Forty Years Ago Today

I was seventeen, a junior in high school, and somehow I had convinced my parents and the powers that be at my high school that it would be a good thing for me to travel, on my own, for about a week, from Vermont to Florida, to see Skylab launch. It was May 14, 1973.

The Skylab launch was the last Saturn V to launch, to be followed the next day by a Saturn IB with the first crew. The chance of a lifetime, to see not one but two launches, and above all be able to say that I had seen a Saturn V leave the planet. The fact that I was in school, only 17, had never taken a long trip completely on my own in my life, had in fact only been on a jet once before – none of that mattered. I had my own funds (paper routes were very profitable, I guess, or I had been saving for a while) and I was doing well in school, on the college prep track, so I could get some slack from my teachers. I was responsible, hadn’t gotten into any trouble as a teen, was an altar boy (that gig finally paid off!) and somehow it all added up to getting permission to go.

Looking back, I knew nothing. (I guess I was Jon Snow’s role model.) I was naive, ignorant, and green. But that’s what I know now. Then, I was seventeen and thought that I knew it all and I was driven to get this done. I had been a “space cadet” since I was five and my dad dragged me out of bed at O’Dark Thirty to watch Alan Shepard and John Glenn go up. I had been obsessed with finding every Life and National Geographic magazine I could with NASA pictures from Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. I had cried when the Apollo I fire had taken Grissom, Chaffee, and White, and I had been glued to the TV through every second of televised moon walks from Apollos 11 through 17. Now Skylab was going up and of course I could pull off this trip on my own! I was seventeen for crying out loud!!

This was well before the Internet, so everything was done by mail and by telephone. In a small town in Vermont, you didn’t go to a travel agent. Cape Kennedy was in Florida, I was in Vermont (without a car), so of course I needed to get on the bus to Boston (I had actually done this before – once), somehow get from the bus station to the airport (details, details!), fly to Miami (that’s a big city in Florida, right?), somehow get to the bus station (more trivial details!), take the Greyhound from Miami to Titusville, somehow find my motel (I don’t even remember how I had figured out the motel details and made reservations), then reverse the process on the way back. Getting around Titusville and Cape Kennedy would be something to figure out on the fly. And I would do it all with no credit card and just enough cash to pay for the bus tickets, plane tickets, hotel, and about $100 for a week’s worth of meals and other expenses. Piece of cake!

As I’m writing this, I’m just astonished that I did something like that, and more astonished that it worked. But it did.

Oh, sure, I learned that there’s this other city in Florida called Orlando that’s got a big airport and is about eight hour’s worth of un-air conditioned bus ride (each way) closer to Titusville. I learned that hitch hiking around Florida when you’re a skinny, scared, nerdy seventeen-year-old is possible, but it might at least once be necessary to realize that the weird old guy giving you the ride (and the stink eye) is taking you the wrong way and it might be a good time to hop out into traffic at the next stop light. I learned that when you get into Titusville at 1:00 AM dragging your suitcase and you turn down the one cab at the bus station because you don’t have the $5 it’s going to cost you to get to your hotel, if he tells you your hotel is two miles north, you might find out two miles later that it was really two miles south and cab drivers can sometimes be jerks.

I also learned that despite all of that, I could make this kind of adventure work. Yep, there were things to be learned for next time. (There still are, forty years later.) Yep, hitch hiking was possibly as dangerous as my parents had said (and I don’t think I’ve yet told them about this particular adventure, so let’s assume that mom’s not reading this blog.) Yep, those ten-hour bus rides in were a pain, and I hope that now if I screwed up that bad I would at least have the sense to re-book my return flight out of Orlando instead of riding the bus back down to Miami because that was what the tickets said and that was the plan. I also learned that there are really nice folks out there, who will give you a ride out to Cape Kennedy, and who will get up at 3:00 AM to get you your key when you walk up exhausted, and if you stick with it, you can see the last Saturn V launch despite a lot of long odds.

Before the launch (probably on the 11th or 12th, I can’t imagine them being open to the public the day before the launch) I went over and took the tour of Cape Kennedy. I had my dad’s 35mm camera and one roll of slide film. Today I dug those dusty slides out and got my slide scanner hooked up, just so I could share.


Some kind of Apollo capsule simulator, possibly a mock up but probably the real thing. I also saw the VAB and all of the other exhibits and old rockets, of course.


The Saturn IB on its pedestal, ready to take the first crew up the next day (as seen from the tour bus).


The Saturn V with Skylab on top, awaiting the launch.

On launch day I got up plenty early and walked a mile or so down along the shore to find a good spot to watch the launch. I didn’t have a car or know the area for any better spots to watch the launch, so I just did the best I could with what I had. I found a spot where I could see the Saturn V as just a bit more than a dot on the horizon, probably more than ten miles away. Thousands of people had parked along the side of the highway and many had their radios on with the news coverage and the countdown. At 1:37 PM the clock hit zero and we saw a flicker of flame, a billow of steam and smoke, and slowly slowly slowly the Saturn V started skyward. It was almost dead silent along the highway, except for the sound of the radio broadcasts. We watched the rocket climb and climb on its pillar of fire and smoke and only after almost sixty seconds did the sound start to hit us, a tremendous, crackling roar that rattled the car windows and just pressed on your chest, an actual physically present wall of sound. The sound faded over about five minutes and the rocket climbed out of sight to the east. I started walking back to my motel, as thrilled as I had ever been in my life, and looking forward to doing it again the next day when the crew launched.

It was only after I got back to the motel that I heard that there was a problem with the Skylab launch and the crew launch had been postponed. I had a day to kill in Florida before I went back to Vermont, but I don’t remember what I did with it. I was too worried about whether or not they would be able to save the mission. (Of course, the crew did launch May 25th after ten frantic days of trying to figure out how to do emergency repairs that no one had ever anticipated, and of course they pulled it off and the program was a huge success.)

I went back on the ten-hour bus trip from Titusville to Miami, back somehow to the airport, to Boston, to the Vermont Transit bus station, and back to Vermont and my teenage life.

But somehow it was never the same. I had seen the last Saturn V launch.

1 Comment

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One response to “Forty Years Ago Today

  1. Ronnie

    Pretty amazing dear. Definitely a memory to share. Thnk you


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