Everybody Has a Story: Launch of ill-fated Apollo 13 was breathtaking




I was there at the Apollo 13 liftoff.

It was a beautiful, sunny, balmy Florida day in April of 1970 when I arrived in the Orlando, Fla., airport. I had traveled from my native state of Connecticut for two reasons: to enjoy a two-week vacation for rest and sightseeing in the southern Sunshine State, and also to escort my mother-in-law, Clara, back to Connecticut after her wintering months down south with her daughter and family.

We enjoyed all the sightseeing and wonderful climate with Clara and other family members in a 1960 English Ford provided by Clara's son-in-law, Tom. I was just a foreigner in this state, but we sure knew how to get around. It was the last weekend of my visit when I realized an event would happen that was big not only for the Cocoa Beach area where I was visiting but for the whole United States of America: The planned liftoff of the Apollo 13 was scheduled for April 11 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, just a few miles north.

Tom explained to me that the community always viewed liftoffs as big celebrations. Tom was part of the NASA team, and plans were made for his family to ride up the Banana River in his boat to view the liftoff, front and center,

Tom's boat propelled us up the Banana River early in the morning as we joined many other boaters seeking a good spot; it seemed that all of Florida gathered to witness the event. Consider the year 1970: security was not as tight around the perimeter of the Space Center as we see it today, so we were allowed close viewing of the liftoff pad. How exciting could this be? I was so thrilled to be present on the water on this beautiful, clear day of breaking history.

The time to fire up the rockets was approaching and our anticipation was growing as we waited. Tom explained that the big water-filled moat around the rocket was for the purpose of cooling down the extreme heat of burning rocket exhaust, thus preventing an explosion or fire. The time came when the earth-shattering roar penetrated my whole being as I felt the vibrations and saw the ripples in the water. Then the propulsion of this massive object slowly lifted it up off its pad and on April 11, 1970, at 2:13 p.m., the rocket advanced into the sky as I followed the fiery jet steam as far as I could see, until it disappeared into the atmosphere.

It was declared a successful launch -- but we all know what happened to Apollo 13: the spaceship was crippled when an oxygen tank exploded, and the astronauts were lucky to figure out a way to make it home alive.

In 2004, I returned to the space center and space museum. It is now very expansive, as it houses space projects and programs that have been developed during the years since I visited. The security is now very tight. It was on this 2004 visit that I realized the motto that was given for the Apollo 13 mission: "Failure is not an option." My cap I proudly wear!

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