38 years ago today, on April 16, 1972, the penultimate manned moon mission (Apollo 16) was launched.
In early 1972 (February, I think) I saw an article in the Houston Chronicle noting that the Apollo series of manned moon exploration missions (originally scheduled to go up to number 20) would be cut off at 17 (due to budget cuts and declining interest).
Apollo 17 would lift off on December 6, 1972, and it would go at night!!!
I decided right then that "I've GOT to see that!".
I noticed that Apollo 16 was scheduled for April 16th, two months away. I decided to aim for that one also, in case something happened to prevent Apollo 17.
At that time, I was an electrical draftsman, earning the princely sum of around $5.00 an hour (prices were much cheaper then) and possessed a 1964 Rambler that had over 100,000 miles on it and was on its' last legs. So, number one concern was whether I could even nurse it from Houston to the Cape and back.
I also wanted to get some good photos (now, sadly gone forever; that's another story), so I strained my credit at Sears (that was the only card I had besides a gas card; this was before VISA and MasterCard began flooding the market with unsolicited credit cards), and bought a Ricoh Singlex 35mm camera and a 300mm telephoto lens.
Among the shots I wanted to get would be night shots, not only of 17's launch itself, but also of the vehicles on their pads, lit up at night.
For that, I would need very fast film (the fastest color films at that time being color slide films such as Kodak High-Speed Ektachrome at 160 ASA and GAF 500 at 500 ASA).
Having seen, on TV, what they looked like at night, I roamed the outskirts of Pasadena to get shots of the refineries which were similarly lit in places, taking dozens of carefully documented exposures to see what would work best.
That resulted in GAF being taken out of consideration because it was so grainy as to be almost unusable, and so sensitive to exposure levels that you had to be within 1/2 stop for the result to be any good at all. On the other hand, Kodak's High-Speed Ektachrome delivered usable images even when two full stops away from correct exposure. That's what I went with.
A stop at Household Finance (pre VISA and MasterCard, remember; at least in MY case) provided a modest amount that I hoped would be sufficient (it wasn't, as things turned out).
I had enough vacation time available for this (and also for the December trip) so off I went.
That worn-out Rambler was doing Ok until, when approaching New Orleans, the engine started threatening to cut out and I could hear that pulsing hissing sound that announces a blown cylinder head gasket. By the time I found a place where I would consider stopping, I had made it to Bay St Louis, Mississippi where I pulled into a motel for the night. I would determine, the next morning, if that was the end of the line.
Next day, I got a recommendation from the motel operator for a mechanic who came over and checked it, agreed with my diagnosis, and said he could fix it for $75.00 (1972, remember. At that time, the cheap, crappy, but clean apartment I was living in went for $75.00/month).
This was more than I had figured on, so I phoned my boss and asked him if he would advance me the amount and wire the money to where I was. He did, the repairs were made, and I was on my way again (after being afraid that I would have to give up, abandon the car and the whole trip, and take the bus home).
In the early days of space launches, most onlookers (not among the select that watched from stands at the space center) viewed them from Cocoa Beach. As they progressed from Mercury thru Gemini and then to Apollo, new launch pads were built further north on Merritt Island. Launch Pads 39A and 39B are so far north on that island, the nearest city to watch them from is Titusville.
I reached Titusville on April 14 (two days before launch) and went over to the space center to take the tour. The tour took us to within 1/2 a mile of the rocket, sitting on the launch tower and pad. Something over 30 stories tall is quite a sight that close.
They hadn't begun fueling it yet, otherwise we never would have been anywhere near that close to it. The two pads are a bit over three miles from each other, and also at least that far from the Vehicle Assembly Building and the
There's a reason for that. Fully fueled, the Saturn V launch vehicle contains more than 3000 tons of fuel and oxidizer, packing a lot more energy than the same amount of TNT, but with not quite the shattering effect ("brisance" is the word, I think) of that much explosive. Nevertheless, it can make one hell of a bang if it goes off; hence the separation. The Russians are believed to have had such an incident, taking out a major portion of their launch complex, with quite a few casualties, a few weeks before Apollo 11 lifted off on its' historic mission in July 1969.
