Growing up as the son of an engineer working on the Saturn V, I came to love the space program and everything that it represented. The risk, exploration, innovation and country pride during the early days of the Apollo program is unmatched in our history.
On Friday, July 8th, I took my family up to the Cape for the final shuttle launch. Regardless of only a 30% chance of a launch, we arrived to crawling traffic and cars parking wherever there was a sliver of land to view the launch.
This brought me back to the days of the Apollo missions. The throngs of launch watchers took to the shores of the rivers, lagoons, and the beaches. Sometimes we would arrive hours before the launch and spend what seemed like all day and sometimes into the night. Back in the early days, the launch windows were not of the ten-minute variety that we see today.
The sense of pride and accomplishment that made the Apollo program special infiltrated all who watched in awe at the spectacle. Thousands would gather with their picnics, battery powered televisions and radios. All around, the echoing of the launch sequence reverberated from the tinny sounds of transistor radios at each outpost. A chorus of voices joined the countdown adding to the excitement of the moment. At liftoff, the crackling of the five engines producing 7,650,000 pounds-force shattered the calm. The massive percussion assaulted our senses and the crowd would cheer the Saturn V as it climbed higher into the sky.
Waiting for the final Atlantis launch, the crowd reminded me of the early days. It was good to see. I had witnessed other shuttle launches and the crowds were not impressive. People had grown complacent with the Shuttle program. Faceless astronauts, not the rock star explorers of the early years, piloted the Shuttle. The country had become an “event” crowd and the routine shuttle launches were not an event. Sure, they came back, after a tragedy. That always made the next launch an event.
I’d like to say that the Apollo program was not subjected to the same apathy, but that is not the case. In the waning years, the fervor of launches and the routine of going to the moon brought smaller and smaller crowds to the beaches. The Apollo program ended due to budget cuts and the lack of support to keep sending Americans to the moon.
As we waited for the final firing of the main engines, the feeling of nostalgia and pride rippled through those that had gathered on the shores. However, it was eerily different. In this modern day of iPhones and technology, there were no radio’s belting out the launch sequence. Many people looked around wondering what was happening, was it going to go off on time. Thousands of launch fans stared at their web accessed phones, trying to get an update. There was an almost church-like hush amongst the crowd.
Suddenly and quietly, the liftoff occurred. The flash of the solid rocket boosters lit up the sky and the Atlantis climbed quietly into the sky. With the wind at our backs, it was as if a silent rocket had just shot toward space. The crowd started to point at the fireball climbing higher. The cheers and applause escalated and a chill went down my spine. Although much quieter, this Apollo Son felt the excitement and pride of the old days.
The man standing next to me looked up and shouted, “Godspeed.” The term used back in the early days of manned space flight, a Middle English expression, a wish for success and fortune for one setting out on a voyage, adventure, or travels. The Atlantis disappeared behind the clouds for a brief moment. As it broke out into the blue, the sounds of the its thrust finally reached the ground around us and provided a brief feeling of the power involved in sending humans to space.
Forty some years ago, I was a wide-eyed kid, watching us send astronauts to space with awe. It is my hope that my three-year old son will have a glimmer of memory about this historic launch. He knows his grandfather helped build the Saturn V and he loves everything “space.” He gets excited when he sees the moon and I can’t help but think that he might one day be able to venture back there.
There is no question that the Shuttle fleet is old and very costly. I don’t disagree with the ending of the program. It just hurts that as resourceful and innovative we are as Americans, that we don’t have an alternative in place.
Life sends you down roads that you never thought would happen. I’m a author now. Writing stories about a teenager named Van Stone. He doesn’t have any magical powers or isn’t a vampire. He’s a real kid that uses science and determination to solve mysteries. Since I build his world, maybe one day he’ll get into space. The only problem is, we no longer have a manned space program.
Let’s hope I don’t have to build an imaginary world for him to accomplish that task.