“America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.” —Apollo 17 Astronaut Gene Cernan, last human to set foot on the moon, Dec. 14, 1972.
It was Nov. 9, 1967, and the mighty Saturn V rocket stood poised on Pad A at Cape Kennedy as the clock inexorably ticked closer to its historic 7 a.m. liftoff. Patches of ice formed on the rocket’s exterior due to the extremely cold liquid oxygen and hydrogen propellants filling its massive tanks. Standing at 363 feet tall, about the size of a 36-story building, and generating 7.6 million pounds of thrust, the Saturn V was the most powerful rocket ever built.
Although this Apollo 4 test-flight was uncrewed, NASA officials, scientists, and engineers were nervous. Not only had this mission endured numerous delays, but the agency was still in mourning from the Apollo 1 disaster just ten months prior that killed three astronauts. Indeed, a failure of this first test-flight would effectively prevent the realization of President John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of 1969, and quite possibly put the entire Apollo moon program in jeopardy.
When the countdown reached zero, the great rocket momentarily hesitated before lifting as 500-foot plumes of flame blasted out from underneath, splaying out on two sides. The five first-stage engines were producing as much power as 85 Hoover Dams. Chicago Tribune reporter Fred Farrar wrote, “It was several seconds before the sounds of the engines, which by then were burning fifteen tons of fuel per second, reached the press area 18,000 feet from the launch pad… It resembled a continuous pulsating clap of deep thunder, and the sound waves coupled with the vibration of the ground caused a grandstand set up in the press area to shudder severely.”
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Walter Cronkite, reporting from a CBS News trailer, bruised his forearm as he tried to hold back the 6-by-9 foot plate glass picture window as it bent inward by four inches. Ceiling panels in the trailer broke, and in the NASA control room, plaster dust drifted down from the ceiling.
The rapidly ascending rocket pierced a hole through the low cloud cover, a symbolic display of the mission’s eventual triumph. When the successful test flight concluded, Maj. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, director of the Apollo program, commented on its importance: “Yesterday, I would have said that I think that we have a reasonably good chance of accomplishing a lunar landing before the end of 1969. Today, I think that reasonably good chance of maybe a notch above reasonably good.”
To this day, the Saturn V is the most powerful rocket to have ever flown. However, on Aug. 29, if all goes well, it will no longer hold that distinction, as NASA’s long-awaited return to the moon will commence with the first test-flight of the giant Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
Although the SLS Block 1 rocket is slightly smaller in height than the Saturn V (322 feet vs. 363 feet), its efficient design will deliver 8.8 million pounds of thrust, 15% more than the Saturn V. SLS is part of NASA’s Artemis program whose goal is to return humans to the surface of the moon, which will include the first woman and the first person of color. Multiple lunar missions are planned, and NASA is hopeful that the first of these will land on the moon by 2025.
Yesterday, I would have said that I think that we have a reasonably good chance of accomplishing a lunar landing before the end of 1969. Today, I think that reasonably good chance of maybe a notch above reasonably good.
Like the first test-flight of the Saturn V, this SLS flight will be uncrewed. However, the big differences between these two missions are the destination and duration. While the Saturn V test flight completed all of its objectives in Earth orbit after only eight hours, the SLS test flight will send its payload around the moon and back to Earth on a 42-day mission. This is merely the beginning as the eventual SLS Block 2 configuration will be even more powerful. It will not only be taller than the Saturn V, and generate 5% more thrust than the Block 1, but will enable astronauts to reach Mars and other solar system destinations. Considering that Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to launch an orbital test of their “Booster 7” Super Heavy rocket with nearly double the thrusting power of the SLS in the next few months, we could very well be witnessing the early stages of the human exploration of the solar system.
It’s been nearly 55 years since that epic first test flight of the Saturn V, and when the powerful new SLS rocket roars to life on Aug. 29 at Kennedy Space Center, it’s likely that improvements NASA’s made since 1967 will prevent the walls from vibrating, the plate-glass windows from bending, and the plaster dust to drift down from the ceilings. Although the inanimate things around us may not be moved, each of us will be. As we watch this new rocket punch a hole in the sky, something deep inside all of us will stir. It is not only our innate desire to explore, but, as Gene Cernan so eloquently stated, the recognition of our destiny as well.
Ever since our ancient ancestors gazed up at the night sky with wondering eyes, we’ve somehow always known that our ultimate fate lies in the direction our rockets travel — upward and outward among the stars.
Chris Gibbons is a Philadelphia writer and member of The Planetary Society. His book, “Soldiers, Space and Stories of Life,” a compilation of 78 of his essays, was published in 2020.