The Moon Shot: Part III
Natives witness the launch
by Juan Wilson
© The Gobbler: Bounty 1994
The Space Center tour finished at the VAB building.
We walked past the VIP bleachers and into a side door. At that
time it was largest enclosed room in the world, with over 400
feet clear height above a floor that could accommodate four
Saturn V rockets at once.
Visitors were warned about not falling
over when turning their heads back to see its upper reaches.
On humid days clouds would occasionally form, obscuring the
East Facade of VAB Building, Cape Canaveral. Monday 4:10 p.m. July 14th 1969
After leaving the cape we saw many more people
filling in every spot a car could be parked along Route One.
We were lucky to have gotten in that morning. When we reached
our encampment, it was clear we wouldn't be alone at launch
time. Two newly arrived cars were parked on what we had begun
to think of as our lawn. There was a recreational vehicle and
a sedan. The two were from Savannah, Georgia and the occupants
were all relatives.
Our new neighbors seemed to take orders from
the owner of the Winnebago-like RV. He wore a blue dacron jump
suit like one of the scores of technicians who we had seen swarming
over the launchpad in the distance. An embroidered name patch
Because he was wearing a non-regulation Jack Daniel's
baseball cap and carrying a beer can in an insulated plastic
mug, we realized the jumpsuit was probably from the stockcar
racing circuit, not NASA. The folks from Georgia had set out
folding chairs in a horseshoe in front of the rollout awning
on the side of the RV.
In effect, they surrounded our campsite.
Two of TJ's long legged teenage daughters sat in the chairs.
They giggled and whispered as we set up for dinner. We could
do nothing outside of the view of this family. The choice of
clear plastic for the tent seemed particularly short sighted.
The police were trying to keep Route One clear,
as it was the primary north-south artery in eastern Florida.
The dark moon was above and left of the sun at dusk and followed
it quickly below the horizon into darkness. David said the bright
spot to the south and above where the moon set was Jupiter.
Launchpad 39 & VAB Building at Kennedy Space Center. Monday 9:00 p.m. July 14th 1969
By the time we finished a dinner of chili-cooked-in-the-can,
it was night and many more cars had drifted into Titusville.
They were looking for spots to park anywhere off Route One.
Many found our little lane. Soon we were parked-in by a solid
wall of vehicles.
We learned that the tractor would begin its
trip back to the VAB building during the night. Looking out
towards the pad we could see otherworldly lights illuminating
the sky around the launchpad complex. They were reflected, as
if into a mirror, on the Banana River. We retired to our tent
to watch the stars through its roof.
The next morning was twenty-four hours before
blast off. Our tent was opaque and heavy with dew. Dave was
still asleep. We turned on the car radio and found an AM station
covering events around the clock. The NASA communications officer
said the countdown was still on schedule. We could see some
blue sky between the gantry tower and rocket. R
alph and I brushed
our teeth in the Banana River and cleaned up as much as possible.
We walked out to the highway, and north towards the Holiday
Inn. A sign in front of the hotel offered a free buffet breakfast
to the general public between 8 and 9 a.m. It was sponsored
by Martin Marietta, one of the Apollo project's prime contractors.
Ralph and I entered the lobby. A poster on an easel announced
the breakfast to be followed by a film and talk on the company's
support of the Apollo 11 effort.
The ballroom was filled with
tables full of breakfast eaters. A host greeted us before we
entered. He took one look and us, two crumpled hippies, and
told us that there were no more seats available. We turned to
go, but were delayed in the lobby by a Martin Marietta display.
We wouldn't have argued with the Holiday Inn
host had we not seen him escort a group of four to a table a
minute after we had been turned away. We confronted him on this.
He told us he couldn't seat anyone with long hair in the ballroom.
We'd gotten looks before, but hadn't been
refused service. In order to get rid of us the host offered
to set up a table for two in the service corridor leading back
to the kitchen. To his surprise, we took him up on this. It
was hot and noisy and busy in the corridor.
The table we were
seated at was probably the employee rest area. The kitchen staff
was all black and seemed amused by our presence and served us
a great breakfast. We all laughed at the situation while Martin-Marietta
showed the film to the taxpayers in the ballroom.
Banana River Campsite, Titusville Florida. Tuesday, 9:10 am July 15th, 1969
There had been a misty haze in the atmosphere
that morning, but this was burned off by the time we left the
Holiday Inn. We walked along sweating on the shoulder of Route
One, back to the shade of our campsite. The highway was almost
grid locked with bumper to bumper traffic.
We told Dave of the breakfast he missed and
spent the rest of the day wading, sitting on the dock and avoiding
the sun. Everybody was just waiting... waiting to be witnesses.
That afternoon the radio said we were part of the greatest assembly
of Americans in one place at one time. It was a restless evening
and we talked long past midnight. The oldest of TJ's daughters
was flirting with Ralph. TJ and the other adults from the Savannah
party were drunk and loud.
