Archive for March, 2010

(This is a series of remembrances that will lead up to the final launch of the shuttle now secheduled for September 2010 – I’ve started with Apollo, but will work my way through Skylab and the Shuttle programs)

The Scene
The television networks were in separate buildings northerly from a grandstand where print press was comfortable at desks and surrounded by electrical outlets. Then and now “blow-dry-media”, TV and now Cable, kept their distance from the “scribblers”, the print press. Both felt superior to the other although reporters almost always had worked in both disciplines in their careers. The radio guys, who usually felt vaguely inferior for some reason, had drifted into the grandstand as dusk came.

A huge clock was down by the water directly in front of the grandstand ticking off the hours and minutes to liftoff. In the distance, not far, was the rocket itself, ablaze in lights. As evening fell, the area became mystical. This would be the first and only night launch of the Apollo program. It augered to be spectacular.

The ticking clock is still there today and is a popular place to film when launches are being covered. It is also a favorite place to be photographed. Then and now most people troop down there and stand in front of it. There you are — You, the Clock and in the distance the rocket. TV reporters have been known jockey and elbow one another for the best spot.

The grandstand where the print press once worked was severely damaged in the 2004 by the hurricanes and now is gone. Only a plaque remains marking the spot of the grandstand, plus a rectangular rocky area outlining the size of the grandstand itself. Those rocks probably were always under the grandstand all along, but who ever saw them? A smart state of the art press center complete with WI-FI, air conditioning, banks of TV monitors, a library and exhibits stands adjacent to where the grandstand once stood. With creature comforts like this, no right-thinking print reporter would be sitting in the grandstand and working anyway.

And during launches everybody in later days always went down to the water and got as close to the launch as they could. They didn’t do that as much when the Saturn V rocket was the engine used to launch the vehicles since experiencing a Saturn V launch was akin to a Biblical experience.

Today the press site even has a studio which is used to link Houston and other locations for press conferences. It was built just behind the grandstand and survived the hurricanes.

There are put even large bathrooms for women these days. What has the world come to?

The Launch
The launch of Apollo 17 was delayed and then delayed again.

Then as now it’s not always clear that, even when the count hovers near zero, that the launch will go forward. It is very unpredictable – I have seen launches scrubbed with less than nine seconds to go. And I have seen launches go straight through, no stops, and upupandaway.

December 6 gave way to December 7, but then, not long after midnight, the count was started again and this time it reached zero, and Apollo 17 lifted off.

I had decided early that night that I would take no pictures. Instead, I planned to watch and feel the launch.

My brother in law was also covering the launch that night and stood beside me with his camera ready. A radio reporter was behind us, solemnly recording. He was using an electrical plug strung between the legs of other reporters to power his tape recorder.

Nothing prepared me for what I was about to happen.

At launch, the sky exploded. Night turned into day. The Earth shook and the grandstand creeeeaaaked. The sound was deafning. I shouted at my brother-in-law and he shouted at me. Neither one of us could hear the other.

It was the apocalypse.

Everyone was on their feet and screaming. I grabbed my camera and started snapping pictures feverishly. My brother-in-law’s camera was frozen to his side as he stared like a deer caught in headlights. He never got off a single shot.

And the radio guy? In the scramble, someone kicked his plug out of the wall. He was crawling between our legs along the desks overturning chairs desparately trying to get the plug back in the socket so her could record the launch. I doubt he saw a thing.

And then — that quick! — it was over.

The cloud of the launch drifted. The sky darkened and night returned.

The flame from the giant rocket faded as Apollo 17 arced out over the Atlantic toward Africa and Space.

In minutes, reporters began to drift away, pouring out onto the packed highways with the hundreds of thousands who had gathered that night along the beaches. It would be dawn before I struggled back into my room in Orlando, a mere 40 miles away.

A few days later the Apollo program was over.

Man has not returned to the Moon again. And if the United States decided to go again, the new program would have to start from scratch. The men and women who put the Apollo astronauts on the Moon are retired or dead.

Two things were said to me that night which have always stayed with me.

One reporter mused as we had waited that night, “one day more people will live off the Earth than on it.” I believed that then, and I believe that now.

The other thing I remember was just a passing comment as we walked to toward cars. Someone walking beside me pointed up at the sky and said, “there is life in space — and that life is us.”

The day following the launch I was jazzed. Sleep was out of the question.

That night I flew on to Houston and Mission Control. The following afternoon I began to grow weary. It was then I remembered that I had been awake more than 2.5 days.

