Have you ever seen a rocket lift off? I saw Apollo 11 lift off.
Ever since I was a little boy I had an interest in space exploration and astronomy. From watching TV shows like Star Trek to reading books and magazines to getting a good telescope for Christmas I looked to the heavens with great interest and awe. But the thing I saw that was the celestial icing on that heavenly cake was seeing Apollo 11 blast off in person in Florida in 1969. As you know Apollo 11 was the “moon shot” that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base while Michael Collins flew the Command Module in Lunar orbit above them.
I do not recall why we started planning to go see it, I think I was begging for u to go, but the first step was getting the money for the trip. Dad not making much as a small town banker meant he did not have the extra cash laying around for four plane tickets and hotels in Florida. So how did he get the money? TR let him work the big wheat field at The Hundred Acres and keep the profit. I can clearly see him driving TR’s combine in the field that year knowing what that hard work meant. The crop must have been good since mom booked the flights and hotel reservations at the travel agency downtown and we were set to go.
We flew to Orlando on a Delta Airlines DC-8 from Dallas Love Field and that was the second time I had ever flown in my life. I insisted on sitting by the window so I could see the Earth pass beneath us like one might see it from a satellite’s lofty view. As we flew to Florida I saw the roads and houses below the ever present fluffy cumulous clouds and later the Atlantic Ocean to our left as we winged south.
After landing we drove to our hotel in Orlando. What was funny was seeing a big billboard in a pasture by a forest or some swamp advertising the soon to be constructed Disney World. Having been back there three times since then one can truly say things have changed a lot around those parts when you see what is there now.
Since we got there a few days before the launch we toured the Kennedy Space Center. We saw where the Mercury and Gemini shots lifted off and the place of the tragic Apollo 1 fire that killed Grissom, Chaffee, and White. And then we rolled past Pad 39A where the Saturn 5 towered up on it gantry awaiting its ride to lunar space. Finally, we went inside the huge Vehicle Assembly Building which is still the largest building in the world. In it were the next Saturn 5s that would take men to the moon. It was an amazing site for a nine year old boy, much less anyone else there given the size of things and the importance of the flight.
Since huge crowds were expected the day of the launch we got up at 3AM and drove to Cocoa Beach to find a place to watch the launch. It seems everyone else had the same idea and there was traffic even then. We found a place in a parking lot by a hotel and settled in for the several hour wait until blast off. Mom found some donuts and milk nearby to eat for breakfast and we were bored sitting there but there was nothing else to do but wait.
When it was daylight we could see the rocket on the pad miles away. There were low fluffy white clouds streaming north with the sea breeze and we had the car radio on listening to the commentaries. And then the countdown finally began. We could hear the seconds being counted down, it reached zero, and the fire and exhaust bellowed from the Saturn 5. Next the sound of the rocket could be heard and the ground literally shook form the power of its five huge F-1 engines. And then it lifted from the pad slowly but surely and went into the clouds, nothing more was seen of it and a quiet stillness remained for a just a bit until people around us cheered.
Then the dreadful return trip through the million person traffic jam back to Orlando begun. We were in endless conga lines of cars and I was playing with a souvenir button mom or dad had bought me before the launch which showed the crew, making it flash in the sunlight as I moved it back and forth with the window down. Then I dropped the dang thing and started to cry out. Dad stopped the car and mom took the wheel. We and the other cars kept creeping forward but dad ran back to get my button. He snagged it and turned back around jogging alongside the cars behind ours. The other motorists probably had no idea what he was doing. He got back to the car, got back in, and we resumed our drive westward back to Orlando and a cold air conditioned hotel room.
After the launch we hung around Orlando and one day by the pool at the Holiday Inn we were at I saw someone I recognized. Who might that be? Dr. Werner Von Braun who was the famous German developer of their V-1 and V-2 weapons in World War 2 who was captured by the US Army and was shipped westward with much of his team to work on US rockets after the war. I told mom and dad who it was and they did not believe me. Then someone dragged a phone with a VERY long cord out to him and announced “you have a phone call Dr. von Braun”.
Then they believed me but I was too chicken to get his autograph, something I now wish I had done.
That small regret aside I still have the button I dropped that my dad saved as a reminder of that wonderful trip. It resides in one of my scrapbook boxes even now as does the image of Von Braun under the umbrella by the pool shines in my head like the moon Armstrong and Buzz walked upon decades ago.