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 ceiling.

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 read "TJ".

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. Nothing personal.

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.

Wednesday, 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 the water.

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 dilated.

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.

It 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.

At first 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 (