Posts Tagged ‘Apollo 17’

Blast(off) from the past

Tuesday, April 27th, 2021

I was sorting through some old slides recently, and came across this one, shot at the Paris Air Show in 1973. Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, on the left, was the first man to walk in space (March 1965), while Eugene Cernan, in the wonderfully understated jacket, was the commander of Apollo 17, and the last man to walk on the moon (December 1972).

As an avid space and moon mission junkie, I’d actually watched Apollo 17 blast off from Cape Kennedy six months previously, at the time never dreaming I would come to within feet of Gene Cernan while he was still a rock star. Moon rock, of course.

Cernan was at the Paris Air Show with the rest of his Apollo 17 crew along with other astronauts and cosmonauts to promote the first ever international space cooperation – the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which in 1975 would see an Apollo spacecraft in earth orbit docking with a Russian Soyuz via a special adapter. They’d even brought their own illustration of how it would look in space using not just a mock-up, but actual spacecraft that had either been used as a testbed or put together from spare parts. It was the first manifestation of détente between the two Cold War superpowers, and the first project which combined two very different approaches to engineering.

And while I didn’t take the plunge into full-time journalism for another 10 years, it’s clear I was well able to handle myself in a media scrum to get a good photo. In fact, I almost elbowed the chap on the right out of my way to improve my shot. I didn’t think about it at the time, or in the subsequent 48 years, but taking a closer look when I scanned the slide, I realised it wasn’t just another member of the press pack. Note the clearly defined receding hairline, solid sideburns and loud shirt, then take a look at the official NASA photograph to the left. Could it be that in my haste to get a decent photograph of Gene Cernan, I nearly elbowed past Apollo 17 Command Module Pilot Ron Evans?

Shuttle night launch

Monday, February 8th, 2010

After a 24 hour delay, the US Space Shuttle Endeavour finally hit the skies in the early hours this morning in Florida, marking probably the last night launch of an American manned spacecraft for the foreseeable future (the remaining four are scheduled to go up in daytime). For me, it came as a little reminder that I was actually at Cape Kennedy the night the very first American manned spacecraft was launched at night.

Apollo 17 mission patchIt was December 1972, and Apollo 17 was the last of the missions to fly to the moon. I’d followed the Apollo programme avidly throughout my school years, and just over a year after leaving school, I put myself in quite a lot of debt for what would be quite literally the “once in a lifetime” trip – to witness the last Apollo moon launch live.

I joined a charter group of dedicated space nuts, and flew out to Florida, staying in a motel at Daytona Beach. We did the tour of the Kennedy Space Center, went inside the mind-bogglingly huge Vehicle Assembly Building – at the time the largest artificially enclosed space on the planet – and being taken to within spitting distance of the Apollo/Saturn V rocket on launch pad 39A. I remember the signs warning of poisonous snakes. And we plundered the souvenir shop – I still have my collection of all the embroidered mission patches worn by the Apollo astronauts on their spacesuits and other clothing. There was even a side trip to Houston in Texas to visit the Manned Spacraft Center, where all US manned space missions are controlled after launch.

But of course the highlight was seeing the launch itself. We were supposed to have been allowed the rare privilege of watching from a VIP grandstand in Cape Kennedy Air Force Station, but a mix-up with the passes meant we ended up on the edge of a causeway across the Banana River, about eight miles due south of the launch pad, which even at that distance, was clearly visible, brightly illuminated by floodlights.

As the time for the launch came nearer, the atmosphere became absolutely electric. We were listening to the voice of Kennedy Launch Control on a radio, when at T minus 30 seconds, he announced “we have a cut-off!” You could have cut the air with a knife. Groans of disappointment were stifled as we strained to listen further.

The third stage oxygen tank had failed to pressurise automatically, and while the crew had spotted it and initiated the procedure manually, it wasn’t quick enough to convince the Terminal Sequencer – the computer controlling the launch – that everything was happening normally, and so it halted the countdown.

The launch was recycled first to 22 minutes, then 40. Further delays ensued as they tried to get around the problem, when eventually they announced the countdown would be resumed at T minus eight minutes. Later we learned that our original VIP stand had to be evacuated as it fell within the range safety area, which had changed with the delay in the launch.

At T minus eight seconds, a bright glow cut the night sky as the Saturn V’s main engines lit up, but just as our eyes were getting used to the orangey kind of daylight, the launch pad disappeared from view. Thousands of gallons of cooling water blasted onto the pad turned instantly to steam, and as my viewpoint was directly in line with one of the flame trenches, all I saw was a rapidly expanding cloud of steam as the entire night sky turned to daylight. My next view of Apollo 17 was after it had cleared the launch tower and emerged above the huge cloud, punching skywards on a long flickering tail of incandescence.

So far, all of this awesome spectacle had occurred in a beautiful silence, but now the sound hit us. At our distance it wasn’t so much an earth-shattering roar as a crackling growl which vibrated rib-cages. They told us later the launch had been visible from 500 miles of the eastern seaboard of the US. We saw the first stage separation, as the comet-like Saturn V accelerated over the Atlantic, but the end was something of an anti-climax. The artificial daylight abated, and the rocket became a tiny star, then finally disappeared.

I imagine it must have been the same with the shuttle night launches, but you can’t help but get quite emotional. Even the most hardened bloke couldn’t fail to get a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye with such an experience. Sadly not any more.