Attending the Apollo 16 Launch

Early on the morning of April 16, 1972, which was exactly 45 years ago from today, my parents woke my brothers and me, bundled the three of us into the back seat of our family car, and started the long drive from the west side of Florida to the east. I was only six years old at the time, so I had no appreciation for what was to happen later; I simply wanted to remain asleep. But my dad had a bolder vision for us that day as he drove our family from Tampa to Cape Canaveral in order to watch Apollo 16 lift off for the second-to-last Lunar Mission.


When we arrived at the Kennedy Space Center, we were not VIPs, and therefore we had to watch the launch from a distance. We pulled up to the edge of Indian River, where we parked along with hundreds of other spectators to wait for the show to begin. In those early hours before the launch, my brothers and I played in the water, chasing skates around the shallows while my mom admonished us to avoid getting stung.

As the time for the launch drew near, my dad pulled us over to the car where he had a radio tuned to a station where we could hear the news coverage for the countdown to lift off. When an appropriate time arrived, my dad pointed across the water and told me, "Watch that big thing that looks like a smokestack, it's a rocket that's going to fly to the moon."

The countdown continued, and when the clock approached 00:00:00, the sky surrounding the massive Saturn V burst into flames in a colossal and terrifying display of unbridled power. Seconds later the mighty rocket slowly lifted off as it clawed its way into the air, fighting the earth's gravitational pull for each and every inch of altitude. If you watch the news coverage in following video, the footage from 1:48 to 2:20 shows what the launch looked like from my vantage point.

Moments after the Saturn V left the ground, the deafening roar from the first stage engines reached us and the whole earth seemed to quake. Too many years have passed since that day so I do not recall for sure, but I am willing to bet that a great deal of cheering from the assembled multitudes was taking place at the time.

As the launch vehicle soared higher and higher into the sky, our family joined the hundreds of spectators gathered around us as we collectively stood motionless while we craned our necks to catch our last glimpses of the rocket as it climbed out of sight. Shortly thereafter it was gone, and the crowds of spectators slowly began to pack their things and head off in whichever direction their homes were located.

In the past 45 years I have grown to appreciate the significance of that day's events, even though I was too young at the time to discern the magnitude of what I had just seen. Nevertheless, I am extremely thankful that my dad woke my brothers and me early that morning and made the multi-hour drive across the state for us to watch the launch; it has remained one of the most-impressive displays that I have ever seen.

PS - Here are a couple of extra notes:

  • 35 years after the launch of Apollo 16 I was able to attend the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis (mission STS-117) as it carried part of the International Space Station into orbit; this launch was also an amazing spectacle to behold.
  • Another view of the Apollo 16 launch from NASA's footage is available at The footage in this video does not shift every few seconds like the news coverage; most of the footage is from a single vantage point, which makes it somewhat easier to appreciate the sequence of events from a spectator's point of view.

To the Moon... or Bust...

I have always been fascinated by all things space-related; the moon, the planets, the stars, etc. Perhaps it was watching all of the live TV broadcasts during the race to the moon in the 1960's, or perhaps it was spending part of my childhood living in Florida where astronauts would drop by the schools to talk about what they did for a living. My dad probably had a lot to do with this space-age attraction; when we were living in Tampa, he got us up early one morning and drove across Florida so we could be there to watch Apollo 16 launch for what was to become one of the last manned missions to the moon, and he bought the telescope that I continue to use to this day.

In any case, I was fascinated with space throughout my childhood. Over the years I followed the stories about the development of the space shuttle program, I watched several of the shuttle launches on television, and I even managed to make it back to Florida to attend one of the shuttle launches.

I tell you all of these things just to set the stage - when I heard that NASA was going to smash a rocket into the surface of the moon at 7:30am EST on October 9th, 2009, my first thought was shared by many people around the globe: "What gives NASA the right to bomb the moon?"

This was followed quickly by my second thought, which was: "Cool - can I watch?"

In fact, NASA had said that the explosion would be large enough to be seen by amateur enthusiasts, which is why I stayed up all night on October 8th to wait for it. I set up my telescope in the backyard, and I had a computer nearby that was streaming the live video feed from NASA. So I waited, and I watched, and I waited, and I watched, and then... nothing happened. There came a time when all of the folks at NASA's Ames Research Center in California started cheering, and it became obvious that whatever was going to happen had just done so, but not only was it impossible to see anything through my telescope, it was impossible to see anything on NASA's cameras that were smashing into the moon to record the event.

When you study the history of NASA's exploratory missions to places like Mars, you see a long pattern of failures due to one problem or other, and a lot of very expensive equipment has met a tragic end by plowing into the surface of Mars. So now that NASA has a chance to make up for their bad track record by intentionally crashing something into alien soil, you'd like to think that they've had enough practice to get that one thing right.

But unfortunately, they didn't.