The Moon Shot: Part II

Up close to a Saturn V Rocket

by Juan Wilson

The Gobbler: Bounty 1994



City Coach on Interstate 95 in Georgia. Monday 6:15 am July 14th 1969

It's strange how some things dawn on you slowly. As we sat on the porch/bus stop, the few customers coming and going reacted to us in funny ways. At one point I realized there was a screen wall on the porch that divided it in half for no apparent reason. Later it occurred to me that people used either one side or the other of the porch. They might be coming from one direction, but would walk around the partition the long way to get to the store.

Finally I realized that we were sitting on the black side of a segregated bus station. With so few customers it wasn't that obvious, but after making eye contact, I felt that David had known it from the start. He certainly had seen enough of racial segregation in South Africa to be tuned into the vibes. He smiled.

As a group, the three of us were hard for the locals to categorize. I imagined they thought David clearly belonged on the other side of the partition, however, he was traveling with two "hippies" who were of indeterminate ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Between Ralph and I there was blood from some Eastern-European, Jewish, Native American, and Afro American ancestors mixed with our own brand of white hippie nomad. Of course David was a southerner, but from another hemisphere. Neither the blacks nor whites seemed to be comfortable with us on the porch, so we got up and waited in the street.

We switched to the express bus in Fayetteville and rode through the night and through Georgia and into Jacksonville. The bus trip went pretty much as planned, although it was distorted a bit after Ralph and I dropped some gelcaps filled with hashish. Our plan was to get high in the South without having to light up and smoke. We had prepared several gelatin capsules in New York for this purpose. A long boring bus trip seemed a good time for a test flight.

Coke machine in Titusville Florida. Monday 12:10 p.m. July 14th 1969

In Jacksonville David rented a yellow '69 Chevy Camaro with a black vinyl top. It was still two days before the blastoff. Near Canaveral we got a local map, and began cruising for a place to camp along the shoreline in Titusville. US Route One went along the shoreline, which was the bank of the Banana River.

The river was several miles across and about six inches deep. It separated the mainland from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. Unless you were a VIP with a pass for the bleachers next to the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building), you weren't going to be closer than the west bank of the Banana River.

Right next to Route One, the parking lot of the Holiday Inn was filled to capacity with campers and station wagons from every state in the union. Signs warned "Parking for Guests Only". The radio estimated that over a million tourists were going to be in the area at liftoff on Wednesday morning. A little south of the Holiday Inn, the shoreline bent east away from Route One. A small residential lane turned off the main drag and followed the shore.

We turned down it and discovered a small neighborhood of single family homes. These houses were on the west side of the lane away from the water. They had lawns that extended across the road and down to the water. Many houses had wooden boat docks for small craft.

There was a lot of shade from palms and other tropical trees. It appeared some campers had made arrangements with home owners for permission to setup on the water's edge. We stopped and looked across the water. It was flat as a pancake and across the water we could see the Space Center.

It was five miles away, where the sky met the water, yet it was easy to see the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building). To the left of it, and beyond another three miles, was the gantry tower and the Saturn V rocket. These structures had a bluish hazy quality at that distance, but being 400 feet high, they dominated the landscape in all directions. This spot would be perfect.

Being the most "normal" looking member of our group, we enlisted David to approach the nearest house and ask permission to camp. Ralph and I took a walk.

A retired couple answered David's knock. They knew from the radio reports that they would soon be inundated. They had decided that it would be impossible to stop the camping by strangers and that they would do better to pick and choose who was camping and thus have some control of events to come.

They were delighted by Dave and gave him permission to stay next to the dock as long as he wanted.

After securing our campsite we shopped at a nearby Woolworth's for broom poles and plastic sheeting in order to make a tent. We picked up a couple days worth of canned chili and beef stew as well. Back at the site we set up our clear plastic tent near the dock and found some downed branches for a fire on the little beach. It had been a productive morning.


Abandoned gantry tower Kennedy Space Center. Monday 3:10 p.m. July 14th 1969

It was noon on Monday the 14th and it was time for a tour of the Space Center. We got back in the Camaro and drove out on the causeway from Titusville to Cape Canaveral. There were tourists crowding the visitors' center. We wanted to get out to the steaming Saturn Five on Launchpad 39.

Bus tours led out from the visitors' center at 15 minute intervals. We boarded the 2:45 p.m. bus and rode past the rusting and burned out remnants of abandoned rocket gantry towers towards the Apollo 11 site. Like spent shells, rockets of the past baked and bleached in the sun, displayed on steel frames anchored to concrete pads along our route.

As we approached Pad 39, it was hard to tell the scale of what we were witnessing. It wasn't until the bus stopped about a quarter of a mile from the Saturn V rocket that we began to sense the immensity of the effort to get to the moon. The bus and the driver went through his patter detailing the statistics on the Apollo series.

He said the rocket itself was over thirty-five stories high. It took two days to move the rocket on the tractorized launch platform from the VAB building to the mound from which it would lift into space. This three mile long roadbed was 30 feet deep of crushed gravel.

Apollo 11 on Launchpad 39 on Cape Canaveral. Monday 3:30 p.m. July 14th 1969

But it wasn't until we spotted the glistening top of the 2 p.m. bus that had preceded us that things really came into scale. It was dwarfed under the twenty foot high treads of the tractorized platform vehicle. The driver of our bus let us out for a few minutes to take pictures. We piled out, and I jumped up and down yelling at the sight of it all. It seemed incredibly complicated even at a distance.

Small ports along the sides of the rocket vented gasses. A hundred of trucks and vans serviced the pad and the tower that in turn serviced the rocket. Hundreds of technicians climbed ladders and negotiated catwalks of the launch tower, hundreds of feet above the ground inorder to check on the rocket.

It's hard to describe.

Part III: Natives Witness the Launch