A promise unkept

678411main_Apollo 4 Launch

Remembering the Saturn V on its anniversary


Today marks the 48th anniversary of the first launch of the Saturn V moon rocket. I’m still upset that I missed it. I was 13 years old, an extreme space kid, excited the evening before watching Walter Cronkite from the Cape intone a preflight briefing on the evening news. Launch set for 7 a.m. EST. In time for me to watch before catching the school bus. Alas, in the morning rush to get ready for school, I forgot all about the launch (maybe I wasn’t so extreme a space kid after all). I had to settle for replays on the evening news which were almost exciting enough (not really) to make up for my lapse of mind, hearing Walter exclaim, “Our building is shaking! The roar is terrific! …Look at that rocket go — into the clouds at 3,000 feet. …Part of our roof has come in!” Douglas Brinkley in his book, Cronkite, says that Walter considered it the most frightening space launch of his career.

I rarely missed watching a Saturn V launch on TV after that. I never saw one launched in person, but I did see Apollo 17 on the pad with the service structure rolled back, two months before it made the final flight to the moon in December 1972. One more Saturn V flew. At the time of the final Saturn V, I was a freshman at Ohio University. I watched the launch in the TV room of my dorm, Washington Hall, and was moved to write:

5/14/73, Athens, Ohio, 2:30 p.m. EDT

About an hour ago I watched on TV the last launch of the Saturn V. It (Skylab) was like no other launch. This launch had my heart moving the fastest of any even though it was unmanned. This was the only chance to get the Skylab in orbit. The booster lit up like a “normal” launch. It lifted off and just seemed to hover above the pad. It moved at just 5 mph, it seemed, really straining, as if it wasn’t going to make it. I could see and feel gravity holding it back, dragging it down. I kept waiting for it to gain speed and it didn’t seem to. Still straining at 5 mph, inch by inch it finally cleared the tower. Finally began to move faster, but I still didn’t see how that rocket could beat gravity. It chugged into the clouds and came out, moving faster now. I could breath. It seemed like a thousand bombs were exploding in the tail of that rocket — it was on its way. It moved into the clouds and that was it. Walter acted like you could count the whole mission a success already. There was a commercial break and then Walter said the second stage had ignited all right. And that was it. They didn’t even wait to see if it achieved orbit. I wanted to know if it deployed properly. They said they’d come back on the air if anything happened. Well, I walked uptown and back. Nothing on but game shows. I hope it deploys all right…

Of course it didn’t, a shield tearing loose along taking along one solar panel. Two Saturn Vs were built but never used. September 2, 1970, marks the dark day the final two Apollo missions were canceled, the hardware now on display as museum pieces, the Saturn Vs laid out like dinosaur displays. I’ve never recovered from the cancelation of those final two missions, not that two more flights would have given the Apollo Project any greater sense of completion. A political animal of the Cold War, it was destine to end severed liked a limb. ….Or was it? What if instead of taking the technological leap to the Shuttle, we’d built upon the Apollo hardware in incremental steps, developing cost-effective derivative vehicles, slowly improving them. Kinda like what the Russians did with Soyuz. And kinda like what we’re trying to go back and do now. Who knows what we’d be celebrating on this anniversary.

Those Saturn Vs in museums serve not only as a memorial to moon program but as a reminder of a promise unkept. We who were born in the 1950s, grew up with not only science fiction but fiction-like reality and felt this promise. More than beating the Russians. More than the science. We were given citizenship in the solar system and beyond. You can hear it in the roar of that rocket.

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