The Launch of Apollo 11 (from The Dream of spaceflight)

imagesPoised on the launch pad and towering thirty-six stories against the stars, the Apollo-Saturn rocket seemed unearthly in the wash of floodlight, glowing icy silver-white, like the moon above it.  A half-million pilgrims had made their way to the mosquitoed marshlands of Florida’s Merritt Island, spending the night on the beach in cars, tents, and trailers, awaiting the early-morning launch that would put man on the moon.  Along the grassy dunes and desolate moors,  onlookers stood in the soft whine of the night wind, the children of four hundred million years of land creatures on this planet.  Life, which crawled out of the sea those eons ago, would now climb out of the white-capped ocean of air, cling to a barren rock, and fall back to earth.  For one brief moment, we would be creatures of the cosmic ocean. 

The lure of the night sky is older than the voyages of Jules Verne, older than Greek tales of winged flights to the moon, older even than the pyramids, which were aligned with the pole star so that Pharaoh might reach it in his sky-traveling boat.  The call of the cosmic ocean haunts the high mountains and remote seashores, where the misty river of the Milky Way arcs across a fathomless dome of sand-grain stars—­the vacant stare of creation, lying ever behind the painted face of day.  “Some part of our being,” said Carl Sagan, “knows this is from where we came.  We long to return.” 

Like those pilgrims camped along the beach, listening in the night to the pulse of creation, we live on the shore of the cosmic ocean, riding our wisp of blue and white like mites on a floating leaf, in the whorls and eddies of a great galactic reef.  Adrift like an ill-fated liner with her lights ablaze in the North Atlantic night, the lilt of her music faint on the icy wind, we are the ballroom innocents of Spaceship Earth—frail seed of life itself, afloat for an instant on the surface of forever. 

Apollo-Saturn is silhouetted on the horizon against a dawn sky, visible across dreary flatlands that stretch eastward to deserted launch pads along the sea.  The landscape recalls settings from old science-fiction films—the lonely stretch of desert road under a bleak sky, the gray impermanence of brooding seacoasts, stark lunar surfaces—metaphors for the homelessness of modern man.  Apollo 11 seems in fact the consummation of modern history—the ultimate hubris, the last great phallic act of Faustian culture.  On its altar of steel and concrete, the Saturn V rocket is the icon of infinite force and mastery, man’s collective erection, built to seed the cosmos.  It is the hotrod of an adolescent species bent on tearing itself from Mother Earth, bolting the Garden without God’s consent. 

On Pad 39A, vapors stream furiously off the side of the ship, loaded with enough fuel to fill ninety-six railroad tank cars.  Sixty feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, an aircraft carrier set on end, the three-­thousand-eight-hundred-ton Apollo-Saturn, with its fifteen million individual parts, is more finely tooled than an exquisite watch.  Perched high atop this cylindric skyscraper, the astronauts lie patiently through the countdown.  Were the bomb beneath them to explode, the ball of flame would consume two-thirds of a mile, with a rain of debris eight miles wide. 

“T minus fifteen seconds.  Guidance is internal.  Twelve, eleven, ten, nine, ignition sequence starts, six, five”—the voice of public affairs officer Jack King comes through the loudspeakers at the Cape and half a billion television sets—“two, one, zero, all engines running.  Liftoff!  We have a liftoff, thirty-two minutes past the hour.”  Orange and white billows of flame gush out hundreds of feet over the ground, engulfing the base of the ship.  Four twenty-ton restraining arms release room-size grips, exploding away with a rain of ice that has formed on the liquid fuel sections.  The automatic camera on the gantry tower records a great white wall beginning to rise—­inches, feet, two vertical black stripes forming a U, then S, A, passing rapidly now, followed by a wall of fire, lifting six and a half million pounds, gulping fifteen tons of fuel a second, the eight-hundred-foot tail of flame whipping white-hot as the sun.  Consuming as much oxygen at the moment of liftoff as a half billion people taking a breath, cooled by water cascading at fifty thousand gallons a minute, the Saturn Five rocket rises with the force of a hundred thousand locomotives, burning five million pounds of fuel in the first 150 seconds, getting a full five inches to the gallon.

Six miles away, beyond the steamy banks of the Banana River, the million spectators who watch the titanic ship rise, shimmering in dreamlike silence, are suddenly hit by the sound leaping across the lagoons, a cataclysmic roar so intense that some go numb for a moment—a relentless shock wave beating the face and chest, rattling cars; wave upon wave of thunder louder and deeper than any thunder ever heard; and a crackling vibration that pierces the body again and again.  Crude, fearsome, catastrophic, it is the sound of the biggest engine there ever was, a monstrous jackhammer that seems to shudder the entire planet.  One holds one’s eyes and ears, but it seems that even the skin can hear.  The ship bores up through the blue sky like a comet and soon disappears, leaving only the laconic space talk on the loudspeakers to confirm the reality of a wondrously beautiful thing that has vanished.

Three years later Apollo 17, the last of the moon flights, rode a pillar of fire that turned the night sky orange-pink, a false dawn visible for five hundred miles.  In the stands awaiting the launch that night, historian William Thompson saw lightning flash in the distance “like the boasting threats of a small boy backing away from a fight.”  Humans, he mused, “were turning the tables on the heavens and riding that comet out of earth.”  The shock waves from Apollo struck microbarographs at Columbia University with a force exceeded, in fact, only by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and the impact of the great Siberian comet in 1908.  “Man,” wrote Norman Mailer, “now had something with which to speak to God.”

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