I've begun to lose track of all the television programs and written accounts dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the U.S. space program, NASA and its Apollo 11 flight to the moon.
Several things caught my eye and ear during the deluge of stories leading up to man's first landing on the lunar surface, and they weren't all cheery.
On Jan. 27, 1967, during a preflight check, a fire broke out in the cockpit of Apollo 1, killing the three astronauts onboard, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The review board, assembled to investigate the fire determined the three men "died from asphyxia due to inhalation of toxic gases due to the fire."
NASA put the program on hold temporarily while crew safety was thoroughly investigated and changes were made. NASA wrote: "The exhaustive investigation of the fire and extensive reworking of the Apollo command modules postponed crewed launches until NASA officials cleared them for flight."
After the fire, NASA skipped ahead in its numbering system to Apollo 4 for the first launch of what would become the workhorse of the Apollo space program, the powerful Saturn V rocket. That was on Nov. 9, 1967 — about 10 months after the fatal fire.
The Apollo program continued its unmanned test flights, Nos. 5 and 6, before it sent astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham on an 11-day mission orbiting the earth on-board Apollo 7.
Apollo 8 was the biggest test of the mission to put men on the moon to date. Its three-man crew of astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders left earth orbit, circled the moon and returned safely at the conclusion of a six-day mission.
Apollo 9 lifted off the launch pad on March 3, 1969 and headed for the moon to test a number of systems and procedures critical to landing on the moon's surface. Astronauts on-board Apollo 9 were James McDivitt, David Scott, and Russell Schweickart.
As NASA came nearer to President Kennedy's deadline of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, Apollo launches from Cape Canaveral were happening about every eight weeks or so.
Apollo 10 sent astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan on an eight-day mission, circling the moon 31 times and successfully completing a "dress rehearsal" for the first moon landing.
From the ending of its mission orbiting the moon, it was almost exactly two months until the big Saturn V roared off launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center, carrying Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin "Buzz" into the history books forever.
Did you know there's an Alabama connection (other than Huntsville's Marshall Space Flight Center) to the Apollo program and other launches from the Kennedy Space Center? Launch Pads 39A and 39B were built by a Montgomery firm, Blount Brothers Construction Company, along with M.M. Sundt Construction of Tucson, Arizona .
Here's another bit of space trivia for you. The 3.5 mile long roadway between the gigantic Vehicle Assembly building and the Launch Pad 39 complex is made out of Alabama River rock. You'll have to get a more scientific explanation as to why that particular rock was chosen. That rock roadway was the path used by NASA's "crawler" to transport the Saturn V rocket and all the parts stacked above it — weighing in at a mere 17 million pounds!
My only up close and personal encounter with NASA and Launch Pad 39 at Cape Canaveral was years after Apollo 11. I covered the "Auburn Launch" of the space shuttle, STS-4, in 1982. Auburn University grads Thomas Mattingly and "Hank" Hartsfield were the Commander and Pilot of the Space Shuttle Columbia. This was the last test flight of the Shuttle.
Mattingly had previously flown as Command Module Pilot for Apollo 16 and was said to be instrumental in returning the Apollo 13 crew safely back to earth after an accident on board kept them from landing on the moon.
Hartsfield, who only joined NASA in 1969, also served as capsule communicator on Apollo 16, all three Skylab missions and STS-1.
Another couple of feathers in the cap for Auburn University!
Another bit of trivia for you. Do you know what Buzz Aldrin said as he became the second man to walk on the surface of the moon? He is quoted as saying, "Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation"
He said later, "This is the LM pilot. I'd like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way."
He then went inside the lunar lander and had private communion.
Here's hoping you will have a chance to learn even more about going to the moon as we watch and read the accounts of what happened 50 years ago.