The summer of 1969 was an incredible time – Woodstock, the start of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the final full Beatles recording session, Hurricane Camile, The Rolling Stones free concert at Hyde Park, the epic fight over the Everglades Jetport, Chappaquiddick and much more. For whatever reason a large confluence of events that defined our world happened between mid-July and mid-September of 1969. No event arguably in that period was important as the Apollo 11 moon landing. However, just two and a half years earlier, the race to the moon appeared to be lost.
In January 1967, tragedy struck Florida and the American space program. Less than five years after John Glenn orbited the earth and more than two years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon, Apollo 1 caught fire during a ground test and killed three astronauts at Cape Canaveral (which was still known as Cape Kennedy at the time). This tragedy came six years after President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address set reaching the moon with a man mission before the end of the decade as a national goal.
The Apollo 1 tragedy shook America’s confidence just as Vietnam was being revealed as the unwinnable quagmire it was and stopped manned US missions into space for well over a year. The race against the clock to meet the goal of slain President John F. Kennedy now looked unreachable. The United States would not meet JFK’s goal.
It was also a terrible blow for Florida. Our economy had been dramatically impacted in a positive way by the space program. The image of the state was also linked at this time closely to the imagination of space flight and the consistent flow of television and newspaper coverage of launches from Cape Canaveral.
Gus Grissom was chosen as the commander of the flight – one of the original “Mercury 7” astronauts, Grissom was one of the leading figures in the space program at the time of Apollo 1. Also killed in the tragedy were senior pilot Ed White and pilot Roger Chaffee, the later of which was making his first spaceflight.
Since the launch of Alan Shepard from the cape in 1961 the trajectory of the space program had been nothing but upward. NASA had become the most glamourous and revered institution in the nation. Apollo 1 temporarily changed that and it would be well over a year before the United States attempted another manned space mission. But before we speed ahead to the remarkable recovery of the space program let’s backtrack for a minute.
What our nation did between 1957 and 1969 was nothing short of remarkable. The rapid development of the space program was the greatest demonstration of American ingenuity, skill and determination on record. No other nation in the history of humankind could have made our moon landing happen in such a condensed period of time. Irrespective of your views of the current American nation-state, that era brought out the best in us, even if today the ugliest possible side of this nation is on full display for the world to see.
During this period , Brevard County swelled in population as well as national relevance. Between 1957 and 1961, engineers from all over the country flocked to the area. Cocoa Beach became one of the most famous places in the USA, especially as manned flight missions began and the nation was captivated. At the time, some of the best and brightest minds we would gather as a nation were deployed either to the Cape Canaveral area or to Huntsville, Alabama and the Marshall Space Flight Center.
The Huntsville site was the home of Dr. Werner von Braun the father of the Saturn rockets which would launch Apollo missions into space, and perhaps the father of all rockets (I do not want to get into a discussion about von Braun’s membership in the Nazi party and the V-2 attacks on England and Belgium. Obviously von Braun’s own history and allegiances have been the foder for much discussion however we want to keep the focus here on the Apollo program).
In the meantime, several unmanned missions were launched from the cape as well as administrative changes undertaken in the Apollo program.
The launch of Apollo 7 from atop a von Braun-designed Saturn 1B rocket in October 1968 put the United States firmly back on track to reach the moon by the end of the decade. The mission which was manned by three astronauts orbited the earth.
Two months later in December 1968 one of the most important space missions in history launched from Cape Canaveral. Apollo 8 was the first ever space mission to leave the earth’s orbit and to circle the moon. The mission was also the first using the von Braun-designed Saturn V rocket which was necessary for reaching Lunar orbit (Credit should also be given to Arthur Rudolph who had a key role in aiding von Braun at the Marshall Space Flight Center in that era).
The mission was launched from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on December 21, 1968. At the time it was the longest US manned space mission lasting 6 days and 3 hours.
The crew of Apollo 9 became the first humans to see the earth as a whole planet from space. It took the crew three days to travel to the moon and on Christmas Eve they made a famous broadcast back home which was at the time the most watched television program ever.
Michael Collins who would famously orbit the moon in Apollo 11 was originally slated to be on Apollo 8 but had hernia surgery and was replaced by Jim Lovell.
Frank Borman who served as the commander of Apollo 8 went on to be the Chairman of Eastern Airlines and was based in Miami from 1975 to 1986. In many ways Borman revolutionized the commercial aviation industry by pushing for more fuel efficiency in planes, though his inability to handle Eastern’s unions led to his ouster when the airline was sold to Texas Air.
Lovell who was the pilot on the mission was supposed to land on the moon during the Apollo 13 mission. But as I am sure all of our readers are aware, that mission became ill-fated but was as NASA officially describes it “a successful failure.” Lovell’s experience from Apollo 8 and the Gemini program no doubt imparted him with the skill and knowledge needed to remarkably steer his ship and crew to safety.
Apollo 8 ushered in the golden age of space exploration. America’s imagination was captured and the Soviet Union was defeated in the race to the moon. The American public then spent the next seven months fully engaged in the effort to launch human beings onto the moon.
Apollo 9 and 10, are often forgotten missions launched from Cape Canaveral from the top of a Saturn V rocket. Both gathered important information and tests to prepare for the eventually moon landings on Apollo 11 and the mission afterward.
Next Saturday marks the 50th Anniversary of the first Moon Landing. The Apollo 11 mission was launched from atop a Saturn V rocket on July 16, 1969 from Cape Canaveral. The world watched as Florida became the focal point of everybody’s thoughts.
Apollo 11’s launch culminated a long period where despite other tensions in the nation, be it the JFK assassination, Civil Rights, Vietnam, urban riots or whatever, the nation was unified in a sense of purpose behind the Apollo program and NASA.
It might be difficult for people to understand today, in an era when Americans fight multiple wars at once, yet no sense of unity or purpose exists behind them – but the space program was a great unifier, particularly here in Florida the home of so much of NASA’s infrastructure.
The Mercury and Gemini programs had captured the imagination of the American public in a way nothing else had since the end of World War II. But the Apollo program eventually moved the bar to another level. No longer was there a “space race” with the USSR but instead the world looked on with envy as to what a great nation could accomplish. So much of that work was done right here in Florida, by the men and women at the Kennedy Space Center.
As someone who grew up in a NASA family, I spent lots of time around Kennedy Space Center as a kid, attending numerous Space Shuttle launches before the Challenger disaster in the VIP area. But I had long wished I was older and had the opportunity to be around in those amazing days when we dreamed of great things, and went to great lengths to accomplish them.
Later this week on TFS
We will continue to cover the space program this week, not only Apollo 11 but what came before and after. On Tuesday, the latest edition of The Florida History Podcast will be released with a focus on Kennedy Space Center. This week we debut a new recording and audio setup with the podcast.