Dave and I took Ralph aside and warned
him of the danger of flirting with teenagers in front of their
father. We jumped as some fireworks exploded. Fires flickered
along the shoreline and the kids ran back and forth whooping
it up and looking for something to do. It was odd how primitive
our temporary community seemed as it gathered to see the most
technically advanced event in human history.
the 16th was the day for blastoff. At dawn Ralph and I dropped some
more gelcaps of hashish. Again there was a mist over Titusville and the
Space Center at dawn. You could look directly at the orange sun rising
over the cape and see the bluish outlines of the VAB building and the
fully withdrawn launch platform.
The haze was slow to burn off. All
radios were tuned to Christopher Kraft, NASA's Chief of Flight Control.
He said if Apollo 11 didn't lift by 9 am, it was going to have some
trouble getting off at all. But by 7:30 the sun was too bright to look
at and the haze was burning off.
Dave spoke to TJ about leading us out
onto Route One as soon as the rocket was out of sight. We began to
clean up the camp. By 8:30 our stuff was packed into the Camaro and we
were sitting at the end of the wooden dock.
TJ's daughters had a
portable radio on the dock and we could hear the countdown continue as
the whole world turned its attention to what was about to happen across
Now the sky was crystal clear with no clouds in sight.
Banana River dock before Apollo 11 launch. Wednesday 6:10 am July 16th 1969
In some ways it seemed like the rocket was
fatefully committed to liftoff long before the count reached
zero and we saw the white vapor rising around the shell of the
Saturn V first stage. It may have been the hashish, but seemed
like nothing on earth could stop what we were watching. Time
The rocket sat on the pad without rising. Compared
to today's solid fuel first stage rockets, the liquid fuel Saturn
V took off in slow motion. Apollo 11 seemed to take half a minute
to clear its umbilical tower.
We could hear the static of blastoff
on the radio. People were yelling but there was no sound from
the cape. I could see something coming at us across the miles
of flat river and marsh. It was a warping of the air, grass
and water, and it was moving at the speed of sound to us.
was the shockwave from the blastoff.
I'd never seen sound coming
at me like that before or since. When it reached us it was the
lowest tone I'd ever heard. Way down below rumbling thunder.
It had a deep raggedy sound that filled everything with secondary
vibrations. It seemed to come from the ground itself and was
palpable in my chest.
The Saturn V was climbing into the sky supported
by a column of white steam crowned with a ring of fire as bright
as the sun. I realized I was yelling too. "Go! Go! Go! Go!"
The column of clouds followed the rocket as its trajectory began
bending and tipping towards the Atlantic Ocean. Already it must
have been thirty thousand feet high.
As air touched the hot
exhaust gas, more vapor clouds formed creating a tower of cumulus
clouds that went from the ground to the top of the earth's atmosphere.
The clouds were over forty or fifty thousand feet high already.
The sound of the rocket still filled in the air. The shell of
the rocket was getting out of sight for eye witnesses. All that
was left was the cloud column and it was not dissipating. It
was gaining in size. It was a tube of hot gases that went from
the ground right through the sky, and the weather was changing
as we watched.
This wasn't some low orbit shuttle we had just
watched taking off. This thing was something very large that
was leaving the planet.
Before we stood up to leave the dock I noticed
a green and yellow dragonfly floating on its back.
I thought it was in some distress, but soon realized it was
propelling itself across the water surface on its back by paddling
its wings. Its long torso was bent into a pentagon shape in
order to let it suck on the tip of its tail.
I tried to imagine
what the bug thought of the deep vibrations in the water. In
retrospect it seems this behavior must have been part of the
insect's reproductive cycle but it looked quite alien to me
as the moon rocket climbed in the sky and the hashish peaked
in my bloodstream.
Dragonfly swimming on back in Banana River as Apollo 11 is launched. Wednesday 9:30 am July 16th 1969
People were already getting into their cars
as the sky darkened. By the time we were on Route One it had
begun to rain.
We didn't know it yet, but it was to rain, around
the clock, for the next three days. It wasn't long into our
slow trip north that Ralph seemed bored. He was already thinking
about another weekend adventure. He turned and asked:
"What about this music thing upstate at the
end of the month? You want to go?"
"What's it called, Woodstock or something?
Sounds like fun. At least it'll get us out in the country away
from the crowds."
Post Script: Dave shipped a new engine down
to North Carolina when he got back to New Jersey. The junkyard
in the pine trees wrote him to tell him they never received
it and he needed to send them another engine. Ralph didn't get
to Woodstock but I did. Hitched a ride with an East Village
family in a VW bus. We never got close enough to see the stage...
too many people... Read about it in Ea O KA Aina: Woodstock Forgotten (http://islandbreath.blogspot.com/2009/08/woodstock-forgotten.html)