You say, Hey, I'm out here 150 or 200 thousand miles away from home, going in the other direction. It's not just home—it's not like you're on a trip from Houston to California. I mean, you have really left society.
The Saturn V was such an enormous machine. And the size of the engines. You still wonder, when you see it on its side down there in Houston. It was an enormous thing. And I think I felt that more going up the morning of the launch. Because it was so quiet, nobody around it… I don't want to say awe, a combination of admiration— yeah, maybe awe. Wonderment.
It's a little different sitting in the rocket, rather than watching it … from the ground, and hearing the announcer, you know, dramatically talk about the countdown, and what's going on. Inside the rocket, sitting there, waiting for the countdown, is a lot different, because you don't get that momentous buildup, that anxiety buildup. You're sitting there, and you just do certain things. And the launch is a little bit different too, because on the ground you get that vibration in your stomach, whereas in the spacecraft itself, it's a big rumble. You can hear those valves open up and all that fuel drop down those manifold valves. You know, the pipes are big. You know, you're burning fifteen tons per second. And so you really go to town, and you can hear that. And it's a big rumbling noise, and off you go.
There's always the element of unreality in it because a launch is not real until you lift off. And until you lift off, something could always happen to call you back, to prevent the launch… So you don't commit yourself to the flight—totally—until you get ignition and you're off the pad. And then, it's all or nothing. That's the gamble— it's either heads or tails. At that point, you're committed to the flight. Whether you come back is not important at that point. Then, the flight is the important thing… I would say, at the instant of liftoff (snaps his fingers),—and you know they can't call you back, there's a momentary thing that says, This is for real. And then, training kind of takes over. And you go through things like you did in the simulator.
Above: Apollo 8's liftoff, viewed by a camera on the launch pad. Opposite: A tracking camera view of Apollo 15.
There was a startling moment there, right at liftoff. Everybody got quite startled. Because we had simulated the hell out of everything— aborts and everything—but nobody had ever been on a Saturn V… As we lifted off, you can imagine this rocket—it's a giant thing, but it's not bulky like an obelisk or like the Washington Monument; it's not rigid. It's more flexible. Not quite a whip antenna on your automobile, but somewhat like this… So we were literally being thrown around. I mean, "thrown around" is the best way I can describe it. I felt like a rat in the jaws of a giant terrier. I mean, here we'd hardly started, and already we had something that we hadn't simulated.
I really wasn't sure the crazy thing was going to stay together. Even to read the gauges was almost a guess.
It was raining so goddamn hard—it was really a damn storm that morning. We wanted to launch, obviously. We delayed during the countdown, but we weren't about to crawl out of that goddamn thing and go back. We were ready to launch. And then we were running out of the [launch] window, and it looked like it was easing off some, and they fired our butts right through that stuff.
Apollo 12 lifts off into a rainstorm. Half a minute later, the ascending spacecraft was struck by lightning, knocking out the command module's electrical system.
No matter what single, double, or triple failure those guys [the simulation instructors] put into the electrical system, they never came up with anything that turned on every electrical warning light in the caution and warning system. Man, they all lit. I think there were eleven of them. And they all came on. Everything that had anything to do with the electrical system lit up on the caution and warning panel. Every one of those hummers was on. Every one! I couldn't believe it.
Pete called it right; he told [the ground] he thought we got struck by lightning, but neither Al nor I had a window to look out of, and we didn't see anything… There was a boost protective cover over us; during launch, his is the only window … until the [launch escape] tower goes and pulls the boost protective cover off.
I thought the service module had somehow separated from the command module. Because I didn't know any other way—I knew that no failure, or two failures, could do it. Because we'd had all the failures. So I knew them. You know, I'd look at six lights; that's AC [bus] 1. You soon learn the patterns and the numbers. And there were so many… I said, "They didn't bolt the command module right to the service module, and it slipped." Because, see, we lost three fuel cells. The only way you can do that is to kind of break it… So that's what went through my mind. I never thought of a lightning bolt…
I never thought about aborting—at that point. Obviously, I did not want to wind up with a dead spacecraft in orbit.
In retrospect, it could have been catastrophic. But it wasn't.
Burning in the invisible flame of the Saturn V's second-stage engines, a connecting ring falls away following first-stage separation. An automatic camera aboard the unmanned Apollo 4 captured these views.
We had a lot of acceleration just prior to [first-stage] cutoff. We were really being squashed back… We were up to four and a half Gs or whatever it was. And, you know, your chest gets compressed down. You're panting. Your arms feel real heavy, so you're not moving around flipping any switches. And of course the fluid is all back here in your ears. But you get used to it. So you're kind of semiacclimated. And suddenly, you go from that, not only to zero G as the engine cuts off, but there's little retrorockets that fire on that engine to pull it back off, just before the second stage cuts in… . You know, you've seen those old movies like Captain from Castile, where they have a catapult that heaves the rock over the wall? I mean, I suddenly felt like I'd been sitting on a catapult and somebody cut the rope. Because I felt like I was going to go right through the instrument panel. Literally… And so I threw my arms up. And just as I got my hand up like that, the second stage cut in, and, clunk, the wrist ring hit my helmet. So I was a little embarrassed. Of course there was this big cloud of fire around us, you know (laughs), it was a very spectacular part of the flight. And of course, I'd just gone through my first launch; then two minutes and forty seconds later, we're in the middle of this, and I thought, Boy, this is going to be something. [It was] dull after that.
Having that whole mission in my hands when we lifted off—I had that T-handle, which could've shut that Saturn V down, aborted the mission if I wanted to. I mean, I had that decision to make— anytime, I could've made it, good or bad. You almost wish you had a guidance failure at liftoff. Because I knew I could've flown that big Saturn V into orbit goddamn near as good as the computer.
You know, in Earth orbit the horizon is barely curved. All of a sudden you move out at 25,000 miles per hour, and the first few hours, things really happen… I mean, you can see yourself leave the Earth at a tremendous rate of speed. You can see the horizon begin to close in upon itself. You can begin to see the continents. You begin to see things from the top down. You begin to see and realize after a period of time that the Earth's rotating, because the continents are beginning to change places. And the second day, now you've been looking at the Earth, it's become quite small and continues to get smaller, but very slowly does it continue to get smaller. So it's pretty dynamic in those first twelve hours—that's when things really happen.
In spaceflight, when we orbited the Earth, we thought in terms of continents. We were over the U.S.; now we're over a body of water. We're over Africa now; we're over Australia now. In the lunar flight, we thought in terms of bodies. The moon's here, the sun's there, the Earth is there.
I fancied myself as a guy who understood geography. And I looked out there, I could not figure out what was up… I mean, everybody knows that north is up, right? You sit in the classroom in fourth grade, and you look up there, and the teacher has a globe. There were several things that came across later, and I thought, Jeez, I should have known that. One, the Earth is not divided up neatly into little colored countries. Okay? So you don't see a red America, and a green Chile, and a purple China (laughs)… I expected more visual clues as to what I was looking at. Secondly, it's covered with clouds, so that obscures things. And God does not necessarily say that when you look at it the first time that north is going to be up. And it took me like ...