I had this insane notion that, after touring the space center, I would head up north to Daytona Beach or even Jacksonville, rest up in a motel, and then come back down on launch day.
BUT, with two days to go, it looked as if half the population of Florida was already crowding U.S Highway 1 alongside Titusville. Figuring that if I stuck to my original plan I wouldn't even get near the place on launch day, I dove into one of the places on the Titusville beach that were renting spaces for cars, knowing I would just have to camp there.
So, there I was on the beach on the Indian River (separating Titusville from Merritt Island), looking at what I came to see from a distance of a bit over twelve miles.
At that distance the curvature of the Earth would have cut off a portion, except for the fact that the launch pad is placed on top of a ramp that rises about four stories and the pad itself probably adds another 10 feet or so, making the whole thing visible.
Hold your thumb and forefinger a few millimeters (or 1/8th of an inch) apart, at arms length and imagine a skinny white splinter held vertically between them. That's what a Saturn V looks like at that distance to the naked eye. A pair of 7x50 binoculars, or a 300mm telephoto lens, does a decent job of showing it.
Now, nothing much to do except wait. A couple of kids from the car next to me set up a chess game and managed to teach some of it to me. Never got all that good at it; I'm mostly a tactical person, who can react very inventively to new situations, but the key word is "react", meaning I'm dead meat for a good strategist.
Finally, mid-day, April 16, 1972.
Apollo 16 fires up, huge white plumes flaring almost a couple of hundred yards to each side. They are almost pure steam; there is a deluge system that dumps God knows how many tons of water onto the lower pad at the moment of ignition, to prevent the rockets exhaust from scouring it away. The feeling of pure naked power is overwhelming, and we haven't even heard anything yet. It takes a full minute for the sound to reach you, and it's a low-pitched rumble that is felt as well as heard. That rumble continues until it is long out of sight.
Something I will remember until the day I die.
We had dreams, then.
(And, YES. I'm aware that I have not even touched on Apollo 17.)
Addendum - 09 May 2010 - When I originally wrote this, I believed that water deluge system was meant to protect the lower launch pad from the scouring effects of the rocket's exhaust at liftoff. I've since learned that it is actually a sound suppression system to protect the entire structure from the effects of very intense sound pressure (Up to 235 decibels at liftoff; supposedly lethal at close range, but I've yet to search out more definite info on this.).
Addendum - 07 Dec 2010 - Six days after writing this post, I followed it up with The Adventure - Continued (about Apollo 17 and beyond). This addenda is just the inclusion of the link.
* = Correction 11 Jan 2011 - That was the Launch Control Building. Mission Control is at the Johnson Space Center, in Clear Lake, Texas -- now part of Houston.
Addendum - 19 Feb 2011 - This is ten months after I originally wrote this post. Now, suddenly my site meter shows hits from all over the world, with no referring link, as if someone found it moderately interesting and alerted others by email.
If you've read this far, I would love to know what brought you to this post.
A comment or email would be welcome.
Addendum - 23 Feb 2011 - A commenter noted that it was a comment of mine on the Internet Movie Data Base's page on the upcoming (April 22, 2011) Apollo 18 that triggered the explosion of hits on this post.
If I'm going to get so many visitors, I hope that among them will be someone who can confirm (or refute) my "supposedly lethal at close range" comment (about the sound of the liftoff) I made in the addendum about the sound suppression system.
Would be very curious to know, and to know how close.
Addendum - 29 Jun 2011 - This post is once again getting a lot of hits. Contrary to my 16 Apr 2011 comment below, the release date for Apollo 18 has been moved up to Friday, 02 Sep 2011. I guessing that is the source of the traffic. (See There is a REASON why ... )