Kennedy Space Center marks 40th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Launch

Kennedy Space Center marks 40th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Launch

By Kevin Spear
Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
July 16, 2009

TITUSVILLE – The launch of the nation’s first Moon mission four decades ago was commemorated Thursday by eight old guys who told terrific stories of drama, humor, disappointment and bawdiness that sprung from an effort that ultimately landed 12 men on the lunar surface.

The eight, all astronauts, drew from personal experience and concluded with a challenge for the nation’s current generation of space adventurers to continue what began with the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969—a quest to answer the biggest questions about human existence.

“We don’t know diddly,” Apollo 15 moonwalker Al Worden said. “We’re a little, small speck in the corner of the universe.”

They could have been sitting on bar stools, goading each other to retell tales they’ve heard countless times before. Instead, the gathering was a more formal one, at Kennedy Space Center, with an audience of hundreds seated beneath an enormous Saturn rocket—just like the ones that propelled Apollo crews on their moon missions.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second human to walk on the Moon, offered an insider’s tidbit about the Saturn.

“It consumes a lot of gas,” he said, describing its miles per gallons as something like “7 inches per gallon.”

Aldrin went on to say how, for a time, it was the nation’s hunger for his accounts of the experience and for personal appearances that proved more of a challenge in some ways than his years of rigorous space training and the lunar landing itself—the nation’s first—on July 20, 1969.

Yet this time he warmed to the task, describing the historic liftoff of his rocket in the kind of detail only a passenger of the 363-foot-high projectile would know.

“I thought it was very, very smooth. It wasn’t shaking around,” Aldrin said. “We’re looking at the numbers unfold and at 35,000 feet per second leaving Earth—that’s a pretty big number—but we’re on our way.”

Apollo 11’s lunar lander ran short of fuel during its descent to the moon — a bit of widely known lore. Astronaut Charlie Duke described his part then as mission-control communicator.

“It got, in my recollection, dead silent in mission control, which is very unusual,” Duke said. “Then I heard Buzz say, … ‘Contact, engine stopped.’ We knew they were on the ground — hopefully right side up.”

“Then Neil [Armstrong] very calmly said, ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.’ I was so excited I couldn’t even pronounce ‘tranquility.’ It came out ‘twang’ at first,” Duke said.

Duke, who rode the iconic lunar rover during the Apollo 15 moon mission, described his own landing as far from anxious.

“I was just in awe—the wonder of it all,” he said. “It was just so exciting to look out and think about, ‘You know, you’re the only one who has ever been here.’ It was that kind of little-kid-at-Christmas feeling I had. There wasn’t any kind of eerie feeling or impending doom.”

A few of the tools of those moon missions were set up Thursday for display at the KSC Apollo exhibit. Among them:

*The suit of Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard — its knees and ankles dark and grimy with moon dust.

*A flashlight resembling a garden-hose nozzle made of heavy copper.

*A squat, gray fire extinguisher labeled with the down-to-Earth warning: “Do not pull safety pin except to fire extinguisher.”

*The Apollo 14 capsule, heavily charred from its fiery return to Earth. The Kitty Hawk, as it’s called, looks like a museum piece compared even with today’s airplanes, yet it contains 2 million parts, 15 miles of wire and 566 switches, and it brought back 100 pounds of moon rocks as part of a fleet of spacecraft that changed the way the world views itself and the rest of the cosmos.

Bruce McCandless, a ground-control communicator during the Apollo missions and later a space-shuttle astronaut, said a new reality sank in during a break from mission duty.

“I looked up and the moon happened to be right ahead of me,” McCandless said. “I had this feeling of being disconnected, in that I could see the moon and it didn’t look any different from the way it had any other night. And yet I knew some folks I knew—Neil and Buzz—were up there on it, and shortly they were going to be walking around on it and I would be talking to them, and I just couldn’t get over this almost feeling of science fiction.”

The fellow space travelers gathered at KSC also described how the business of being a moon visitor continued for weeks even after returning to Earth.

Vance Brand told of NASA’s regimen of monitoring astronauts’ health, including regular urine samples; tired of the drill, he finally poured beer into a sample cup. Also discussed, with some chuckling, was NASA’s protocol that secluded astronauts with their wives after a mission — but kept them apart from their children.

Several of the astronauts offered clear opinions Thursday on what should come next for space exploration. Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham made a pitch for not retiring the U.S. Space Shuttle as early as next year.

“The shuttle orbiter is the safest, most capable manned spacecraft we’ve ever built in this country, and the No. 1 priority ought to be to continue to fly that vehicle,” Cunningham said. “This business of going to the moon again by 2020 or 2025, those are artificial deadlines to repeat something we did very satisfactorily 40 years ago this week.”

Brand, both an Apollo and Shuttle astronaut, said that returning to the moon would amount to “a homesteading thing. … More like putting an Antarctic station on the Moon.”

“My big hope is that our biggest goal is going to Mars,” Brand added. “I hope the United States still has the lead.”

Read the original article at the Orlando Sentinel.

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