(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 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 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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