"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Adventure of a Lifetime

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 Mission* Launch Control Building.

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.

Thanks. :-)

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 ... )


gcotharn said...

I love personal stories like this, and love the sense of adventure in the story.

Anonymous said...

You asked what linked to this story; I found it through your comment about the movie Apollo 18 here:


I saw a Saturn V on the pad in 1969, but never saw a launch, which I'll forever regret.

Paul_In_Houston said...

Thank you.

I forgot about putting that comment there. As the movie is scheduled for April 22, I'll probably get more traffic from it.

Cool! I'll take what I can get. :-)

Paul_In_Houston said...

YOS has left a new comment on your post "Adventure of a Lifetime":

saw your comment on IMDB, just stopped by to say hi to a fellow Houstonian & read your story & say that that Apollo 18 movie looks retarded

(YOS - I accidentally rejected your comment, so am posting it here as written in the email I get for moderated comments.

Sorry about that.

You may be right about the movie, but I am really curious, and will probably try to see it before I read any reviews of it. :-)

Anonymous said...

Oi bonita este blogue parece muito posicionado.........boa:)
Adorei Continua assim !

Paul_In_Houston said...

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post Adventure of a Lifetime

Oi bonita este blogue parece muito posicionado.........boa:)
Adorei Continua assim !

Google Translate renders that as ...

Hi this blog seems pretty much positioned ......... good:)
Still I loved it!

Which sounds to me as if I pretty much have a definite point of view on most things, but he/she/it is cool with that.

Why "it"?

My site meter shows no trace of a visit to this post at the time of that comment, so I am very likely being polite to a spambot.

Well, it was polite to me, so ...


Anonymous said...

Nice story! Best wishes from Norway.

Paul_In_Houston said...

And best wishes right back to Norway.

Below is a link to a picture of The Norway House in Houston, Texas, USA, containing the Norwegian Consulate General and Innovation Norway (dealing with technical trading).

The Norway House

You'll notice that the photo was taken from a parking lot across the street from it.

That parking lot is the front guest parking for the apartment complex in which I live.

Jen said...

Hi, first off, excellent story! Just to add to your first addendum, I used to work for Flowserve, the manufacturing company which creates the pumps used for the "water deluge system". The way it was explained to me was that the shuttles have protective tiles on the bottom of them, and as you mentioned the sound intensity is immense, which would cause those tiles to break loose if there weren't something to inhibit the noise. That's the extent of my knowledge on the subject. :) Hope it helps!

Paul_In_Houston said...

It now appears that it will be 06 Jan 2012 when Apollo 18 hits the theaters.

See There is a REASON why ...


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