Photographs Inside and outside of the Grandstand, December 1972, © 1972,1997 The PeterMCrow Collection

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(This is a series of remembrances that will lead up to the final launch of the shuttle now secheduled for September 2010 – I’ve started with Apollo, but will work my way through Skylab and the Shuttle programs)

December 6, 1972 / Kennedy Space Center, Florida …

After picking up my credentials, I had to keep moving that morning.

Around noon the Cape would be sealed, no one on or off. I drove up Merritt Island past throngs of people already waiting along the road to see the launch that night.

The press site was then where it is now –across the street from the Vehicle Assembly Building. adjacent to the basin where the refillable rockets were unloaded from barges after being recovered in the Atlantic Ocean. Off to the northeast these days is the landing strip for the shuttles which may have been there in those days; I just never got there. Today, between the airstrip and the VAB are four hangars, one for each of the shuttles. As the shuttle program ends only three of the five shuttles survive, but we’ll get to that later.

Today, further to the south from the media site, on another road, is the building housing the clean room where payloads for the shuttle have been prepared. In this area there are also a dormitory for the astronauts and other NASA offices and facilities. And further south still is the old launch pad and control room where the Mercury capsules were launched, and where America’s manned space program began.

And, finally, a few hundred yards north of the press site is a road which heads east into a secured area, paralleled by two tracks of rocks. On these rocks atop the crawler, the shuttles have been ferried from the VAB to one of two the launch sites.

“Go fly.”
At the press site on the afternoon before the Apollo 17 launch, the mood was block party with a rich collection of people, like author Allen Drury and others from around the world. NASA had cast a wide net when accrediting the media. NASA was proud of the program and wanted to share their amazement with the world. The joy was infectous.

Other non-media types such as the VIPS had been banished to inferior seats elsewhere. A Life Magazine photographer discovered to his horror that he was being packed off to the cheap setats. His job that night was to snap a single picture – a certain celebratiy (I forget who) with their mouth gaping at the moment of the launch. That meant this guy would have his back to the launch and see nothing at all, unless he caught it later on TV.

The television networks were there in separate buildings …

Photograph Northerly view, December 6, 1972, from the Press Grandstand of buildings from which ABC, CBS and NBC covered the launches. Photograph © 1972, 1997, The PeterMCrow Trust

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Sometime in 2011, if all goes as planned, the United States will launch the final mission of the Space Shuttle and, thereafter, this country will no longer have a vehicle to carry men and women into space. The last four missions of the Space Shuttle, the next of which, STS-131, are scheduled to launch on or after April 5. These final missions should complete construction of the International Space Station but, ironically, when completed, the United States will have no way to get there on its own.

What happened? How can the nation that put twelve men on the Moon in six different missions find itself without a reliable way into space less than forty years later?

I first went to Cape Kennedy on December 6, 1972, to cover the launch of Apollo 17, the final American mission to the Moon. The Apollo 17 launch was the culmination of whirlwind programs that had begun only 11 years earlier, in May 1961, when President John Kennedy declared America would land on the Moon before the end of the 1960s and safely return the crew to Earth.

Kennedy would not live to see it, but on July 20, 1969, NASA put not one, but two men on the Moon (a third remained in orbit above the Moon). It was a stunning technological and scientific achievement. The United States likely would have walked on the Moon at least a year earlier; a fire in the Apollo 1 capsule killed three astronauts and delayed the program.

At Cape Canaveral, December 6-7, 1972
The mood at the Cape the morning I picked up my press credentials was festive. The Apollo program may have been ending, but NASA had aggressive plans for the exploration of space. Everyone I visited with that day was certain that this was the dawn of the age of space.

Funding from the federal government had been limitless, and the goal simple: Put a man on the Moon as fast and possible and get him back alive. Cost was not the issue – speed and safety and beating the Russians to the Moon were. Support for the program was huge – over 4,000 journalists from around the world joined me at the press site just three miles from the launch site.

After picking up my credentials, I had to keep moving that morning…

Photograph Apollo News Center, December 1972, by petecrow
Content of this Site includes copyrighted excerpts from a forthcoming book; entire site, contents and photographs are © 2010 by either Peter M Crow, by Seine/Harbour Productions®, Studio City, California, or by both.

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The NASA tales are about NASA, Apollo 17, Skylab and the Space Shuttle.

The story begins at 12:33 am on December 7, 1972, when Man set sail for the Moon for the final time in the 20th century.

It happens that I was there.

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