As Atlantis does the last Space Shuttle work delivering supplies to the International Space Station, I reflect on another last NASA final flight, the one that took place on December 7, 1972, when Apollo 17 made America’s final trip to the moon and back. That one was a big deal anyway, but for me, an even bigger deal, because I was on Cape Kennedy filming it, and snapping a few slides of my own. Good thing I did, because I have the slides, but who knows what happened to the WRBL-TV film. The TV footage turned out better than my inexpensive automatic-exposure camera, mainly because NASA told all professional photographers on the scene exactly what F stop to use with a 16mm film camera.
Here’s the way my cheap camera shot turned out. I had the 16mm movie camera running in one hand, while I rapidly snapped stills with the other hand.
NASA had a little bit better luck. Here is the official photo.
I can thank then Ledger-Enquirer Chief Photographer Lawrence Smith for my being there. He called and said a buddy of his was flying down in his small Cessna and had a spare seat and I could have it. Naturally, I jumped at the offer. The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer owned 51 percent of WRBL-TV and Radio at the time, so Lawrence could invite me without catching any flack from the paper’s management.
The flight down was a thriller. It was storming that day. But, the storms were scattered, so we took off. It took us a little longer to get there because we had to fly around the storms, and when we got to Orlando where we were going to land and rent a car, it was socked in, and we couldn’t land. The pilot – I wish I could remember his name – decided to try for a small strip near the Cape. It was just one runway, but long enough for the big private jets that carried the big shots and celebrities to the Cape, and certainly long enough for the puddle-jumper we were in. When we got there and looked down, there was a cloud, but it sat right next to the runway, not over it. We must have been living right.
By launch time that night, the weather cleared, and we got to experience that spectacular lift-off. When that last Saturn 5 rocket was lit, it lit up the Cape. And, it was one of those “you had to be there” moments. You could see it at home on a TV screen, but you did indeed have to be there to hear the roar and feel the vibrations of that Saturn loaded with enough fuel to power the moon orbiter and lander out of Earth’s gravitational field and hurtle it to the Moon.
Now, we watch hopefully that there will be no tragedy to report as the very dangerous mission is being performed by the crew of Atlantis. Getting to the space station and back home is dangerous. Docking with the space station is dangerous. The shuttle itself is dangerous. For those wishing the shuttle program to continue, perhaps they need to understand that the imperative for launching space shots has changed. It’s a new ball game. More on that next. Stay tuned.