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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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