There are just a handful of events that warrant remembering where you were when they happened: the Kennedy Assassination, D-Day and 9/11 just to name a few. There was one, however, that took not only Americans, but the entire world on a journey many have called the greatest achievement of the 20th century.
In July of 1969 the world was a stark contrast within itself. On one side of the planet you had American and South Vietnamese forces fighting an elusive enemy in the jungles and huts of southeast Asia. On the other side, for Americans at least, there was a country in turmoil over the conflict, over the politics and over the rapidly changing society. It was a society wrapped up in trying to find a true identity.
While questions remain as to whether or not the identity was ever truly discovered, there was one event bonding, for a brief moment at least, the world.
For a week, the world watched in anticipation of the flight of Apollo 11, the first time men would set foot upon a place other than earth. Before the world gathered around television sets on Sunday, July 20, 1969, where the mission’s goal was accomplished, there were those who got the chance to see the mission begin firsthand.
For Benson native and business owner Paul Dunn, seeing the launch of Apollo 11 first hand was something he shared with his family, his pastor’s family and what he called “a million people” on a sandy beach in central Florida.
“My dad was always interested in airplanes and spaceflight and he considered that to be the ultimate thing to go see,” Dunn said. “We made it a quick vacation, we stayed about 20 miles south, stayed about three days.”
Where Dunn’s family sat to watch the launch has long since been converted to a departure and arrival terminal for the cruise ships which travel in and out of Port Canaveral near Orlando.
“It didn’t look like that then,” he said. “It was sand and rocks and water and a military guard at the gate and a million people.”
Dunn’s description can best be personified by old television clips available on the internet of the many places where the masses gathered for their own glimpse of history in the making.
“We got up at 3 a.m. in the morning and we rode in bumper-to-bumper traffic for that 20 miles back north to get to the location,” he said. “We spied it out the day before, but we had to get up at 3 a.m. for a nine o’clock launch. We were there about 6 or 6:30 in the morning.”
When he and the other members of his little group, he estimated to be seven people, arrived they found a site likely never seen before by the 9-year-old and likely never seen since. The wonder and amazement wasn’t limited to just young Paul. His father, too, got a dose of 60’s counter-culture reality.
“My dad being an older man in his late 60s took note of the hippies frying watermelon for breakfast,” Dunn said. “It was a total cross section of America’s population. You see the Volkswagen vans lined up out there and they had tents and everything.”
The crowd for the launch was estimated to be at least a million people and Dunn said he believes those were very good estimates. Using the traffic and the crowds as a gauge, he says those numbers were no exaggeration.
“When you say a million people, we didn’t realize it,” he said. “We knew it was bumper to bumper for miles but we had no idea it was a million people sitting there watching. I don’t doubt it after the fact because it took us four or five hours to get back to the motel.”
The launch commenced at 9:32 a.m. EDT from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center which sat just a few miles away across the Indian River from where Dunn and his family were watching.
As the blast-off began Dunn described it as beginning with a silent cloud of smoke which quickly transformed into a fiery exposition as the 365-foot tall Saturn V rocket began it’s monumental journey carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins into the pages of history.
“What we saw was, we might have assumed that it exploded on the pad,” he said. “Because all we saw was smoke for the first 15 seconds.”
The smoke was quickly followed by the ability of those in attendance to watch as the river began to ripple offering a visible presentation of the sound waves which followed.
“What we did notice you couldn’t hear anything, you could just see waves coming at us,” he said. “The river was like a sheet of glass until the smoke started rising, then you’d start to see ripples in it. So the vibrations were getting there before the sound did.”
What Dunn saw next, he simply describes as “unreal”, borrowing a description from his father who has witnessed Space Shuttle launches. Dunn said his father told him the differences were dramatic.
“It was amazing watching that and when it finally cleared the pad for about a minute or a minute and a half, it was unreal,” he said. “My dad seen Space Shuttles go up since then and said it was like watching a Roman Candle versus something humongous, there’s no comparison.”
Dunn described the brief moments he was able to see the rocket as it hurtled toward Earth’s orbit as a red light filling the Florida sky.
One thing unique to the area at the time was the flatness and openness of the inlet where he and his family watched about 6 ½ miles from the launch pad. There were no tall buildings or docks to host the cruise ships as there are now. It was only as he had already said: sand, rock and flat, open space — all which made seeing the spacecraft as it sat awaiting its journey relatively easy.
Dunn recalled being able to see the stoic rocket using a pair of binoculars, something he never forgot.
“When they had lights shining on it, because of the fuel it had ice crystals on it,” he said. “It looked like a diamond.”
When you ask Dunn to sum up his own impressions, he refers back to the time as a piece of his childhood that captivated his heart and mind. He wasn’t alone. Many felt that way.
“Kids would lay upside down in their chairs and they would get boxes and get in like they were astronauts and played those kind of things.”