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'The Cape'-$20 Billion Adventure

By Donald E. Graham

But why, say some, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And, they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 36 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? John F. Kennedy   Rice Stadium, Houston   Sept. 12, 1962.

Some things about Cape Kennedy surprise a veteran television-watcher of rocket launchings. I had envisioned a compact base, with launching pads and rockets bunched closely together. But the Cape is huge, much of its acreage still covered by scrubby palms. Occasional rattlesnakes are still found there, and when a hurricane drives them inland, the snakes become a serious nuisance. The pads are spread out, miles from each other, connected by a series of highways with names like "Solid Motor Road," "Central Control Road," and "ICBM Road."

The Cape is a boom town. It is surrounded by a string of airplane-factory plants, then, further away by brand-new bars and motels. The bars and motels all have the same names--the Polaris, the Satellite, and so on--all changing, no doubt, as missiles become obsolete.

Life's Little Baby

It's impossible not to be swept up by the sense of adventure just by being in Cape Kennedy--especially if you go, as I did, as a guest of Life Magazine. Since the first seven astronauts signed a contract to report their stories in Life, the magazine has adopted the space program. While NASA's officials and the astronauts themselves seem a bit embarrassed by space jargon, Life' men talk enthusiastically of "birds," "aborts," and so on. Last spring they had given a party of businessmen a tour of the Cape, Houston's Manned Space Center and some of the country's other space facilities. Impressed by their guests' enthusiasm, they had now invited 25 college editors to watch James Borman and Frank Lovell blast off in the Gemini 7.

The launch was to come on Saturday; on Friday night, we attended a cocktail party. So did Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Walter Schirra, and Pete Conrad. We were impressed.

Schirra, theoretically just nine days away from the launching of his own Gemini 6, was by far the most relaxed of the group. He was the only one without a certain wild-eyed look that seems to reflect the two-sided nature of the astronaut's world--half survival training in the desert and half telling college editors at cocktail parties what it's like to have been in space.

He didn't have to go into hibernation until four days before his flight he said, and until then he could live a normal life (All the motel's barmaids seemed to know the astronauts by first name and preferred drink).

Schirra would have to pilot Gemini 6 into a rendezvous with Borman and Lovell. How hard would it be, he was asked? If Ranger 7 could find a tiny area on the moon accurately, would it be harder to rendezvous with a much-nearer satellite?

He answered that the problem wasn't the same. "We know where the moon is--perfectly. But no matter how hard you try, you can't compute a rocket's path as perfectly. We just don't know where it is as well." Still he was confident. "If we can just get into the same plane with Gemini 7, we'll be OK. We have all the correcting devices we need to home in--there won't be a near-miss on this flight."

He talked on, easily. Did he foresee any military uses of space? "No--I'm against it myself and I don't think it's possible. We've tried as hard as we can to hit an exact target area on the earth with a man aboard, and with the firing of retro-rockets perfectly timed, pre-tested, and computerized. I got within four miles, and so did Cooper and Conrad. That's good for our purposes, but it's ridiculous as far as military purposes go."

"If you ask what we're most afraid of when we're up there," he added, "it's that retro fire. If something goes wrong going up, you can only come down. But if those things don't fire..."

Press the Little Button

Saturday morning we drove to the Cape. Already, the place is taking on the aspects of a museum. We rode past the abandoned launching pad from which Alan Shepard had been fired down the Atlantic. The gantry from which he was launched was near the site, hugging a Redstone rocket like Shepard's. The gantry was a converted oil derrick, bought hastily after Sputnik (the night before Kurt H. Debus, director of NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center, had described details of Shepard's launch: "We had a man in a block-house watching the color of the flame, about 150 feet away. If it looked too bluish, or whatever, he was supposed to press a little button next to him...").

Other obsolete missiles lay around on the ground, waiting for the Air Force to build a museum to house them--a Snark, like the air-breathing monster that ran wild over South America and landed in a jungle in Brazil; a Skybolt; a Minuteman model, slim, looking like three bullets, glued one on top of the other.

These were yesterday's rockets, except for the Minuteman. Today's--the Saturn IB--we saw being assembled on the launching pad from which it will send off the first Apollo flights, the beginnings of the actual moon program. It was being assembled within a huge gantry. A mechanic, crawling around the first-stage motor, stopped to explain. The engine consisted of eight Redstone motors in a circle around a Jupiter hull that served as a fuel tank.

