Forty years ago today, February 7th, 1973 was THE most exciting day of my 15 years of life to that point. It was the day that I made my first journey to the Mecca of space-buffs; known to me then simply as "The Cape." It was a name that, to me, encompasses all of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. Sure, there is a difference between the two places, but to a wide-eyed, space-crazed 15-year-old that place was just “The Cape.”
For nearly a year my folks had been planning and saving as they looked ahead toward a mid-winter vacation in Florida. Thanks to selling a lot of programs at events at the Saginaw Civic Center as well as working there as a Zamboni driver for his second job, plus mom’s employment in the concession stands and a windfall of life insurance from the passing of my paternal grandfather, we were able to buy a brand new 1973 Ford LTD station wagon and take our first family vacation since 1968. Florida was the destination, but to me the only target on the map was The Cape.
To people raised and residing in the north central and Great Lakes states, the word “Florida” invokes a sort of magic and images of basking in the warmth of the bright sunshine- escaping the cold and gray gloom… and that’s in September, it is even more so in the winter. Thus it was that on the fourth day of February, 1973, with our station wagon heavily packed we departed our driveway in Sheridan Park at 10:22 am headed for The Cape… which just happened to also be in Florida.
Following two days on the road and one day in Daytona Beach my parents probably grew tired of me scratching at the window and panting toward the south. At mid-day on February 7th we set out from Daytona for The Cape. I staked out a seat in the tailgate of the car so that I would have windows on three sides… just in case. That was probably a good position for me, because upon seeing the VAB in the distance across the Indian River from the 528 causeway , I was bouncing around like a superball in a paint-shaker. I could not wait to get to The Cape. Of course the rest of the family wanted to do nonsense such as eating and finding a hotel.
By the time that we were finally headed down the 405 toward the KSC visitor’s center I was wound up so tight that the seat cushion was close to becoming a permanent part of my butt. Before crossing the river we approached the building for press credentials and standing there was a full-scale mock up of a Mercury Redstone. My dad decided to pull over and stop. Looking back to tell me to get out and take a look, dad found that it was too late, I had bailed out before the car came to a complete stop. After some photos we were on our way once again and in short order we had parked at the visitor’s center. Again, I bailed out.
The visitor’s center at KSC was a far cry from what it is today. In 1973 the parking lot was fairly small and there were only a couple of small pole-barn sized buildings. There was also no charge for admission. Of course I blew directly into the first building… whoa! There on display sat the Apollo 7 command module and the Gemini 9 spacecraft! I was standing there in a daze when my mom rushed past and nabbed me by the sleeve.
“Come on,” she urged, “the last bus tour’s about to leave!”
We were the last persons on the last bus that Sunday and before I knew it we were wheeling through the security gate and into my version of wonderland. The bus tours in 1973 were not divided up into different tours of different areas of The Cape. Instead, it was a Grand Slam sort of tour that simply went everyplace. We cruised past the O&C building and office buildings. Me, the know-it-all kid informed my mom that “This is where the astronauts stay and then walk out.” A moment later, the bus driver said the same thing over the P.A. Then it was onto the NASA Parkway- and there, across the river, out of my window I could see the ITL! “Ma! There’s the Titan IIIC facility!” I half shouted, rapidly turning into the kind of kid that the tour bus drivers all hate. A second later, the bus driver announced that if everyone looked to their left they would see the Titan IIIC facility… the people seated near me were already looking as I explained how the vehicles were assembled, what they boosted on and that the core was similar to a Titan II, only it was called a Titan IIIA. The bus driver didn’t go into that much detail.
By the time we go onto the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, I was a bit ahead of the tour and those folks in the back of the bus near me knew that famed Project Mercury Hangar “S” was coming up. Then came the old Mercury Mission Control building and soon our first stop- which would be the place where the Mercury Redstones were fired, or as I put it more simply to my mom; the place where Alan Shepard was launched. Although the bus driver called it Launch Complex 5 and 6, the blockhouse and museum that we toured was actually Complex 26, A and B. In the “rocket garden” associated with the museum were all of the rockets that I knew so well. Mace, Bomarc, Polaris, Corporal, Snark- they were all there and they were real- not just tiny white plastic models. My mind boggled, yet too soon it was time to get back on the tour. Now we proceeded down the famed “ICBM Row.” The launch complexes for all of my favorite missions, Atlas Complex 14, Gemini Titan Complex 19 and finally Launch Complex 34 where all there. Complex 19 had its erector lowered, but its service tower was still standing; I snapped an out of focus photo. (For anyone wondering, the service towers at LC19 were demolished on My 30, 1977, the erector's skeletal remains are still there. The "White Room" was removed to the CCAFS Museum and today has been restored as a display.) Finally we stopped at Complex 34 where we again were allowed off the bus.
I don’t think my mouth had stopped for one second. My mom noticed that the people seated near me in the back of the were no longer listening to the bus driver, they were listening to me, the 15-year-old space geek. Not because I was loud, but because I actually knew what I was talking about. As we walked from the bus into the LC-34 blockhouse, I went from broadcast mode to record mode; because the driver was talking all about the blockhouse, and I did not know much about them. I soaked up every word. Once outside again, the driver talked about the Apollo 1 fire and told everyone that it had happened here. Then as we filed back toward the bus I told everyone about SA-1, 2, 3 and 4 as well as AS-201 and 202, which had also taken place at LC-43 and in my mind were pretty important as well.
