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Thursday, June 25, 2015

'Liftoff! We have a liftoff'

by Mark Ollig

His voice will be remembered by many of us who grew up following NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.

Earlier this month, NASA announced Jack King, the former head of Public Information at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, had passed away.

King was also NASA’s launch control public commentator from 1965 – 1971.

His was the voice heard describing the events taking place during the final minutes leading up to a rocket launch.

King will be remembered by me, for his balanced and calm narration during the televised launch of Apollo 11.

The Apollo 11 Saturn V (pronounced “Saturn five”) rocket would, for the first time, take humans to the surface of a celestial body outside the Earth’s atmosphere; specifically, the moon.

The Saturn V rocket itself was an incredible sight.

It stood 363 feet (about the height of a 36-story-tall building); the Statue of Liberty (including the pedestal and foundation) stands 305 feet tall.

The Saturn V rocket weighed 6.2 million pounds at liftoff.

By comparison, a NASA Space Shuttle’s gross liftoff weight was 4.5 million pounds.

The Saturn V engines produced 7.6 million pounds of thrust (the forward or upwards force), which according to NASA, would be equivalent to the power of 85 Hoover Dams, or the combined horsepower of 543 jet fighter planes.

An impressive sight to see on television, I can only imagine what it would have been like to witness a Saturn V rocket launch in person.

Let’s revisit the early morning of Wednesday, July 16, 1969.

Huddled in front of our television sets, we listened to Jack King’s confident and reassuring voice during the final minutes before Apollo 11’s historic liftoff from Launch Pad 39A, in Florida.

Television cameras zoomed in on the powerful Saturn V rocket, as we heard: “T minus three minutes and counting . . . T minus three; we are go with all elements of the mission at this time. We’re on an automatic sequence as the master computer supervises hundreds of events occurring over these last few minutes,” Jack King assuredly informed us.

At two minutes, five seconds before liftoff, King announced; “The target for the Apollo 11 astronauts, the moon, at liftoff will be at a distance of 218,096 miles away.”

One 11-year-old youngster (yours truly) vividly recalls the feelings of excitement while listening to King’s description of the events taking place.

It was now less than two minutes until liftoff, the television screen would switch between the Saturn V rocket on the launch pad, to busy technicians and flight controllers at their console positions, inside the Mission Control room, in Houston.

“We’ve just passed the two-minute mark in the countdown. T minus one minute, fifty-four seconds and counting. Our status board indicates that the oxidizer tanks in the second and third stages now have pressurized,” King confirmed.

I briefly looked away from the television, and out the living room window.

In the sky, I could see a very faint moon in the distance, and was taken in by the wonderment of the moment.

“T minus sixty seconds and counting. Neil Armstrong just reported back that it’s been a real smooth countdown,” King informed us.

At approximately forty-six seconds before launch, King said with confidence; “Power transfer is complete. We’re on internal power with the launch vehicle at this time.”

“Thirty-five seconds and counting, we are still go with Apollo 11,” King continued.

The tension, along with excitement, was definitely in the air.

So, there I was, a young, future columnist watching the television screen showing the Apollo 11 rocket on the launch pad.

It was now only seconds from liftoff, which occurred at 8:32 AM Central Standard Time July 16, 1969.

To be honest, folks, the following still give me chills whenever I re-watch the launch of Apollo 11 and hear Jack King say: “T minus fifteen seconds . . . guidance is internal. Twelve, eleven, ten, nine . . . ignition sequence start . . . six, five, four, three, two, one, zero [huge red flames now begin billowing out of the rocket’s engines as a loud roar is heard] . . . all engines running. Liftoff! We have a liftoff! Thirty-two minutes past the hour ... liftoff on Apollo 11!”

The Saturn V rocket, slowly and majestically, begins its ascent into the blue Florida sky, clearing the launch tower while carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

An audio (.wav) file of King describing the last 30 seconds before Apollo 11 thundered into the sky, can be heard here:

John W. (Jack) King, the composed, confident, and reassuring “voice of launch control” passed away June 11, at the age of 84.