At 3 p.m. today, July 15, 2015, NASA will release the first close-up photos of Pluto following yesterdays flyby of the New Horizons spacecraft. Yesterday also marked the 50th anniversary of the first flyby of Mars by Mariner 4. The era of first explorations of the solar system is ending.
Forty years ago today, Tuesday, July 15, 1975, a different era was ending with the launch of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The final Apollo capsule was launched. I was one month away from my 21st birthday and wrote:
4:34 p.m., EDT.
I have just finished watching the launch of the last U.S. space shot for a long time and the last manned rocket (Saturn 1B) launch ever. It wasn’t the most memorable — it was the 15th Apollo launch, 5th Saturn 1B launch, 4th from Pad 39, so I knew what to expect. There was excitement — pressure to match the successful launch of the Russians this morning. The rocket seemed to lift off very slowly like the last Saturn V, I remember (especially compared to the rapid Soyuz launch this morning — the first broadcast live from the USSR). But the rocket gained speed and climbed into the clouds. There was a first — TV from inside the Apollo at launch. (This was done because the Russians transmit their launch from inside the capsule — but the Soyuz camera failed today!) I was surprised how normal the astronauts seemed — it was great to be in the cabin with them — they should have done it long ago! They laid there, Vance Brand was closest, and I could see him move his arms quite easily. At one point I was surprised. to see him pick up the flight plan right during launch and read it.
During the S-4B 2nd stage flight, Deke Slayton said, “This was worth waiting 15 years for.” It’s ironic that one of the first astronauts is on this last flight — the end of an era. It’s hard to realize — in fact it’s impossible to realize. 31 shots and this is it. No more Saturns. Well, as times passes, we’ll forget what it was like — then look back and think it was impossible that we ever flew the things. Well, hopefully, we’ll have the Shuttle in a few years (seems like a long time).
I was right — I look at the flights of the Saturns with more awe now than at the time. I was wrong — it won’t be the last U.S. flight of a capsule on a conventional rocket. At least that’s the plan (seems like a long time).