- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 16, 2014

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) - By the morning of the launch of Apollo 11, 45 years ago today, NASA’ s engineers and rocket scientists were “reasonably confident” their plan would work and the Saturn V rocket would lift off on schedule at 8:32 a.m. CDT.

They were reasonably confident the three astronauts on top would make it to the moon and back, and two of those astronauts would become the first humans to step on another celestial body.

They were reasonably confident, because they’d done most of this before. Apollo spacecraft had orbited the moon twice on missions 8 and 10, and a lunar module had dropped to within 10 miles of the lunar surface on Apollo 10 and returned to dock safely with the command module.

Even so, the stakes couldn’t be higher July 16, 1969. The whole world really was watching, including the Soviet Union, which was racing America to the moon, and NASA wanted badly to meet slain President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to land a man on the moon and return him safely in the decade of the 1960s.

And there was something else. “There were so many things that could fail and result in our astronauts being stranded on the moon or killed,” retired NASA engineer Brooks Moore of Huntsville remembered this week.

The “reasonably confident” assessment was Moore’s, and he should know. Moore ran the Marshall Space Flight Center division in charge of the Saturn V rocket’s electronic “brain.”

One million people were standing by roadsides and in parking lots across central Florida to watch the launch. Tens of millions more were watching worldwide on television. They included the more than 300,000 Americans who worked on the Apollo program. “NASA couldn’t do it alone,” Saturn V propulsion engineer Alex McCool said last week.

Moore was in a technical control room at the Kennedy Space Center, and his family was in the viewing stands as the countdown clock ticked down. With Moore were experts from Huntsville on every system of the Saturn V rocket.

McCool was back in Huntsville at the Huntsville Operations Support Center at the Marshall Space Flight Center with NASA and contractor teams watching the same flow of data Moore was seeing at the Cape.

Marshall’s job was “simple.” Get astronauts Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin off the pad and out of Earth orbit heading toward the moon. Houston’s Johnson Space Center was responsible for everything from that point onward.

Famous for their white shirts, slide rules and their boss, Wernher von Braun, the Marshall team had built backup upon backup into the Saturn V. They were ready to set off the controlled explosion of liftoff that would unleash 7.5 million pounds of thrust - the most power ever ridden by human beings.

There had been problems in Marshall’s part before. Two upper-stage engines shut down in flight on the unmanned Apollo 6 mission, and the lone third-stage engine failed to re-ignite in space. It simply had to fire now, because if that engine didn’t ignite on command to boost the capsule out of Earth orbit, there would be no flight to the moon. America would fail, and the astronauts would return to the ground.

“We had reason to be anxious,” Moore said. “It was unusual to have a propulsion vehicle you reignited in orbit.”

Moore and McCool watched with the rest of the world as the countdown hit zero and the Saturn V’s five giant engines ignited. The rocket cleared the gantry, and two Earth orbits later, the third-stage engine fired on command and sent the capsule and service module toward the moon.

“We cheered then,” Moore said. “Oh, yeah,” McCool said. Watch videos of the launch below.

Brooks Moore headed home after the launch. Marshall’s part was finished and Moore became one of Huntsville’s “very, very interested observers” in Houston’s part of the mission. “We were equally as uptight as the people there,” he said.

He was invited to several of Huntsville’s moonwalk watching parties four days later on July 20, but Moore went to none of them. “I wasn’t ready to celebrate,” he said this week. “I was extremely uneasy…. I didn’t join any group celebrations until the whole thing was over.”


Information from: The Huntsville Times, https://www.al.com/huntsville

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