Apollo  17, ready for launch.

Apollo 17, ready for launch.

By now you have noticed that I have left to the last one particular event, the actual Apollo 17 launch.

Actually the launch happened in the very early morning of December 7th, the third day of the cruise, after the ship had leisurely steamed down along America’s east coast to the Cape, but I’ve left it to the last because it was unquestionably the finest moment of a particularly fine cruise. By the night before, we were anchored in shallow water a mile or so off the Florida shore. Around nine or ten o’clock, the room parties were beginning to thin out, but no one was going to bed. On deck, the air was balmy, the stars were bright, the waves gentle.

We could see the bright lights of the Apollo and its launch tower — too far to be easily viewed with the naked eye, but several of the more intelligent among us had brought field glasses, and were generous about passing them around.. The three astronauts themselves, Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt, were perhaps still asleep, or were supposed to be, but would soon be awakened to be suited up and generally prepped for the December 7th early morning launch.

We people lingering on the deck knew that our chances of catching a few Z’s before the launch were rapidly becoming zero, for launch was to be at half an hour after midnight, the first nighttime launch in the Apollo series. No one wanted to leave. A few of us took ourselves down to the dining area and drowsed over mugs of hot black coffee, until — with still an hour to go before the launch — we went back to the top deck and discovered that other shipmates were joining us in quantity. Once on the deck they strolled around, pausing to chat with friends, but never for long taking their eyes off the activity around the launch tower.

At 12:25 or so, the strolling dwindled as passengers sorted themselves into their proper observation spots.

Minutes later we began getting reports from the field-glass people: “Astronauts boarding over that scrawny little bridge,” “shackles holding spaceship to tower dropping away,” “door closing.” Apollo 17 was good to go, as soon as the clock reached that precise second of the scheduled launch.

Then it was T time.

We saw something flaring around the base of the rocket. Then that whole precarious stack of thrusters and capsules began to ease itself upward.

We all blinked and squinted as the five great rocket nozzles on the Saturn 5 savaged our eyes with the five blinding supernovas of hydrogen burning in air. The blinding flames began moving upward with the rest of the train, slowly at first, then picking up speed. Everything moved straight up together until the thrusters were level with the little bridge the astronauts had walked on, then higher and clear of the launch tower entirely.

And then at last the sound of those five Saturn rockets reached us, over beach and water, from far away, but still making the ship’s lighting fixtures rattle and our ears hurt. Now the entire construct was overhead, the hydrogen fire stretching down toward us, but far away and getting rapidly farther. Now the departing assembly of space-going parts was vertically over our heads.

Every head was craned back, every face aimed at the spectacle above. I turned around to look at my companions behind me. There were the upturned faces of Bob Heinlein and Isaac and Ted Sturgeon and others, clustered like blossoms in a flower-shop bouquet, starkly lit by that super-sun that was sliding across the sky above them. I could have kicked myself, angry at my dimwitted absence of forethought for failing to stick a camera in my pocket to capture a shot of those faces in that wondrous light.

Then the light went out as the fuel to the great Saturn nozzles dried up. That whole bank of ponderous rockets was cut free and fell away. A moment later the next complex of rockets ignited, tracing the Apollo’s course in a great, but dwindling, arc across the sky.

And then it was gone and we all began to talk again.

That was it, the last manned Apollo mission to the Moon. There has never been another. Unless the Chinese do one just to show off, I don’t think there will be in our lifetimes.

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  1. Michael Rawdon says:

    Surely that’s not the end of the story? What happened to Jack, Joe & Jim, and why hadn’t they come along on the cruise that they’d initiated?

  2. David S. says:

    Oh Mr Pohl I so hate to have to get picky about your wonderful and inspiring description of the Apollo 17 launch, but I’m afraid those five supernovas you were lucky enough to see were not the result of hydrogen burning in air – those mighty F1 engines were powered by plain old kerosene. Only the second and third stages of the Saturn V were hydrogen powered.

  3. Roy says:

    That last sentence may be one of the saddest I’ve read in a while.

  4. Richard Welty says:

    one nit: the first stage of the Saturn V used Kerosene, not Hydrogen.

  5. Stefan Jones says:

    Darn! Other pedantic dweebs beat me in posting the kerosene thing. :-)

    Nice piece. I remember staying up late to watch Apollo 17 lift off on TV. It would have been a crummy B&W set. But still, such a thrill for a budding young space nerd!

    I didn’t make it to the space center until the year before last; my parent’s vacation trailer is a block from the Indian river, right across from the Cape. My mom and I took the bus tour and saw the Saturn V they have on display. Man, that this is huge. I’m sorry I never had a chance to see a Saturn or Shuttle liftoff.

  6. Ken says:

    Yeah, what about Jack, Joe, and Jim?

  7. Don Sakers says:

    Your description of the upturned faces of those great sf writers witnessing the fulfillment of their dreams…brought tears to my eyes. What a stunning moment. Thank you for sharing it so eloquently.

  8. Joseph Green says:

    Joseph Green sez: Sorry your cruise ship/Apollo launch convention didn’t work out so well, Fred. (Did you know a chap who claimed to be an organizer called me from the ship, while I was on duty at the NASA Press Site, and got me to help expedite a trip ashore to Orlando for Carl Sagan and a few others?) We had a completely successful party on land at the Greenhouse, the last of the series then-wife Nita and I threw for all the moon launches. The list of eminent writers in attendance might not quite match yours, and I can’t recall who specifically attended Apollo 17. But over the seven moon landing attempts (of which only Apollo 13 failed), most of the then current SF writers deeply interested in the real space program attended one or more. Among many others the list included Heinlein, Clarke, Van Vogt and Larry Niven, with the Russian poet Yuri Yevchenko as a soupcon (he and Poul Anderson got into a serious disagreement over the Vietnam war, and the party host (me) intervened to restore peace and a party atmosphere.) Poul, along with Gordon Dickson, Sterling Lanier, Chris Moscowitz and several others, seldom missed a party. (I remember inviting you once, but seem to recall you had already received an invite from NASA to attend as a VIP, and took that instead.) Our parties were much less expensive then your $2000 cruise, being free to guests, and I’ll bet you we had a lot more fun!

  9. Panov20NIKOLAJ says:

    опытный сантехник по Киеву, недорого

  10. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    I note, wistfully, that the last Shuttle is about to launch.

    If anybody is organizing a cruise to witness it, and they need a guest speaker, I’m available…

  11. James Van Hise says:

    I’m not surprised the cruise sold so few tickets to SF fans if it cost two thousand dollars. In 1972 there were not many wealthy sf fans and in 1972, two thousand dollars was like 20 thousand dollars today. In 1972 it would have taken me 6 months to earn two thousand dollars. In 1972 you could fly anywhere in the US round trip for less than $200. Hotels were $25 a night. So attending the Worldcon or any SF convention was not expensive, like it is today. In 1972 two thousand was more than it would have cost to fly to Hawaii and stay at a top hotel for two weeks. So while the cruise sounds like it would have been great, two thousand dollars would have priced it out of reach of 99% of SF fans in those days. Had those three unnamed guys attended the Worldcon and pitched their idea to fans, they would have realized that quickly.