Apollo through Binoculars: Apollo-Soyuz Liftoff, July 15th, 1975
‘Eyewitness to History’ was the headline of a bumper sticker which I bought at Kennedy Space Centre in 1975. I never got round to putting it on my car, but it seemed appropriate to use as a header for versions of this article over the years.
In ‘Visitor at Uist’ (Orkney News 11th July) I mentioned that I had also seen launches of a Saturn I and a Space Shuttle. My heart was set on seeing a launch from Cape Canaveral before the Apollo programme ended. I missed the launches to the Moon and the Skylab space station, but I saw the very last in the series, for the rendezvous with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft. The launch was witnessed by a British tour party of nearly 200, five of us from the Scottish space society ASTRA, including the late artist Ed Buckley, who kindly shared his launch photographs with me.
After a brief glimpse of the sunlit Florida Keys offshore, there were two main impressions as we came in to land at Miami: first, the astonishing flatness of the state itself, and secondly the darkness cast by a great storm spreading above it. Friends (even American friends) had warned us that July was the worst time of year for heat and humidity in Florida, and indeed thunderstorms punctuated almost every day we were there. They never broke directly over us at Cocoa Beach, though they frequently crossed the Kennedy Space Centre on their way out to sea and the engineers had put up a towering lightning conductor on the launch tower, to protect the Saturn rocket we had all come to see. The nightly scene on the beach itself was appropriately theatrical, with the launch complex lights blazing upwards to the north and the elements raging out to sea.
In a real sense, we were present at the Twilight of the Gods. The Apollo mission in July 1975, meeting the Russians in Earth orbit, marked the end of an era which began in 1958 and lasted through Project Mercury, Project Gemini and Apollo – the era in which men were publicly launched into space in tiny capsules poised on expensive, fragile, use-once-and-throw-away launch vehicles. US manned spaceflights were not to begin again till 1981, with the Space Shuttle, and the future duration of the Russian Soyuz programme was unknown. There seemed no prospect of organised western tourist excursions to the Soviet cosmodrome – so it seemed then that summer 1975’s Apollo launch was a sight the world would never see again.
Sporting the kilt on occasion, in the run-up to the launch, stood me in very good stead: it allowed us to make friends very quickly. We were invited to a party given by Mary Bubb, one of the famous Cape Canaveral hostesses of the space age, and were befriended by Jeri Bell, a NASA employee who introduced us to some of the astronauts themselves. (To my surprise, they did not welcome casual conversation – you had to talk about their missions, or their attention wandered.) A few days later, Jeri took all the ASTRA party into the VIP area of Kennedy Space Centre to watch the launch, and two days later, she arranged a private tour of the Cape for us, plus my friend and fellow-author Ian Ridpath, and a delegate from the Open University who afterwards made use of the contacts in a physics teaching programme.
In the first US spaceflights, when there was no satellite TV coverage, or Telstar was in the wrong place, the BBC kept showing a film, taken from a speeding car, of the motel signs along North Atlantic Avenue, Cocoa Beach. I was delighted to learn that half of our motel had been the original Starlite Motel – it even had the remains of an Azusa tracking station in the grounds! Two doors down stood the Satellite Motel, still with its 1950s sign – broken, rusted, with only two neon letters alight. Everywhere the commercial signs testified to the unemployment created by the political mangling of the space programme. “Thank you, NASA”; “Where have all the people gone?” One unintentionally eloquent sign, with the deliberate misspelling all along the commercial boulevard, read, “God speed, Slayton, Stafford and Brand, our brave men in space. Isn’t it exiting?”
Indeed it was. With the merciless efficiency of American big business, especially in government service, the entire launch crew who saw the Apollos into space were fired within an hour of the last liftoff, just a few more to add to the seven-figure redundancies caused by the space programme cutbacks. No doubt because it was the end of the era, people spoke freely (and bitterly) of the interference from successive governments. President Ford’s absence during the last liftoff was bitterly resented.
But on every hand, one thing was certain: come the Shuttle era, the same personnel would be back, pushing the space programme for the sake of their nation and the world. In our private tour behind the scenes a few days after the liftoff, we saw the Apollo control room already dark and silent. Across the hall, the corresponding room was already stripped bare. The sign on the door there said: “Firing Control Room, Space Shuttle Operations. Target Launch Date, July 1979,” and the workmen were already beginning to wire it up.
Of course, space isn’t the only attraction for tourists in Florida. Our fortnight’s tour included more trips and options than there were days to pursue them: neglecting the trips to Houston, Huntsville, the Everglades and Puerto Rico, we contented ourselves with Silver Springs (glass-bottomed boats, snakes and alligators), Disney World (amazingly cool and sophisticated, quite unlike the television image) and the Miami Seaquarium, a still more impressive blend of nature study and show business.
On the day after the official tour of Kennedy Space Centre, we joined Jeri Bell’s party to go to the VIP area, on the Crawlerway in front of the Launch Control Centre and the Vehicle Assembly Building. Looking towards the launch pad, the Saturn I now stood exposed against bright blue sky, with a white plume of venting liquid oxygen vapour, on the pedestal which lined up its upper stages with the levels of the tower used for the same stages of Saturn V. Through binoculars, at three-and-a-half miles, the vehicle was far clearer than on a TV screen – despite the blue haze of distance which television filters out. The rocket flames were brighter, sharper gold, not merged into an amorphous mass by the camera. I knew that the Saturn edged sideways on liftoff for greater separation from the tower, but it did it so stably that with the binoculars locked on it I nearly fell over, as if the whole Earth had moved the other way. (Not that the rocket could have rocked outwards, of course, without breaking amidships.)
But the sound, when it came after 17 seconds, was the way the microphones relay it – a crackling roar of multiple, mutually interfering shockwaves. Watching it rise, we didn’t scream and shout like the early pioneers – emotion broke through after a half-minute or so in a subdued mutter, “Go on, baby, get up there…” High in the stratosphere, the rocket disappeared into cloud – emerging just in time for the flare of booster separation, and the flash of the second-stage ignition. Tiny though it was, everybody shouted at that.
As we sat in the traffic jam afterwards, some contrasts registered. All those cars, with engines roaring to maintain the air-conditioning – like the Greyhound tour buses which sat parked that way, hour after hour. (I mentioned to a Greyhound driver that there was a fuel crisis in Britain, and we couldn’t leave a vehicle unattended with the engine on, by law. It made no impression.) Aloof from it all, the Moon came up over the Vehicle Assembly Building (at an angle impossible in the UK) like a shot from 2001, A Space Odyssey. Several of us photographed it; how strange to think that when 2001 was filmed, no vehicles from that building had ever been to the Moon. “We’ll be back.” Cape Canaveral is probably one of the few places where one can say it without fear of contradiction.
Next week: Discovery Landing, STS-41D, September 5th, 1984