The Last Glorious Launch

It was shortly after midnight on a Thursday morning. My parents had dragged my brother and I out of bed, into their clunky Dodge station wagon, and down to the shore of the Indian River. There was a light breeze blowing through the palm trees. The air bore the scent of rain, but the actual showers had stopped a few hours earlier. The four of us were in a crowd of people, some of them friends of my parents. It was a huge crowd and spread for miles up and down the river.

The Indian River isn’t what it seems. It’s actually a lagoon. Part of a series of coastal waterways along Florida’s Atlantic coast. Across the river from where we stood was Merritt Island. Almost exactly twelve miles away, we could see an enormous structure, bathed in light. It was known as Launch Complex 39A. On top of it was a 363 foot high vehicle, a Saturn V rocket capped off by the Apollo 17 Command and Service module. We, and about half-a-million other spectators, were waiting for the final launch of the Apollo program. The last flight to the moon. The end of an era.

I had been born in Titusville in the spring of 1964, and had grown up listening to the sound of rockets tearing through the sky after launch. From our modest little home in Titusville, rocket launches would reverberate and rattle windows, leaving a stark contrail in the wake of the exhaust. But as I grew up, the size of the rockets being launched also grew. The greatest of them all was the massive Saturn V. 

I don’t remember the first time I saw a Saturn V launch. But I do have hazy memories surrounding the launch of Apollo 11. A dozen members of my parent’s families made their way to Titusville for the historic launch. What I remember from that was a golden, sunny day and enormous crows. I remember six months later standing in the rain as Apollo 12 was launched, and hit by lightning as it ascended into orbit. We attended all of the Apollo moon mission launches. And what I remember the most was the astounding sound created by the Saturn V’s five Rocketdyne F-1 engines. The engine bell of each F-1 was twelve feet in diameter, big enough to house my family. 

At launch, the first stage of the Saturn V created one of the loudest sounds ever recorded. Some 220 decibels, which would have killed anyone standing near the engine bells. The astronauts, some 350 feet above, were protected by distance, sealed in an air-tight capsule, wearing earphones. And during launch, NASA poured thousands of gallons of seawater on the launch pad to dampen the sound.

By the time it reached us on the banks of the Indian River, the sound had been significantly diminished, but it still was a physical force, like a hundred bass drums being hammered right in front of you. You could feel it slamming into your body repeatedly, a phenomenon that lasted a couple of minutes.

The final flight, Apollo 17, had been scheduled to launch at 9:53pm on the 6th. With thirty seconds left one the countdown clock, a mechanical issue forced a delay. We had no idea why or how long the delay would last. My brother and I fell asleep while my mother fidgeted and my father finished the last of his six-pack.Then a half hour after midnight, the countdown resumed. My parents woke us up. Bleary-eyed, we watched as the seconds ticked down to zero. At that moment, as the F-1 engines ignited, and seconds before the sound hit us, light filled the sky as if the sun had risen. It was glorious. And I’ll never forget watching the spacecraft rocket into orbit.