Buzz Aldrin’s footprint on the moon. Elements of this image furnished by NASA. (Courtesy photo)

Appreciating the rocket that first brought humans to the moon

Fifty years ago, the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon.

Fifty years ago, the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon. It marked humanity’s first tentative steps onto a world other than Earth. As the anniversary approaches, we’ll be hearing a lot about the men and the mission. But much of the coverage will likely ignore an underappreciated but critically important part – the rocket that propelled the astronauts from the surface of the Earth to the Moon.

The Soviets never successfully launched a powerful enough rocket, and, subsequently, never made it to the Moon. But NASA had the Saturn V (pronounced “Saturn Five”). The Saturn V is still the most powerful rocket ever launched. The five massive engines in the first stage generated a total of 7.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. That’s the same propulsive power generated by all the engines on forty-two Boeing 747s combined.

In 1973, I witnessed the final launch of a Saturn V. The Apollo missions had ended, and NASA needed the powerful rocket one more time to launch Skylab, its first space station, into orbit. I was attending college in Florida and wrote for the school newspaper. A photographer friend and I drove to Cape Kennedy and got press passes for the Skylab launch.

The press site was three miles from the launch pad, about as close as NASA let anyone get. We were told we were “probably” far enough away to be safe if the rocket exploded during launch. Eight seconds before liftoff, the five mighty engines of the rocket’s first stage ignited. Four strong arms held the rocket in place while the engines built up enough thrust to take off. Flame and smoke billowed out from the bottom of the rocket. But there was no sound. It was eerie to see the rocket start to rise, agonizingly slow at first, in complete silence.

Then I noticed the grass in the distance momentarily flatten then bounce back up. The Kennedy Space Center is located in the middle of a wildlife refuge, and its vast empty spaces are full of reeds and tall grasses. I realized that, in the movement of the grass, I was seeing the pressure wave, generated by the ignition of the rocket engines, racing toward me. That’s why there was no noise – the sound waves, traveling much slower than light, had not yet had time to reach me.

The pressure wave drew closer. About 15 seconds after ignition, it finally hit, and the force nearly knocked me off my feet. The ground shook, and a deep, throaty, crackling, thunderous roar surrounded me. My teeth rattled. My bones shook. It was unforgettable and awesome.

Without the Saturn V rocket, Apollo 11 would never have made it to the Moon. But the legacy of the mission is so much more than just its technological accomplishments. Astronaut Jim Lovell once described Apollo as “aspiration at its finest.”

Although motivated in part by competition with the Soviet Union, the moon landing was always more than “just” an American achievement. It spoke to our innately human sense of wonder and curiosity, to our deep-seated need to explore the world around us. The plaque left on the Moon by the astronauts summed it up best: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

Throughout the world, people gathered around their televisions to watch that first moon walk. It’s been estimated that 93% of the TVs that were on at the time were watching the astronauts. Appliance stores left the televisions in their display windows on all night, so people without TVs could watch. Police reported a drop in crime as even the criminals stayed home, glued to their sets like everyone else.

My family and I were watching too, even though it was nearly 11 pm in Ohio when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the surface of the Moon. My dad took Polaroids of the astronauts in their space suits off the TV screen. It was an awesome privilege to witness history being made. And to be alive in a time when we knew how to dream big and make those dreams come true.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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