One million people were there that day. They were camped out in tents on the beaches, strewn along the banks of the Indian River, gathered along highways US 1 and AIA. Every motel and private residence overflowed with visitors who had come from every state in the Union and from every continent on the planet.
A typical Wednesday, the day’s weather wasn’t much different from the days that had preceded itwarm, sunny, with a slight ocean breeze blowing a few white whiffs that were clouds across an azure sky. However, this summer day in July would be unlike any day since the dawn of Man. For on this day, July 16, 1969, in a spaceship called Columbia, three American astronautsNeil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collinswould soar into space atop the largest rocket ever built, on their way to a landing on the face of the Moon.
The Apollo 11 launch took place on Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). After a 28-hour countdown, at 9:31:51:54 a.m. EDT, the first engine of the Saturn V’s main stage ignited, followed in sequence by the other four. Time and space seemed torn asunder as the 363-foot missile was enveloped in a bright red-orange inferno of fire and a shifting black curtain of smoke.
For eight and nine-tenth seconds, the engines continued to fire as massive hold-down clamps gripped the rocket to give the missile the needed time to build up the 7.6 million pounds of thrust necessary for lift-off.
For eight and nine-tenth seconds, the six and a half million pound Saturn V consumed twenty-three tons of kerosene and oxygen.
For eight and nine-tenth seconds, automatic sequencerscomputers that filled several rooms in several buildings around the Capemonitored over 2,700 discrete functions aboard the Saturn V rocket. If there were even the slightest hiccup in any of the rocket’s complex systems, the sequencers would shut down the launch.
For eight and nine-tenth seconds, the flames from the Saturn V’s engines traveled down a flame bucket and were directed along a flame trench and away from the missile and pad. Thousands of gallons of water per second were poured onto the pad to keep it cool before the raging onslaught of the flames, whose heat was sufficient to melt steel.
For eight and nine-tenth seconds, the rocket sat on the pad, seemingly enveloped in a massive inferno.
For eight and nine-tenth heart-stopping seconds, one million eyewitnessesand billions around the globe watched, frozen by a terrible expectation. Indeed, as I now recall it, nothing seemed to move around me as I stood watching from fifteen miles away not the people, not the sea birds, not even the air.
For eight and nine-tenth seconds, the Earth stood still.
At the end of those eight and nine-tenth seconds, 9:32 a.m., EDTnearly to the second of scheduled lift-offthe Saturn V slowly, very slowly at first, began to rise from out of the flames.
A spontaneous cheer erupted from the people around me, and I joined in. The sea birds, startled from their perches on piers and rocks, flapped their wings, gave their squawks of approval and flew out over the water. A gentle ocean breeze began to blow. The world had begun to move once more.
In three-minutes, Apollo 11 was 37 nautical miles down range, traveling at 9,300 feet per second. In another nine minutes, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were in a 103-mile orbit above the Earth, traveling 18,500 miles per hour.
You know the rest.
You know that four days later, at 4:18 p.m. EDT, with only seconds of fuel remaining, Neil Armstrong set down the Lunar Module, Eagle, in the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility: “The Eagle has landed.”
You know also that at 10:56 p.m. EDT, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Now you also know, if you hadn’t before, how that journey began. Howfor eight and nine-tenths seconds beneath the deep blue dome of the Florida skythe thundering explosions and blinding fires from a slender white rocket hailed a new blazing dawn and the earth stood still to greet it.