Friday, December 7, 2012

The last manned launch to the Moon at 40

0533 UT - 7 December 1972 - Night Launch of Apollo 17 [NASA].
It was a peak experience, absorbed with ponderous wonder, viewed from the roof of a house 300 kilometers away.  It was the first launch of a Saturn V that I did not watch on live TV, between ages ten and fifteen, often because of a father's appreciation for a son's passionate interest. Sitting on that roof, I was worried about missing the that last manned flight to the Moon, the last time anyone would fly on rocket that size.

These were moments bristling with history, and some bitterness in knowing Apollo 17 would be last. And if I'd known at fifteen I would be describing Apollo 17 as the last manned flight to the Moon forty years later, or saddled with even less certainty as to when human exploration of the Moon will resume, I would have made different choices.

We don't get a replay, of course, so I risked missing a televised Apollo launch, and the last, by establishing myself on the roof, together with a good radio. My mother, meanwhile, paced the lawn down below with her attention split between seeing whatever there might be see in the the north shortly after 12:33 am and worrying that I would fall and break my neck.

We did not know precisely what to expect, though everyone within 800 miles of Kennedy Space Center, half way up the coast from South Miami where we were, had been told the launch would be "visible."

Though I had a better than average since of where the Cape was, beyond and under the north horizon, my concern over being disappointed grew as we listened through the countdown and launch and after a long thirty seconds and more passed without anything unusual appearing in the sky.

My eyes went from one floating point of light to another casting over the north horizon, anticipating something as bright, perhaps, as the helicopters and airliners always busy in that direction. 

Then my jaw dropped.

Rising over the hazy glow of a hundred thousand street lights very suddenly appeared an upside down fountain of white fire. Dad came out of the house right about then and asked if we had seen anything. Mom and I both silently pointed north, toward the impossible comet. He became uncharacteristically silent.

The apparition rose ten, then twenty, degrees over the horizon, and I was glad so many houses in South Florida are single-story structures and that the terrain was so flat. We were helped also by December weather, a sky unusually clear.

The rising plume of fire was enormous, a full five degrees long or more, and it was dancing and licking its way into the the sky, bright though it was far away.  It looked like it had must have been launched from Fort Lauderdale, not the Cape, and when staging took place, it ruined every fireworks display I witnessed thereafter.

Easily among the most reproduced of photographs taken by Apollo crew members, "A Full Earth" from the Apollo 17 Command Module at about 5 hours 6 minutes, shortly after separation of the docked CSM-LM from the S-IVB at 4 hours 45 minutes. Note that the trajectory is far enough south that Antarctica is visible. [NASA/Scan by Kipp Teague - Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, Apollo 17 Image Library].
Then, for a brief time, there were two trailing fires, slowly separating as the light show arced eastward and lower in the sky again. I marked a full five minutes before an indefinite moment when the light could no longer be seen.

In a way I'm like some devotee of a cargo cult, still sitting on that roof, forty years later, waiting for what happens next. Though I don't hold the opinion any longer, I noted then a nagging suspicion what we had experienced in America during those years was kind of high water mark of Western Civilization. 
It was an overwrought idea in the mind of a fifteen year old, perhaps a bit overwhelmed, but I simply could not have imagined the way things went. If you don't think forty years could pass before the next walk on the Moon, consider that fact that we didn't think it would either. 

History and progress are not powers, in and of themselves. Both success and the lack thereof are engineered.

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