dozen or so men had ever flown into space, and we knew them all. This week, with the launch of the shuttle, the total has now reached 500 men and women, most unknown.
Forty years later some things have definitely not changed about my impressions on that July day:
I still believe Apollo was worth the effort, the money and even the lives it required to make that day possible;
I still believe the desire to explore is part of human nature which should be encouraged;
I still believe space travel represents the greatest adventure left for us and should be pursued;
I still believe the men who made that journey -- and the thousands of people who supported them - are heroes;

And, I still believe that I have been one of the luckiest journalist in the world. I was at the right place at the right time to witness and report on history.

Footnote: For the New York Times' coverage of the anniversary, follow the link below. The Times' John Noble Wilford, incidentally, is one of only two reporters still actively writing the space program forty years later. The other is Sue used to write for the Daytona Beach newspaper, and has a new last name unknown to me. Some of those colleagues have died, and many others have retired.

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