AT ONE TIME I worked for a newspaper owned by a group deeply involved in covering the U.S. space program. That news company division owned the only still photo lab at Cape Canaveral. The lab was a pool for all still photo coverage. News agencies could pick and choose from the best pictures.
Current events often prod me to dredge up long ago memories. The recent death of longtime newspaper friend Bert West prompted me to recollect my one and only experience “covering” a space launch by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
In his early experience, Bert was the Houston Chronicle’s man covering space shots as he managed the paper’s news bureau across the highway from the NASA facility at Clear Lake between Houston and Galveston. Upon retiring from the Chronicle, Bert became the editor of the Palacios Beacon, published by his son, Nick, a fine newsman in the mold of his father.
My space launch experience was actually sort of a “treat trip.” Our group had regular people, long involved in space coverage, who did the “heavy lifting” of reporting the event. I’d been a “good boy” at work so I got to just watch from a so-labeled “VIP site” across the Banana River, three miles from the launch pad.
There were bleachers set up for “VIPs” but at this particular launch, that of the final moon shot, Apollo 17, there seem to be an over-abundance of VIPs, so a quartet of us found a spot on the “grass” with a good view of the giant rocket. Although a great distance from the pad, it seemed as if we could reach out and touch the giant gleaming white rocket.
We were able to have an early dinner, then via the VIP passes, arrive at 8 p.m. for the 10 p.m. launch, easing past slow-moving “regular” tourists who came for the event. Except for my freebie passes, I was about as gawking-a-tourist as anyone there.
Since there was an overflow crowd at the VIP site, I surrendered to my mother’s teaching of giving up my bleacher seat for “the ladies” and found a spot on the ground that seemed to have just enough vegetation to provide some comfort. Wrong.
FIRST, THE “grass” was something very tough that certainly didn’t feel like the St. Augustine or Bermuda varieties I’d comfortably parked my posterior on all my life. Secondly, it seemed for every blade of grass there were six small rocks that had a tendency to gouge you in a most uncomfortable way.
Then, to exacerbate the discomfort, the launch was delayed again and again and again. Technical problems of the sort that were difficult to understand for someone like me who told you all he knows about such things when he says “technical.”
At some point early in the interminable wait, we were joined on our “grassy knoll” by a group of nuns, who proceeded to spread a blanket and to break out fried chicken that looked and smelled like you could die for it. Then, the sisters rubbed it in by popping the corks on bottle after bottle of wine. When they weren’t thoughtful enough to share with us, we began to snidely refer to them as “Friends of Zorro.”
We had, unwisely, neglected to bring liquid refreshment or food, having come from a sumptuous dinner at one of the Cape’s finer dining establishments and believing that we would be finished early enough to seek libation and comfort food on the way back to the hotel. And, the launch site’s concession stands sold out of everything very early. To add misery to woe, you could never find a toilet facility without a record line extending from it.
FINALLY, after so many announced delays that I lost count, the actual countdown to lift-off began. As the count neared 10, the rocket’s fuel ignited. At 10, the rocket shuddered and slowly began to rise. And, three miles away the sound waves reached us and rippled our clothes just about the time Apollo 17 inched up off the pad.
At this point, everyone forgot thirst and hunger and a mighty roar went up from the crowd as national pride and awe at the sight overwhelmed us all.
Afterward, we happily and somewhat deliriously wound our way back toward the hotel, finally finding an eating establishment that wasn’t overrun and sated our needs in every way.
I can still think about it and feel those sound waves.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.