Sad news today. Neil Armstrong died, taking with him a big part of my childhood. As someone who grew up in the shadow of the space program, actually the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, I followed his and every other astronauts’ career from the beginning. Von Braun and crew at Marshall built the boosters that launched our satellites as well as the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs into orbit and beyond. Back then when the ground around Huntsville shook, it wasn’t a Mother Nature thing, but rather a NASA thing. The huge test tower where the Saturn V boosters were static tested still stand and from the top you can see the entire center, the city, and much of the Tennessee River Valley.
I know there are those who say the moon landing never occurred, proving yet again that the morons walk among us.
I know. I was there. Not for the “one small step” but for the launch of Apollo 11. July 16, 1969, 9:32 a.m. It was a cool morning at Canaveral that day and once again the ground shook as the mighty Saturn V cluster sprang to life and Armstrong, along with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, rose into the sky in route to the moon. We stood awe-struck and watched as the first stage separated and the second stage carried them out of sight.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Truly one of the highlights of my life.
It was the summer between my freshmen and sophomore years of med school in Birmingham. Don Hawkins, a classmate of mine, and I were doing cardiovascular research projects that summer and took a few days off to venture down. Don’s aunt worked for NASA and lived in Cocoa Beach. She had grabbed us passes to the Cape for the launch. Not an easy ticket to come by.
I remember we arrived there a couple of days early, pulling in around 2 a.m. after the grueling drive from Birmingham. As we neared the Cape we could see the rocket. Off in the distance, lit like a monument. What a thrill.
The day before the launch, we toured NASA, seeing the VAB (Vertical Assembly Building), the huge transport vehicle that carried the massive rocket from that construction site to the launch pad, and, of course, the rocket. Up close and personal. At that time the VAB, which had four construction silos inside, held the Apollo 12 and the ill-fated Apollo 13 rockets, as well as the beginnings of Apollo 14. NASA always planned ahead.
They say two million people descended on the Florida Coast that week. That might be a conservative estimate. The night before launch day, Don and I went for a long run along the beach, an hour out and an hour back. Campers and campsites lined the beach every step of the way, all night parties in progress.
Around midnight we tried to get some sleep but that didn’t work out so well. Too amped. So around 4 a.m. we headed over to the Holiday Inn for breakfast where we ran into some of the ABC news crew getting ready to head for the Cape. We met our bus around 6 and reached the Cape shortly thereafter. It was cool and overcast. There were hundreds of people there, Apollo 11 standing across a flat stretch of swamp water from us. Speakers lined the shore and blasted out the chatter between Mission Control and Armstrong and crew. The tension was indeed palpable and as the minutes clicked by it only increased. Around 9, the sky cleared and the countdown seemed to quicken until 10 . . 9 . . 8 . . and so on. Then: “We have ignition. And lift off.”
My heart raced in my throat and, yes, there were tears. Same was true for everyone there.
The steam rose from the water used to deaden the vibrations and heat from the boosters, obscuring the rocket. Then, Apollo 11 slowly nosed from the cloud and rose above us, its exhaust laying down a thick contrail.
Ultimately, 12 Americans set foot on that desolate surface and returned to talk about it.
Apollo 11: Neil Armstrong/Buzz Aldrin
Apollo 12: Pete Conrad/Alan Bean
Apollo 14: Alan Shepard/Edgar Mitchell
Apollo 15: David Scott/James Irwin
Apollo 16: John Young/Charles Duke
Apollo 17: Gene Cernan/Harrison Schmidt
But Neil Armstrong was the first.
Godspeed, Neil Armstrong. Your place in the history of humans will live forever.