I was born in Tait’s Gap and raised in Champion and Oneonta. I was only one of many Blount Countians who worked in the space program.
On April 16, 1965, everyone at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville was waiting for the Saturn SIC T, 5 p.m. first static firing of the world’s biggest rocket. I was the engine project engineer and was worried about the assembly of five huge rocket engines firing 7.5 million pounds of thrust in one concentrated package. It had the power of an atom bomb and never before had this been achieved on a rocket.
From my office building, I crossed the street to the far end of the parking lot for a view of the hillside test stand. I was about 2000 yards away. The rocket’s tail section was getting sprayed with 28,000 gallons of water per minute to cool the rocket and test stand, and the flame shield deflector pointed in a downstream channel to the Tennessee River away from the City of Huntsville.
Warning horns were blasting, and the test firing was near. With the loudest blast of 118 volume decibels, the whole hillside and rocket were engulfed in black smoke and red flames. I was thinking the rocket blew up and it was my fault! With my eyes glued to hill, a heavy sonic blast of sound waves traveling at a velocity of 6900 m/s, struck me like a ten-ton truck. The force knocked me down, caved in my stomach, and knocked my breath out. With my hands over my ears, I felt my eyeballs were popping out.
I didn‘t take my eyes off that hill. I was wishing the firing would shut off for pain relief. The 6.5 second test felt like 20 minutes. The rocket shut off and the black smoke gave way to the color of white and settled nearer to the ground. I could see the dim shape of the rocket; it was still there! Getting my breath back, I got to my feet. Everything looked great as white smoke trailed from the engines. I mumbled, “Oh God, what have we done. Man has no business fooling with this kind of power.”
The next day, everyone was excited and partying with cake and coffee. I was feeling sad and felt what Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer felt when he exploded the atom bomb on July 16, 1945. I was depressed, and I didn’t want anything to do with this new found “God-like” power; where would this lead us? If mismanaged, awesome things could come to us! My coworkers inquired why I was not celebrating.
My old German branch head, Robert Paetz, now Saturn 5 project manager, came to visit us and he talked to me. Mr. Paetz said, “It means we can fulfill President Kennedy’s and America’s dream of putting a man on the moon, achieving one of the greatest events ever for mankind!” I then joined the celebration, and our work continued. It was something I felt: “My NASA Moment.”
We always had damage in the city from our rocket blasts. This time, store windows were broken, pictures fell, and dishes were broken. The Saturn 5 rocket stands 36 stories tall, 33 feet in diameter and burns 30,000 lbs of fuel per second. It is still, and may always be, the biggest rocket man ever built! Ten times the speed of a rifle bullet.
On July 20, 1969, we put a Man on the Moon.
Goose Creek, SC