We are riding through the outskirts of a jungle in French Guiana. At the front of the bus a woman is instructing us in the use of a gas mask. The mask looks remarkably like a leftover from the First World War, and it seems to me unlikely that any of us will succeed in donning the apparatus should the rocket we are to watch spew noxious fumes in our direction. We are, after all, journalists and will have imbibed several glasses of something interesting by then.
The launch is to be at night, and we are to watch from Le Toucan, an open-air bar in the jungle some miles from the rocket. It promises to be spectacular—a very pleasant junket.
At this time I have never heard of Sergei Korolev, survivor of Kolyma and chief designer of cosmic rocket systems. I do not know of his triumphs and despair nor of his struggle to launch Sputnik. I have never heard of the team of engineers who stood with tears in their eyes in a smoke-filled room in Maryland while a satellite transmission faded. I know nothing of Verner Suomi and Robert Parent trapped in a bunker at Cape Canaveral while a rocket smoldered outside. The names John Pierce and Harold Rosen mean nothing to me.
These men and the things they did belong to a time nearly forty years before the launch I am waiting to watch, long before this launch site even existed. It was a time in rocketry when failure was more common than success. Vaguely we journalists know that space is still risky, but we expect in a few hours time to drink a toast to a successful launch. When we do, it will be because of those men and hundreds of others.
The satellite in the nose cone might be American, or perhaps French; maybe it’s Saudi Arabian or Indian. It might be a weather satellite or a science satellite or a communications satellite—one of the Hughes Aircraft Company’s Galaxy class, which barely clears the doors of a jumbo jet when it is loaded for its flight to South America.
Inside the Jupiter control room, there will be the usual concentrated prelaunch tension. But there will be no slide rules and no teletype machines.
After this launch, no one will inform the Kremlin. No one will call an American president.
The countdown proceeds.
With an inner frisson belying our outward nonchalance, we journalists hear a voice: “dix, neuf…”
No lone bugler has heralded this voice, which does not falter as did the voice during the launch of the first Transit. Goldstone is not waiting. William Pickering does not have a line open to the Cape. No car waits to whisk anyone through rain-soaked midnight streets to a room packed with the world’s press.
But there is silence. And our eyes are fixed on the rocket. We hold our breath. We dare not blink. And then, it happens. Incandescent flames billow around the distant rocket. Impossibly, it struggles upwards, gathers speed, and, as a thunderous roar washes past our ears, the rocket passes to become a distant moon.