The Night Launch Of Apollo

Days before the scheduled launch of Apollo 17, all the motel rooms in Cape Canaveral, Titusville and the surrounding small towns were booked. This last launch of Apollo brought in the news media from across the United States and from around the world. Many individuals traveled by car and motor home from as far away as California and Alaska to find any place they could park their vehicle to see the majestic Saturn V in the distance. All of them wanted to be part of this historic event. It was also historic for another reason, as it would be the only launch of the Saturn V to take place at night, with liftoff scheduled for 9:53 p.m. This decision was the result of orbital mechanics. The Trans-Lunar Injection for all previous Apollo lunar missions was initiated over the Pacific Ocean. However, Taurus-Littrow was not accessible using the TLI burn over the Pacific in December. It could only be achieved by launching at night and initiating the TLI over the Atlantic Ocean.

Jim Sisson, MSFC Acting Project Manager for the LRV in Huntsville, had been at the Cape to ensure that the LRV's batteries had been fully charged, that there had been good readings on both batteries before it had been closed out, and that there were no other issues with the LRV. He had had a long day on 5 December and got into bed just before midnight. At 3:00 a.m. the following morning, he was awoken from his sleep by a phone call from the Crew Quarters in the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building.

"Commander Cernan wants to talk with you,'' the individual calling said.

"OK," Sisson said, and then waited.

"He wants you out here,'' was the response. Sisson threw some cold water on his face, got dressed and left the motel for KSC. He went through three security checks before he was finally inside the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building. He was led to the room near the Crew Quarters where the astronauts were having their breakfast. Sisson sat down in front of Eugene Cernan with Jack Schmitt sitting next to him. Cernan leveled his gaze at Sisson.

"Are the batteries OK?'' Cernan asked him.

"Yes, the batteries are OK,'' Sisson replied with total confidence.

"That's all I wanted to know,'' Cernan told him. Sisson wished them success on their mission and left. The LRV had performed reliably on Apollo 15 and 16 and Sisson felt it would do so again on Apollo 17.

Later that day, Cernan, Evans and Schmitt underwent their physicals, then went for the first pre-launch supper. After their meal they suited up and, just a little over three hours before launch, took the transfer van out to Pad 39A. Night had fallen and the powerful searchlights bathed the Saturn V in brilliant light. The crew took the Launch Umbilical Tower elevator to the top and walked across the swing arm to the Command Module America. They were once again assisted into their couches aboard the capsule by Guenther Wendt and his crew. The hatch was locked and the blast protective cover over the hatch installed and then the closeout crew left the pad. The countdown proceeded smoothly, the weather was perfect and everything was go for launch. At T-50 seconds, the Saturn V went on full internal power - and then something occurred that had never happened on an Apollo Saturn V launch before.

At T-30 seconds, the Terminal Countdown Sequencer (TCS) failed to command pressurization of the liquid oxygen tank of the Saturn's third stage and the automatic cutoff of the countdown was triggered. The launch was put into a hold to ascertain the problem. With amazing speed, engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center determined that there was a faulty diode on one of the printed circuit boards inside the TCS. Using a breadboard, the engineers devised a jumper to circumvent the defective part, ran the necessary tests, and received the required approvals for this action. Launch director Clarence Chauvin informed the crew of what was being done to resolve the problem, and that when it was resolved, the count would be recycled. With that reassuring news, Harrison Schmitt dozed off to sleep for about an hour. Two hours passed from initial cutoff before the countdown clock was recycled to T-22 minutes and the count resumed. The count successfully passed the 30-second mark this time and the ignition sequence started at T-minus 8.9 seconds. The crew of Apollo 17 lifted off at 12:33 a.m. on 7 December.

The Saturn V lit up the night sky with a nearly blinding light that was visible hundreds of kilometers away. All staging was nominal and precisely twelve minutes after launch, the crew was in their 93 nautical mile-altitude parking orbit. Several hours later, the S-IVB was fired again to start the push to Trans-Lunar Injection. Evans performed the transposition and docking maneuver to extract the LM and the Saturn third stage was vented and sent on to its planned impact location on the Moon on 10 December. The TLI time to the Moon was adjusted with a single 1.6-second Service Propulsion System burn to permit the spacecraft to arrive on time for its originally-planned Lunar Orbit Insertion burn. The spacecraft initially achieved a nautical mile orbit equivalent to 314.5 by 97.3 kilometers, adjusted later to 109 by 28 kilometers. At 14:35:00 GMT, Cernan and Schmitt left the CM America and entered the LM Challenger. They prepared themselves and the LM for descent, the CSM and LM separated on the twelfth orbit and Evans performed a circularization burn. Shortly afterwards, the Lunar Module's computer program initiated powered descent to the lunar surface at Taurus-Littrow.

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