Fifty years ago: The countdown begins


Fifty years ago today, December 15, precisely at 7 p.m. EST, NASA began bringing Saturn V #503 to life, the work of 5,000 personal at the Kennedy Space Center, which soon would focus on 325 people on station in the Launch Control Center.  Launch of Apollo 8, taking us for our first voyage around the moon, is still five-and-a-half days away.

In reality, who can say when the countdown began.  As far back as when the first humans looked heavenward in wonder and began charting the skies.  As far back as when the first sea creatures mastered the tides.

For this, the third Saturn V, creation began in July 1963, President Kennedy still alive, when the first-stage engine mounts were fabricated.  In 1965, as the Marines came ashore in Vietnam, assembly of all three stages began.  In September 1966, as Gemini flew to its highest altitude of 850 miles, the completed first stage was transported by barge to the Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama, for test firings.   In 1967, in the gloom after the Apollo fire, the rocket stages arrived at the Kennedy Space Center.  On the last day of the year, the first stage was erected on the Mobile Launch Platform in the huge Vertical Assembly Building.  In June 1968, as the nation mourned the deaths of Martin Luther Kind and Robert Kennedy, testing of the Saturn began, the mission then scheduled for the first flight with a crew aboard of the Lunar Module.  In August, as Russian tanks rumbled into Prague, the mission was switched because the Lunar Module had fallen behind in preparation.  Not officially yet, but there it was, a new goal for Apollo 8:  Target, the Moon in December.

On October 9, 1968, soon after the U.S.S.R.’s unmanned Zond 5 looped around the moon and returned to earth, Saturn V #503 was moved to the pad.  On December 5, launch teams began a five-day practice countdown and simulated launch.  Now comes the real thing, a 35-hour countdown, with seven hours of planned hold time to take care of any unfinished items or problems.

“Mark.  We are at T-minus 103 hours and counting.”

Preparations for launch will intensify when we enter the Terminal Countdown phase, slated to begin at 8:51 p.m. on December 18.  At that point, launch 59 hours, just after the solstice sunrise on December 21, will be 59 hours away.  Eight-and-a-half hours before launch, technicians will begin loading the Saturn with cryogenic (supercold) propellants, liquid oxygen, and later, liquid hydrogen in the upper two stages — nearly ten million gallons of fuel.  At T-minus 3 hrs. 30., at the start of the final one-hour planned hold, the Saturn will be fully loaded and weigh 6.5 million pounds.  Saturn V #503, after a journey of more than five years, will be alive, with the explosive potential of 500 tons of TNT.

“We are ‘go’ for the Apollo mission.”


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