HOW IT WAS, WHEN APOLLO FLEW

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It was maybe the best cocktail party there ever was. It lasted seven days and when it was over, a couple of America's top guns, guys with the right stuff, were on their way to the moon.

It happened 25 years ago this week when NASA launched Apollo 11 from what was then called Cape Kennedy in Florida.

I got there, rather selfishly, by assigning myself to the story as editorial director of Fairchild Publications, then recently acquired by Capital Cities, and never had a better time or covered a better story.

I flew down the previous weekend (the bird was supposed to fly on Wednesday, July 16 at 9:32 a.m.) to be met at the sleepy Orlando airport (no Disney in those days) by Mary Bubb, our correspondent at the Cape. Mary was a relentless reporter, a fine writer and practically a member of the astronaut "family," so long and so accurately had she covered them. Mary could have done the job alone. But there never had been anything like that first Apollo to the moon in all the years since man first stood erect and I just wanted to be there, to see it, to report on it, in a crazy way to rub against history.

And let's admit it, I wanted to see the bird fly.

So, it seemed, did everyone else. Except the president, who was then Mr. Nixon. He did send, however, that windbag (and later crook) the vice president, who orated patriotically (was Bill Safire writing Agnew's speeches in '69?) but was deftly upstaged by the former prez, LBJ, who did everything but hand out ballpoint pens.

Mary Bubb got me to all the right parties and I even met some astronauts although not Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, the Apollo 11 crew who were insulated and isolated from the common folk. Competent, it was said, but hardly personality boys. "There isn't a Frank Borman in the bunch." The New York Times was reporting there would be a million people at the Cape by launch time. Yet there was almost no price gouging except on motel rooms, with a $15 a night room going for $50. Some 3,238 journalists had been issued credentials. No rental car could be had for a hundred miles in any direction.

Norman Mailer was there and Pulitzer novelist Al Drury and Bill and Pat Buckley, Mrs. Buckley rather amazingly teetering on the highest of high heels, even on the sandy stretches and climbing in and out of bleachers. Charles Lindbergh was staying with his son Jon in the Wakulla Apartments registered, literally as "Mister X." Von Braun was there, too, the old Nazi we found so useful. And Johnny Carson and the president of Du Pont and Barry Goldwater and Hugh O'Brian and Senator Percy and a seer named Sybil Leek who had orange hair. Jack Benny was there, too, and Bob Considine, and when a reporter asked Bill Buckley if there was anything he'd rather witness, he responded, "Yes, the death of Stalin."

There were also some poor people. Dr. Abernathy, who was an aide to Dr. King, and his "mule train," demonstrating on behalf of the impoverished, threatened to tie up traffic the morning of the launch. Talks were held and a deal cut, and Dr. Abernathy and the mule train were cleared for an "authorized" demonstration and, in return, they agreed not to screw up the great day.

There wasn't really much point going to bed Tuesday night, not as early as we'd been instructed to be on site and with all that traffic. I left a call for 2 a.m. and got in the car when it was still dark to drive up from Cocoa Beach. It was an incredible sight, cars and trucks and trailers and campers and even tents and people with sleeping bags, all the way along the long, long road to the base. Just looking at the license plates, it was like a roll call of America.

Then in the half-light of dawn I swung off U.S. 1 to the Cape itself and could see Apollo 11 floodlit against the darkness and now the brightening east. At 6:27 a.m. the three astronauts emerged from the operations building to mount a van to the pad. They waved and we cheered and waved back. Reporters aren't supposed to cheer. But we did.

We climbed up into raw wood bleachers, a couple of thousand reporters, a few miles from ground zero across the swamp flats. We had portable typewriters (no PCs then) and there were phones at each numbered seat. I was covering live for the Cap Cities radio stations, using a phone hookup. There were lots of pretty girls in minis and pants and T-shirts, the T-shirts sticking to their breasts in the damp heat, and a Limey photographer in those wide khaki shorts from the North African campaign. Behind me in the bleachers was Oriana Fallaci, the redoubtable Italian journalist, all long hair and intensity. The refreshment stand ran out of coffee early and we breakfasted on chocolate cupcakes and fried chicken.

Lyndon came by, shaking hands and saying, "I never felt better." And a French reporter with a transmission problem kept talking into his phone, "Allo, Paree. Allo, Paree." Someone said that in town press badges were being scalped for 50 to 100 bucks.

A frog invaded the ladies room and there was some excitement over that and a lanky blond girl came by waving a tiny American flag and we all cheered and at launch minus 15 minutes people began to stir in the press box and typewriters chattered faster and the tension built.

And at 9:32 exactly there was a flash of flame and then smoke and ever so slowly, Apollo 11 began to rise. I don't to this day know what I said into that live, open line but I kept talking. After a few seconds we got the sound, the roar, and then, under us the tremendous vibration, shaking the bleachers. And someone, in our row, said at that moment the moon was 218,000 miles away.

Suddenly, it didn't seem all that far.

One last thing. The night before launch the contractors took over one of those enormous hangers for a cocktail party for maybe 10,000 people. In one corner, surrounded by an entourage, was von Braun. In another, almost unrecognized, was Lindbergh, alone. A few of us went over and he shook our hands and we talked.

There, in that one room at the one time on that Florida night 25 years ago this week, we had the entire history of manned flight.

Everyone but Icarus.

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