November 14, 1969
Two days before launch, mom packs our bags. I throw in my swimsuit because that is what I always take to Cocoa Beach. For launch day, Mom adds a navy and white dress, a big Navy hairbow, and a purse (just like hers) emblazoned on front with the Apollo 12 patch. I am 6 years old so this feels like another vacation to the Cape. Gosh, it was only a few months before that our family spent four summer weeks at the beach while dad trained. This launch trip is part of the normal astronaut family routine. My best friend, Tracy Cernan took the same trip last May for the Apollo 10 launch, and the Aldrin boys who live behind us, spent a week in July.
Dad is in quarantine. Mom visited him but my brother, Clay and I with our constant exposure to school kid bugs and viruses could only smile, wave, and blow him kisses through the quarantine glass. Clay and I are ok with it. That is what kids of astronauts do, wave to their dad through the glass before he rockets into space.
At first Mom was concerned about the weather. Would they be able to lift-off? The day before launch it was raining and the forecasters predicted rain again tomorrow. But last night, the last time Mom saw Dad before liftoff, he assured her “the helicopters would be flying. NASA watched the weather. Tonight Apollo 12 was still go for launch.” That was all my mother needed to hear. My father absolutely trusted the team who was flying them to the moon. So my mother did too.
President Nixon and Mrs Nixon helicopter to the launch viewing area but the NASA limousine, a large black station wagon drives our family and Astronaut Gene and Barbara Cernan to the launch area. My mom will rely on Gene throughout the mission; launch day, the day Dad lands on the moon, and splashdown. Gene is her assigned Astronaut. Mom and Dad helped Barbara just six months before when Gene flew Apollo 10 to the moon.
We stepped out to the Pad 39A Family Viewing Platform. Light rain was falling, people in rain coats, hats, and umbrellas were milling about the wet grass. Scores of photographers and TV cameras were zoomed in on the giant Saturn V venting smoke in the misty distance. Located between us and the launch pad is a pond filled with herons and ducks serenely swimming in the cool water. Soon those birds would take off quick, and fly fast, like the fuel-filled rocket poised in front of them.
The air was thick with moisture and anticipation. One of the most distinct memories I have of the Apollo 12 launch was the tense, nervous feeling I had in my gut waiting for lift off. Anyone who has witnessed a rocket blast off into space will tell you, Hollywood is no match for the dramatic buildup NASA creates prior to lift-off.
The numbers on the huge, rectangular launch clock tick down lower and lower. The steady voice of Launch Control is updating us every minute:
“All report go at this time. The spacecraft ready light should be coming up shortly. We are still go at this time, 7 minutes 30 seconds and counting. This is Kennedy Launch Control.”
The rain picks up. Mom ties a plastic rain hat over her beautifully, coiffed “launch day” hair. She takes my hand, and we move quickly to the viewing platform.
“This is Kennedy launch control still go with Apollo 12 at 5 minutes, 52 seconds and counting.”
“This is Apollo Saturn launch control, T minus five minutes and counting, mark the swing arm now moving back from the spacecraft as planned in the 5 minute mark in the count.”
I see one of the enormous platform arms move away from the rocket.
“Mark firing command. Launch sequence start. We have the firing command. We are on automatic sequence, T minus 3 minutes and counting.”
“Two minutes and 10 seconds at this time. We see that the stages are now beginning to pressurize as our countdown proceeds. Coming up on the 2 minute mark in the count.”
The crowd quiets. We are watching the clock countdown. Mom, Clay, Granny, and I are huddled together to stay dry. I hear the rain hitting my umbrella. My grandmother pulls Clay closer into our circle.
“T minus 90 seconds and counting, T minus 90, still go. Our status board here in firing room two indicates all is still well with the countdown. Third stage tanks now pressurized as the automatic sequence continues.”
“One minute, 15 seconds and counting. Astronaut Alan Bean has just brought the entry batteries on the main power source in the spacecraft. We are coming up on 60 seconds.”
I cannot see! There are too many grown-ups standing in front of me. Mr. Cernan lifts me up into his arms and holds me tight.
“Mark, T minus 60 seconds and counting. T minus 60. Alan Bean running up the volume on his VHF.“
“50 seconds and counting, 50, we’ve now gone internal power with the launch vehicle. We are on the internal batteries in the three stages of the Saturn V.”
“T minus 40 seconds and counting. The spacecraft commander now performing his final function pressing a button to align the guidance control system in the spacecraft.”
“25 seconds and counting we’re still proceeding.”
“T minus 20, 17 seconds, swing arm back, we have guidance internal.”
Mom grabs Gene’s hand. I’m wrapped tight in their arms. Every eye is fixed on the Saturn V. “10, 9, 8, ignition sequence start, 6,” I see the flames burst out below the rocket. In front of us the birds alight, I hear the noise, the ground begins to shake. “3,2,”, I’m thinking, when is this rocket going to move because everything else out here is already moving. “1,0, all engines running, Commit! Liftoff! We have liftoff 11:22 am eastern standard time!
The platform arms fall back, and the Saturn V pulls away.
“Pete Conrad reports the yaw program is in. Tower is clear!”
Within 14 seconds, it penetrates the clouds but I can still hear the machine. Engine smoke is thick around the launch pad, the rocket roar is ringing in my ears. My eyes are fixed on the place in the clouds where the rocket disappeared. Suddenly I hear a boom, two giant bolts of lightning strike the launch pad.
The countdown clock shows 37 seconds, the numbers tick up. Launch control continues to narrate the action. “Altitude mile and half now, velocity one thousand five hundred and ninety-two feet per second.”
We are stunned. Mom knows something is wrong. She had attended every mission launch before Apollo 12, and that has never happened. “Is everything OK, Gene?” Mom asks. Heavy static on the loudspeaker from the mission control feed. “Sue, the rocket is still burning, climbing, doing what it is supposed to do. Let’s get into the car.”
Quickly Gene hustles us into the NASA limo and we depart Pad 39A.