By Greg Hertel
The press center at Cape Canaveral is the Big Time. This is where Walter Cronkite announced the Apollo launches. This is where all of the telephoto cameras capture the stage separation 40 miles up. Inside, I took a seat in front of the panel of National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Space X dignitaries. This is broadcast live via the NASA channels and made available to the networks who also have reporters here. Walking in I saw several news teams outside using the huge Vehicle Assembly Building as a backdrop for their stories. Inside, the cameras were rolling as the introductions of the panel were made and then the floor was open to questions.
“Please state your name and organization before your question.”
“Pete [so and so], CBS News…”
“Miriam [so and so], Aviation Weekly…”
“Greg Hertel, Journal of the San Juans…” Well, of course, I had questions! The Journal name sparked a few raised eyebrows but quite frankly, I found everyone friendly and willing to help a first-timer. Besides, I may not be an old hand at launches but I can science with the best of them. My questions were good and to the point. I had most of my 15 seconds of fame used up there so I don’t have to anticipate any in the future.
After the conference, I had a bit of downtime until the launch so I hung with some of the experienced hands for a bit and then went into Titusville for dinner. It was a night launch and landing. From my dinner table, I could see the VAB, 15 miles away towering over the landscape. Before the press conference, I had been confirmed as one of the VIP party to get permitted to watch the launch from the top. At 10 p.m. they announced, “Everyone in the VAB group please meet at the bus in the lower parking lot for transportation. Please have all of you gear lined up on the ground on the far side of the bus for K9 check at 10:30 p.m.”
Credentials and ID were carefully examined again and the bomb-sniffing dog went over our gear checking for explosives and firearms. About 30 of us loaded up for the 5-minute drive to the VAB. The VAB is impressive from the outside. Inside, it’s astounding. You walk through a standard entry door into one giant open room inside. The ceiling is over 50 stories high and the building is 518-feet wide. There are four bays where Apollo rockets and space shuttles were assembled. At each end, are 456-foot tall doors that open to allow the completed rocket on its huge crawler to move to the launch area. Nothing happens quickly. The doors take 45 minutes to open and the completed rocket takes hours to move to the launch pads 4 miles away. Soon, this area will be used to assemble the Mars rockets.
We waited on the floor. Winds were gusting and we wouldn’t be allowed on to the roof unless they were under 25 mph. Just in case, we staged at level 38 about 400’ above the floor. The ride up took 40 seconds in the fastest freight elevator I’ve ever ridden in! Then we waited… and waited…. And the word came down that winds were too high so back down to the waiting bus and a quick trip to the Press area. This consisted of metal bleachers a few hundred yards closer to launch so about 3 miles from the rocket. We had about 15 minutes to set up cameras and gear. I had a camper’s headlight and was ready with about 10 minutes to spare. The Falcon 9 rocket could be seen in the glow of spotlights at the launch pad. It sat quietly until 30 seconds before the launch time when a huge cloud of vapor streamed out. The final preparation is purging the fuel lines of anything but liquid oxygen and kerosene and the cold vapor expelled makes the high humidity in central Florida form a thick fog. The clock ticked down to the final seconds in the traditional way, 10…9…8…7…6…5…