This is the first in a two-part series.
Fifty years ago this morning, I walked two blocks to the ocean, stood in the surf and watched man go to the moon. The winds were light, the ocean was calm, and 25 miles to the north, the magnificent Saturn V rocket stood tall, proud and ready to claim its place in history.
In that tumultuous summer of 1969, I was a part-time disc jockey on a small AM station in East Central Florida. At the beginning of every hour, the station-identification announcement said, “From the space capital of the world, Eau Gallie, Florida. W-T-A-I.” (At that time, half of today’s Melbourne, Fla., was a separate city called Eau Gallie.)
I always laughed when I heard that, but indeed, Brevard County — which included Cocoa Beach, Melbourne, Eau Gallie and, most important, the John F. Kennedy Space Center — was at that moment the center of the universe — the Space Coast. Although, no doubt, the Russians had other ideas.
I grew up with the Apollo program. I remember President John F. Kennedy making the audacious pledge that the United States would send a man to the moon “before the decade is out.” That was the spring of 1961. Only one American had gone into space at that point, on a 15-minute flight. The Russians were whipping our tails orbiting cosmonauts, and Kennedy decided that a moonshot was America’s best chance to catch up.
NASA was calling all engineers, so in 1962, my father packed up our New Jersey household and moved us to a town in Florida that I had never heard of.
Over the next seven years, he and 400,000 American engineers, scientists and technicians — and some important Germans — came together, figured it out and made it happen. But it almost didn’t. More than once.
In November 1963, after the initial shock wore off from Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, people on the Space Coast wondered out loud if the late president’s dream would die with him. Ironically, if Kennedy had not been killed, it’s likely Congress would have trimmed Apollo’s funding, slowing development of the thousands of systems and subsystems that had to be invented, refined and made to work together if Apollo were to fly.
In January 1967, I was driving home when the announcement came that three Apollo 1 astronauts — Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White — had died, consumed in a flash fire inside their capsule.
The astronauts were like family. You’d see them driving around town in their free Corvettes — courtesy of the Melbourne Chevy dealer. The fire was grisly and horrifying and scary. While we grieved for the men lost, it was hard not to wonder what it would mean for the program. And for everybody’s job.
In the end, manned flights were suspended for almost two years while the Apollo capsule was re-engineered under new management. Work on the moon lander and the Saturn V rocket stayed on track.
In early November 1967, the mighty three-stage super-rocket, the Saturn V, was ready to fly for the first time. NASA managers decided to skip the intermediate steps of testing each stage individually, and launched the whole package at once. No guts, no glory. But the schedule would have pushed into the 1970s if they hadn’t rolled the dice.
When that amazing machine — 36 stories high, 6.5 million pounds and more than 3 million parts — flew that very first time, the entire Space Coast was praying. My dad and I watched it from our front yard; him urging it skyward with, “Fly, baby, fly!” The future was riding on that launch. And it was flawless. The moon program had shifted into high gear.
The Saturn V was the heaviest and most powerful rocket that ever flew. While other rockets blew up on the pad as the kinks were being worked out, the incredible Saturn flew every time.
After only one more unmanned test flight, the third Saturn V to ever fly carried humans aloft. That was Apollo 8 in December 1968. The world was in turmoil, Vietnam was raging, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been killed, but epic, mind-bending events were happening in Brevard County, Fla.
Then Apollos 9 and 10 rode to success on top of the Saturn V miracle machine, and suddenly it was July 1969.
At 9 a.m. that Wednesday, July 16, I walked to the beach with my Penncrest transistor radio on my shoulder, listening to Mutual News’s coverage of the big day. The air was crystal clear over a flat sea, as if the waves had laid down so I could have a good view. The Saturn V rocket, with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins riding high in the Apollo Command Module with the lunar lander squirreled away, sat there clear as day on launchpad 39A.
There were thin high clouds, but nothing to slow down the countdown that Kennedy had started eight years before.
Suddenly, 10, nine, ignition … wait wait wait. Was it going to fly? Big flames! Three, two, one, liftoff! In a voice, shaking from the magnitude of the moment, NASA’s superb Jack King reported, “We have a liftoff” on my radio. But I wasn’t seeing it. Time stood still.
Finally, like a lumbering giant, the magnificent machine cleared the horizon and separated from the Earth. On the radio there was a roar. The reporters could barely speak. The entire Cape was shaking from the power of five massive, complex, stunning F-1 engines — the most powerful liquid-fueled rocket engines ever flown.
In about two minutes the sound reached me. Rolling and roaring over the ocean. The energy filled the air. The ground vibrated. At about that same time, the fire in the sky went out. There were heart-stopping seconds until I realized that was part of the plan. The inboard engines had shut down on schedule.
So thin were the clouds that I saw the first stage fall away and the second stage ignite. Apollo 11 was 42 miles high at that point and heading for Earth orbit, on the way to the moon.
Other people were on the beach that day, of course. We all looked at one another marveling at what we had just seen. It truly was a miracle.
The miracle, of course, was still going to need a lot of luck. Another rocket was going to have to fire perfectly in a few days, or two American astronauts would be stuck on the moon forever. We all knew there was no rescue mission. They would be left to die.
But we believed in the great Americans who made Apollo happen: those who knew hardship in the Great Depression, were educated in public schools in the 1930s, were hardened by war and attended college paid for by the G.I. Bill in the late 1940s. Americans like my dad.
As I walked home that Wednesday morning, I marveled that everything looked the same as it had an hour earlier. Except now American men were heading to the moon. Would anything really be the same again?
We needed an even bigger miracle to unfold perfectly in just four days, of course. But we believed.
This story first appeared on Local10.com.
Bryan Norcross is a hurricane specialist at WPLG-TV in Miami and the Weather Channel.