The young engineer and his new bride drove south toward Cocoa Beach, postponing their honeymoon so they could start new jobs. To work in the space program, especially on the Saturn/Apollo moon shot, was a dream come true. The 1960s were a time of dramatic change in east central Florida. But this was only the beginning.
The Merritt Island Launch Area (MILA) was renamed Kennedy Space Center in memory of the slain president. Construction reached astronomical levels as new buildings and launch complexes were built to keep the aggressive moon landing project on schedule. Interstate-95 neared completion, greatly improving ground transportation to and from KSC.
Space Race Relations
But as the KSC Spaceport rose from a swamp, not far to the west, Old Florida customs weren't going to budge.
Race forced people to take sides. The Florida Ku Klux Klan held a public cross burning in a vacant lot on US 1. KKK membership applications were left at area homes overnight. A black space worker discovered that no day care center would accept his child. The matriarch of a local founding family announced that there was no way that blacks would enter her church.
A roadblock on the way to the Moon
Early unmanned launches of the Saturn 1B rocket boosted mockup Apollo spacecraft into earth orbit, and the aggressive goal of landing men on the moon by the end of 1969 was right on schedule - so far. But one day in January, 1967 it all came to a tragic stop.
Inside the blockhouse on Pad 34 a countdown rehearsal was underway to test the ability of three Apollo astronauts to prepare their spacecraft for the actual launch. Veteran astronaut Gus Grissom, spacewalk pioneer Ed White and rookie Roger Chaffee plodded through the test, plagued by communication problems. Grissom grew restless, asking if they couldn't talk between the pad and the blockhouse, "How are we going to communicate from the moon?"
Engineers had debated the wisdom of running ground tests in a pure oxygen environment. They knew that an oxygen fire in an orbiting spacecraft's cabin could be extinguished quickly in the weightless environment, but on the ground, gravity would make oxygen-fueled flames travel quickly.
The new engineer finished his shift at 5:30, handing the headphones over to his second shift counterpart, a college buddy who graduated with him; both came to KSC looking for work. The handover went quickly; not much going on, the test was running late. While ground-based techs and engineers were required to tune their headphones to the main test conductor channel, a side channel could be used to simultaneously monitor communications from the spacecraft. For the new crop of Saturn/Apollo rookies, this was their first manned launch, and they didn't want to miss anything leading up to the historic event.
When the fire broke out inside Apollo 1, everyone in the blockhouse and at the launch pad heard the sounds and cries for help. The official story was that the three astronauts died quickly. They didn't suffer. But some of the test engineers disagreed, saying the terror lasted longer. A year-long investigation threatened to shut down Project Apollo.
Launch team members continued to report to work, but many seemed as if in a trance for weeks afterward. In spite of the long investigation, Apollo amazingly got back on track thanks to time-saving changes that compressed the number of test missions leading up to the moon landing. The ultimate goal was achieved in July of 1969, a full five months before JFK's end-of-the-decade deadline.
The American Space Program Rockets Ahead
Fast-forward to the year 2013. Five more successful moon landings were completed in the 1970s. Then the Shuttle program and the International Space Station (ISS) established new frontiers in space. Unmanned space vehicles traversed the red planet and explored points beyond.
Recently, gaps in the post-Shuttle plans forced NASA to use Russian spacecraft to transport US astronauts to the ISS. But that's about to change. NASA's Commercial Crew Program helps aerospace contractors prepare for the return of US manned flights. The Dragon capsule, built by SpaceX to carry supplies to the ISS, is being retrofit to carry up to seven astronauts.
The new Space Launch System (SLS) looks like the Saturn V super rocket with boosters attached, and the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle resembles the old Apollo spacecraft. Only much better.
The old Saturn ground checkout computer -- which required reels of magnetic tape to run test software -- is long gone, and today the World Wide Web carries information and news from KSC.
NASA's Social Media group helps space fans learn and share information about missions, people, and programs. Both online and in-person events bring people together as never before to virtually share in the exploration and discovery missions of the future. Facebook, Twitter and Examiner.com provide outlets for Social Media to communicate with the world.
Launch Day, 5:30 am
The not-so-young engineer kissed his wife goodbye as he left to join other Social Media members at KSC for the launch of a Dragon capsule above a Falcon 9 rocket. "Now don't bore them with all of your stories," she said.
Well, maybe just one.