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Experiments: really finding things out

Sydney Brenner


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Official invitation to watch Apollo 15 launch

Norman Greenwood - Scientist

Okay, so I knew when the Apollo 15 was being launched. I had an official invitation to see this and I knew by this stage that Cliff Addison’s and our work had been relevant in the way that I’ve previously described. I went down to the Space Center, three days before the launch, stayed at a motel and I have to say that if you’ve never been to a launch it is an experience which is unforgettable. We’ve all seen these launches on television, but on television it’s something which is 20 or 30 centimetres high, a foot or so on your television screen which comes up and it’s a bright light. But let me tell you what the real thing is like. When you go to the Space Center you are driven for miles from place to place because when one of these things goes off you have to have people well away from it. The viewing station is, I think, about three kilometres from the actual launch pad – and I’m frankly glad we weren’t any closer.

But there was a guided tour for the guests of the assembly. First of all, there was VAB, the Vehicle Assembly Building. This is said to be the largest enclosed space built environment in the world including the Great Pyramid of Giza. It is 40 storeys high, imagine that! It is 40 storeys high because the space craft before it’s launched is about 40 storeys high. It has to be assembled there and then it’s given... it’s put... it’s assembled on a transporter which is then taken very slowly at about one mile an hour down the road to the launch pad. But this building is large enough to have several spacecraft and launch... Apollo spacecraft being assembled at the one time, because it takes many months to assemble them. And then of course they have to be filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and then the special fuels like hydrazine, dinitrogen tetroxide for the later stages. So they are huge engines, far bigger than... the transporter itself is a monstrous -looking machine.

At the launch itself – and I won’t go through the whole thing because people are familiar with this from television – but to see a launch... we were placed on what were called bleachers, we would call them stands, out in the open about four or five step layers and we were seated there with two or three of these and, as I say, they were several kilometres away and there was a loud public address system so we heard the countdown, and then the launch, and then the flames come out and the flame spreaders and the water that’s poured onto it. The scale of it is unbelievable and then slowly you see this flame, and then a few seconds later you hear this... not only hear it you feel the roar and the earth is shaking. It’s a minor earthquake as the thing goes off. The whole of the land around shakes. The bleachers shake. Everyone’s looking, taking photos and then as it clears the crowd... clears the tower, a spontaneous clapping comes and of course it’s then launched and it’s away and then within a few moments, you get the launching [sic] of the first stage and so forth. But that was an experience I had which was undoubtedly unforgettable.

Jeremy Bernstein - Scientist
Walter Murch - Film-maker
Freeman Dyson - Scientist
Marvin Minsky - Scientist
Eugene Garfield - Scientist