He was from the Chrysler Corp., which was in charge of the first stage. Other parts of the rocket were in the hands of Douglas, North American, and Grumman Aircraft, and IBM, among others.

The engine had been ground-tested in Huntsville. "We haven't had a failure in the Apollo program yet," he said. "It'll work when it has to."

There were an incredible number of parts to that engine--it didn't seem possible that all of them could be depended on to work. But the IB's big brother, the Saturn V, had infinitely more parts and was a brand-new rocket, not a collection of dependable old Redstones.

We saw the building where the Saturn V will be assembled. "You could put the Pentagon and the Chicago Merchandise Mart inside it," said NASA guide Henry Decker, who can tell you every detail of every building on the Cape.

One of the details of this one was that it cost $100 million to build. In it, the rocket would be assembled stage, then moved by a "crawler" that can carry a 12-million pound load to a launching pad.

Next to the "vertical assembly building" was a control building, with instrument panels enough for all the technicians who would have to be present for the moon shot. There were also plush leather seats for a hundred or more VIP's who would arrive to watch the shot.

It was a long ride from the Kennedy Space Center--all NASA's--back to Cape Kennedy--a military complex with some land used by NASA. Bleachers were set up almost 2 miles from pad 19, where Gemini 7 was to take off (because the fuels used in the Titan rocket are poisonous, everyone, even the photographers, are kept at least 7000 feet from the pad).

The announcer at the launching pad introduced Sen. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.), Reps. George Miller (D-Cal.) and Don Brown (D-Cal), and Presidential assistant Jack Valenti, who had escorted a party of foreign diplomats, Shirley Maclaine was there incognito. Miss Florida Citrus strolled in front of the stands.

The countdown came in by loudspeaker. But tension didn't set in until it came down close to blast-off. At 30 seconds, the crowd suddenly shut up. The moment came, a cloud of smoke went up, and then a roar, a screaming, enormous roar that no TV microphone could ever reproduce. It left the pad, and seemed to hover above it for a few seconds. The crowd applauded. Then it was off, streaking across the sky into an open patch between the clouds, faster than you could believe, faster than the screaming jets that followed it, faster than the cameras can suggest. In less than two minutes, it was out of sight.

At dinner, conversation returned to the inevitable topic: why a space program; why one so expensive; and why one with these goals. The scientists, military men, and Life reporters available put up several answers in addition to the traditional, or Why-does-Rice-play-Texas approach.

1). The collection of scientific brainpower assembled for the space program should be kept together. "There's never been anything quite like the program we've assembled," said a NASA official. "Our progress has astonished us. Given a problem in space flight, this group of people can come up with the knowledge to solve it. Should we now break them up?"

2). We are raising the level of education enormously by the investment in space. Since other investments of $20 billion would obviously raise the level more, the concomitant argument is that if America were not spending the money on space, she would not be spending it. "Every few months some scientist comes up with a shopping list of things we could have if we didn't have a space program," said a Life editor. "We could cure cancer and we could give every teacher in the U.S. a huge pay raise and so on. But that's absurd."

3). Once you decide to have a space program, one, which attempts to reach its goals quickly, is the only efficient one. "If President Kennedy had said in 1961, 'I want us to reach the moon by 1975,' it would have been much more expensive for us," said a NASA official. "We'd have had to pay people to do the same work over a longer time. This is not a crash program--we're not developing duplicate systems and then discarding the least efficient, as they did in the atom-bomb project."

The explanations were general, as befitted a group of well-educated engineers talking to college journalism and liberal arts majors. They were argued with the conviction of men who care about the results of this program, who look forward to their further encounters with the unknown. And none of them was as impressive as the technical miracle of the rocket streaking across the Florida sky towards its rendezvous with space, two minutes away.

But other things impress one about the Cape too. To look at the acres of palmetto, the hundred million-dollar buildings, the miraculous machines, and to breathe the words "twenty billion dollars" can't fail to make one wonder. This money is now committed. Beyond it lie the prospects of travel to the planets and the stars, and costs mounting with the same speed as those rockets. And perhaps a few thoughts about priorities. Someone may finally have to answer the question: Why does Rice play Texas

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