All The Stars Disappeared
At the age of 9 from the premises of Kennedy Space Center I witnessed the most spectacular non-destructive man made event in history-the launch of a Saturn V at night. As Apollo 17, the last mission to carry men to the moon, slowly rose into the sky all the stars disappeared.
As I held my father’s hand we marched down a short wooden pier past red ribbons, put up to keep others out. We were only a handful of people beyond those ribbons. My dad seemed so tall then. Everyone seemed so tall then and everything around me so large (at the time, the vehicle assembly building was the largest man-made structure on Earth)
We walked to the end of the pier. It was dark; I was tired and grumpy and the calves of my legs were painfully cramped from a recent growing spurt. My father pointed across a wetlands canal to a brightly lit steel structure. It looked like one of the erector sets my friend, BJ, had built every week I knew him. Approaching 800 feet in height the steel surrounded great Saturn V rocket assembly that was Apollo 17.
On the pier, everyone focused on the launch pad. All their chatter, some of it trivial, some of it not, had stopped. Talk about their children, their jobs, their cars, their home mortgages had stopped. Talk about the weather and stock market had stopped. Even their breathing, it seemed, had stopped while people paused to look and listen all over the country, all over the planet. In the mirror-still water, the reflection of the illuminated Saturn V waited. Billows of “smoke” (supercold gas) could be seen from our vantage point, even some 3 miles distant. In 10 minutes, Apollo 17, the last mission to carry men to the Moon, would be on its way.
“T-minus 9 minutes, 55 seconds, and counting” the loudspeakers crackled on this humid Florida night as the countdown resumed. The bustle of our crowd got less chaotic; more synchronized, like everyone was breathing together, watching, waiting. I wondered what was taking so long. A small bird, or bat, hit the water with its wing tips, the reflection of the rocket wavered, distorted like some movie special effect. My legs felt better dangling over the edge of the pier. My mother, a nurse, had always packed them in moist hot towels, but she was not here now. I was swinging my legs back and forth until they felt better. The water ripples moved outward. The image of the rocket was smooth once again.
I knew from the other launches I had watched that I would feel them first through the terrazzo floor of our house or the ground of my backyard and wondered if this pier, with all these people standing on it, its pillars sunk into the water, would keep me from feeling the rumble as the five F-1 rocket motors ignited for lift off.
I had turned to ask my dad if the ground would shake but he was already gone. He always left during a launch. Usually it was his work, but today he got to play. At the nearby cobbled-together shack, he was listening to launch control and the astronauts and broadcasting to other “HAMS” around the world. (I was almost 12 before I knew the word “HAM” was also kind of meat, not just someone who played with radios. How could it be a ham without an antenna?). Amateur radio operators (“HAMS”) would listen and give their names, call signs, and mailing addresses so they’d receive a postcard (called a “QSL” card) from the “ham shack” of the cape, so years later they could say they were there too, talking to station WA4WBG, while a moon launch was in progress. From all over the world they radioed in. Later I learned a lot of geography by helping filling out those QSL cards to send to remote places from nearly every continent. Some of the contacts only received mail a few times a year! We were as anxious to get cards back from them as they were to get some from us.
At some point, the loudspeakers were no longer so loud but the voices of launch controllers were still chattering. Some of it I understood but mostly I wanted them to be reverently quiet. A handful of people moved out to the edge of the pier near me. They had discovered my special spot but remained an arm’s-length away respectful of my space. Some of them had small portable radios that repeated the voices of the loudspeakers but with a slight delay, like an echo. From the surrounding swamp a bull gator bellowed in reply.
Someone hands me a pair of binoculars, they’re heavy and won’t fit my eyes so I close one eye and peer through them like a telescope. The black on white Saturn V wiggles in my newly found view but I don’t care, it looks incredible. I try to spot the astronauts inside then remember that there aren’t any windows yet, they have to get into space first. I asked my dad once how the astronauts can see to fly without any windows. He pulled out a compass and flashlight and killed the porch light. Carefully we made our way across the back yard to his radio antenna. He said that’s about the same as the astronauts do, except their compass is fancier and they have a lot of help on the ground, but in a pinch, they could do it just like this too, and did once. I still thought they should have windows. Every once in a while, usually when my dad was working late and my mom was making supper I’d take advantage of the last moments of twilight, the time I was supposed to be inside, and peer real closely at the compass and “navigate” my backyard, imagining I was in space
I turned to hand the binoculars back to the person who had given them to me but he was no where to be found; I kept peering through the lens until my eyes hurt from squinting.
“T-minus 1 minute, 55 seconds and counting” I wondered what was taking so long and looked back toward the small wooden building which was the “radio shack” where all the HAMS gathered. I couldn’t see the door because of the people but I could just make out the silhouette of the antenna.
Everywhere I looked firefly’s glowed, I thought they were excited too
Someone grabbed the binoculars and I turned quickly-I must have looked angry because I thought it was someone trying to take them then I realized it was the man who gave them to me and I nodded and said “thanks mister” and started to giggle. He crouched to peer through them over my shoulder. I giggled because I called him “Mister” I had a German shepherd named Mister once. A woman joined the man and she had another set of binoculars, he handed back the original set to me and said he was a friend of my dad’s and I should return them to the radio shack; I nodded agreement while peering through one eyepiece; it knocked my eyebrow, again.
Then, everything got totally still and quiet. I looked down at the water and saw it vibrate all over, then I felt a slight trembling and I knew-I looked up to see the fiery rocket motors ignite and used the binoculars again, more carefully this time. Five engines ignite, each spewing hundreds of thousands of pounds of high energy rocket fuel in a fantastic burst of yellow-white light. As the Saturn V slowly rose I saw the giant gantry arms of the tower swinging away to free the rocket from it’s perch. Just as the rockets flame was about to come into the view my binoculars someone bumped me and knocked them into my eye again and this time it really hurt and I yelled. I was mad too because I wanted to see the rocket flame up close-I forgot all that as the sound, tremendous and overwhelming finally got to us. I stood up and again noticed the reflections in the water. I looked around and could see everyone now, the color of their clothes and their faces frozen and amazed or terrified, or I didn’t know what, but it was not like faces I’d ever seen before. And I glanced back to the radio shack and now the antenna was clear and crisp, day light was rising. The light spread outward as it climbed higher, like watching a sunrise in fast motion, or dusk going to noon day sun in seconds.
As Apollo 17 reached for the moon, all the stars disappeared.
Lots of people were trying to yell “Go, Go, Go” but it was muted by the noise and the surreal light-I couldn’t speak, only watch, mouth and eyes wide and wondering. And the strange thought came to me that at this moment, I had a better view than the astronauts. I noticed the crickets had stopped chirping, I guess they were watching too.
It got brighter still until for a few moments it was daylight all around. The artificial day created by mans last mission to the moon seemed to linger for minutes, then it began to fade, slowly at first then quickly as the first stage breached the thinnest reaches of the earth’s atmosphere.
Two hands lay across my shoulder and I turn around to see my father; he’s come to be with me to watch. He is stoic but I know very proud and also a little sad at this last mission. My eyes still hurt so are a little blurry. We stood together in that swamp that is Kennedy space center and watched men go to the Moon.
I tried the binoculars again but I couldn’t steady them with my small
hands. It didn’t matter, I could see great.