Pressing on we headed for Launch Complex 39A. I pointed out the press site and the Mobile Service Structure, which was in its parking place next to the crawler way. Suddenly, I saw something along the roadside that I recognized, but no one else had apparently noticed; lunar rover tracks in the sand! Excitedly I pointed them out to my mom and, of course everyone seated nearby, “Look! Those are rover tracks! That’s where the Apollo 17 astronauts practiced driving the rover!” Mom was suddenly doubtful, “No…” the groaned, “I don’t think so.” I shot back, “I’d know ‘em anywhere, those are rover tracks!” Once again, the bus driver came over the P.A. and confirmed my sighting. Mom never doubted me again when it came to spaceflight.
Our final stop was the legendary VAB, the Vehicle Assembly Building. For any space-buff, the VAB is pretty much the monolith that marks the center of the American spaceflight universe. Now, I was finally going to not only see it, but actually go inside. Getting off the bus we all did what every first-time visitor does; we craned our necks until we nearly fell over backward and looked straight up the side. As we entered the transfer isle through the standard doorway on the north side I found that the VAB is so huge that it plays a trick on your brain. Your mind shrinks it down into proportions that you can handle. As a result, the massive openings into the high bays through which the launch vehicle stages are passed seem big, but not as large as they actually are. When the tour guide told us that those openings were as tall as a football field is wide- it simply boggled my mind. Another unexpected aspect of the inner VAB was the lattice of crossing I-beams and girders. I had always imagined it as being far more open and hangar-like but the only real open space was the transfer isle. The high bays are so filled with platforms and access workings that they completely hide the big launch vehicles until it is time to roll them out. In fact, as we stood in the transfer isle, directly to our right, at the other end of the VAB the fully stacked Skylab 2 Saturn IB was being prepared on its “milk stool” launch pedestal in high bay 1. Across the isle from it, in high bay 2 was the fully stacked Skylab 1 Saturn V on its mobile launcher. Additionally, there were two Saturn V S-II second stages in storage in the other high bays and as many as four S-IVB stages in storage in the low bays. We could not see a hint of any of them.
Leaving the VAB we headed back to the visitor’s center. As we passed the VAB on our way out I saw that they had the lower doors open on high bay 2 and you could see the base of the mobile launcher for Skylab 1! Grabbing my Instamatic camera I snapped a picture. It was one of the only photos that I took that day that actually came out in focus. It was not until decades later that I discovered that my visit to the VAB had come at the worst time. You see, just five days earlier the Skylab 2 vehicle had been rolled back to the VAB after having resided at Pad 39B since the 8th of September. And the vehicle was rolled back to the pad again just 19 days after I left! Additionally, the Skylab 1 Saturn V was rolled out to LC-39A on April 16th. So, over an eight month period, between September of 1972 and May of 1973 there had been a Saturn launch vehicle on one of the pads at LC-39, but I happened to visit there on one of the 24 days where there was nothing on the pads; just my luck.
We got back to the visitor’s center with just five minutes remaining before the gift shop closed. My dad gave me a pat on the shoulder and pointed to all of the space stuff for sale and simply said, “Just go!” This was my part of that two week vacation and now I had a mountain of space goodies and only 300 seconds to figure out what I wanted. My hands were not big enough. I nabbed books, patches, stickers, post cards and a Cashulette Saturn V model with its LUT. That night, in the hotel, I lay on the floor looking over my “stuff” smiling gleefully with my head still spinning. I even took the time to put the decals on my new Saturn V, the rest of the construction would have to wait until I got home and found my glue. The following day, my dad said that I had been cheated a bit in that we got to KSC so late that I did not have the chance to see the rocket garden at the visitor’s center and I had not really had time to “shop” in the gift store. So, before heading out to Disney World, we returned to the KSC visitor’s center once again and I gave my dad the guided tour of the rockets and hit the gift shop once more. My dad warned on the way out, “That’s it- do not expect to buy a lot of souvenirs at Disney.” I frowned and replied, “Like what?” Indeed, I had all I wanted.
Forty years later- almost to the day, I was once again on the KSC tour bus on my way to the VAB. For more than 30 years the VAB had been off-limits to tours because Shuttle SRB segments were being stored there. Now, with the end of the Shuttle program, tours are once again allowed- but only until the SRB segments for the new SLS launch vehicle begin arriving. Thus, on this year’s annual family outing to Disney I requested that we should take our kids and do the VAB tour. Much has changed since 1973, of course. Now the cost of a single ticket on the tour is more than the cost of taking the entire family back then. The cost of just getting through the gate into the visitor’s center is more for one person than I spent in my entire shopping spree on my first visit. Of course gas cost just 32 cents a gallon back then too. The launch vehicle that was being readied to be the Skylab rescue vehicle back in 1973 now rests in the rocket garden, badly in need of a paint job. And the VAB, stands empty- devoid of flight vehicles of any sort and having no firm idea as to when another launch vehicle will be stacked within it. It was somewhat sad to see it that way. As we left I snapped a single photo of the VAB to match the one I had taken four decades earlier.
Oddly, all along the tour, our guide talked about the Space Shuttle in present tense- as if it was still in operation. I showed my little girls where daddy goes to cover launches for the Aero News Network and we talked about the fantastic things that used to happen at KSC. When we got to the visitor’s center gift shop that Sunday night, we had just 10 minutes left before they closed. I thought of my dad, pointed my daughters toward all the stuff and said “Just Go!” So they did, but not nearly with the zeal of their father four decades earlier. My youngest one took me by the hand over to a series of shelves with boxed space toys on it. “I want that daddy,” she said, pointing her tiny finger toward a Saturn V, nearly the same size as my Cashulette model. Looking around at all of the stuffed toys and sparkly doo-dads and gizmos designed and packaged to catch a kid’s attention, I asked skeptically, “You want that?” “Yes,” she replied firmly, “it’s a Saturn V.”
Well I’ll be…
It must be genetic.