(This column originally appeared in The Forum in 1969. Columnist Wayne Lubenow flew to Florida to report on the Apollo 11 launch. On July 20, the spacecraft landed on the moon and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the lunar soil. America is celebrating the 50th anniversary of that milestone this week.)
CAPE KENNEDY, Fla. — The big clock at this grimly serious moon port ticked off the countdown seconds Monday while over on the raucous, garish beach the sightseers whooped it up like it was county fair time.
Here on the Cape, I walked up close enough to pat the Saturn 5. How big is it? Well, you've seen the Black Building in Fargo. Imagine three and one half of them piled on top of each other.
That's what we're sending skyward Wednesday morning.
You look at the Apollo 11 with awe. Lord, it's big. But somehow it doesn't look big enough or strong enough to send men to the moon.
But the sweaty grease monkeys who put her together tell you it will. And it will.
She sits there, the Apollo 11, rising out of the flat Florida scrub jungle. Because Cape Kennedy is not what you would imagine it is.
It is 88,000 acres of wasteland and there are five causeways crossing the Indian River to get here. And all across that wasteland you see the launch towers and pads of those rockets that went before, like the oil derricks rising out of the western North Dakota slopes.
They take us to the first pad — the one where Alan Shepard rode a Redstone missile down a firing range in a sub-orbital flight. There is a plaque there.
And you see the pad where John Glenn launched to become our first man in orbit. We get to see all the old pads and the old missiles -- from the first Mercury pioneers to the two-man Gemini shots to our present Apollo shots.
You see the Saturn One that first pushed our Apollo moonward. A mere baby. This one. This Saturn 5 is seven times as big.
But if you're a North Dakota boy, you stand and look with wonderment at those old launch pads and those old missiles. You see, too, the pads and missiles that led the way — the 15 unmanned skyrockets that already landed on the moon and sent back vital data.
And then they bring you right up to it — the big one. She sits proud on the pad and shimmering in the oppressive 98 degree heat. And the big clock in the block building three miles away keeps ticking off the seconds.
Apollo 11 is just the second biggest thing here on the Cape. Three miles away is the VAB — the Vehicle Assembly Building.
Sightseers do not get in. We do. It has to be a phony. It can't be real. Mere man cannot construct a building this big. But they have.
Inside, you can put four Empire State Buildings.
This is the building where the Apollo rockets are assembled — "stacked," the technicians call it.
This is where they put it all together. It is 540 feet high and if you can't picture that: without the air conditioning in it, the building would produce its own thunderstorms and its own rain. It's that high.
And do you know what's in there now? Apollo 12 and Apollo 13, that's what.
Can you realize how dedicated — yes, even fanatical — these workers are to get a man on the moon this decade?
If something bad happens Wednesday morning and we can't make that trip to the Moon, then Apollo 12 will go in September. And if Apollo 12 can't make it — they'll get Apollo 13 ready for a launch in December.
A white-shirted NASA man tells me firmly, "we will put a man on the moon in 1969 one way or another."
This is the legacy they have from John Kennedy — a man on the moon "in this decade." These workers are totally committed to it.
They show you the VAB and they tell you it cost $117 million and they show you they electronics marvel of the blockhouse and you marvel.
But then they remind you: You saw the facility for the Shepard and Glenn flights. You saw how small it was when it started.
"We were," the man says, "shooting off of eggcrates."
This, then, is Cape Kennedy — an 88,000 acre palmetto jungle dotted with launch pads, the VAB, two huge office buildings, 600 alligators, eagles, herons and the occasional snake.
On Wednesday, I will watch the shot from about three miles away., as close as anyone. That is for protection from the sound. At three miles, they tell us, "you will feel the sound pounding on your chest.'
The waterway between the Cape and the mainland will be so full of boats you will be able to walk ashore on them.
Across that waterway, the Indian River, the party started Monday.
Thousands upon thousands of people. Blocking all traffic. Setting up tents and parking campers all along the beach. License plates from California and Ohio and Pennsylvania and Alaska and Canada.
Here along the beach are the towns of Titusville and Cocoa and Satellite Beach and Indialantic and Pineda — boomtowns that two blocks wide and 10 miles long and filled with hamburger joints and loan sharks and motels and saloons.
There are more than 40 nightclubs that range from lively, noisy, discotheques to quiet lounges.
And there are topless go-go clubs where the girls — from my very casual observation — generate enough steam to launch their own rockets.
And then there is Cocoa Beach — a strip of Sin City where the NASA crowd hangs out and so do the camp followers.
How would you like to go with a friend to a club in Fargo, order a bottle of beer and a straight ginger ale and get tapped three bucks? It happens here.
Most rooms are going for from $35 to $40 a day with a three-day minimum that means a guy who comes in for one night, just for the moon shot, has to pay for three nights whether he stays there or not.
The Palms East, a place over in the small town of Cape Canaveral, is charging $100 a day for a single unit.
If you have a car and are a tourist, you'll pay $2 an hour for a parking place 12 miles away just to watch the shot.
Property owners along the beach have tried to burn the string palmetto trees that line the beach so they can get more people in there and charge them for standing room only.
Souvenirs, which are sold everywhere, go for from 50 cents for a car sticker testifying that you were here to $8 for color pictures of the shot.
"You could see it better on television," I told a guy from Ohio who staked out 10 feet of beach with a tent.
"But then I couldn't say I was here," he said.
And that is the lure. Americans —they say a million of them — are pouring in to see THEIR Saturn 5 lift THEIR capsule to the Moon.
NASA is going crazy trying to accommodate them. Anybody can take tours of Kennedy Space Center and get within 100 feet of Apollo 11 and take pictures to their heart's content.
Just being here is the bag. That's the proudness of it.
And the local newspaper has the biggest gimmick of all. If you give or send them a one dollar, they'll print your name testifying you were at the moon shot.
If even 200,000 people give that newspaper a dollar, it will do just fine. And they'll be able to see their name, if they can find it among the other 199,999.
The mood among the tourists is circus-like. The mood among the NASA workers is tense, deadly tense.
A young man who is staying at the same place I am quit a high-paying science teaching job in Nebraska to work in the missile programs here. He's been here for five years but is actually just a flunky.
He explains it this way: "When you've worked on one rocket and seen it go, well, you just have to do it again."
He has a wife and a couple of kids who refuse to leave Nebraska. "They just don't understand about the Cape and the program," he said.
He sips on a beer and is concerned. He knows that everything will go fine Wednesday morning -- but he crosses himself when he says it.
Meanwhile, over at ABC liquor store on Cocoa Beach, they report selling 150 cases a day.
Every saloon in town is holding "pre-launch parties" which means simply that they will be open all night. And on Wednesday night, naturally, there will be "launch day parties."
Only mad dogs and newspapermen and tourists go outside during the day. The heat singles your eyelashes as soon as you step out. It is heavy, tugging at your lungs and turning your clothing into sopping wet dishrags.
Big news Monday was a cocktail party thrown by Walter Cronkite of CBS for a couple hundred very, very, very important people.
Cronkite, who is worshipped here as a reporter who really knows about space stuff, proved how great he was by commenting, "the Moonshot boggles the mind."
He also compared Wednesday's launch with the voyage of Columbus which while not too original, got a very big hand from the very, very, very important people.
But I'll tell you something. This has got to be a moment of America's highest pride.
These hundreds of thousands of people who are camping out on the beaches are not really here for the fun and games. They are here to see, in person, man's greatest moment.
And today black leader Ralph Abernathy will come into town with about 250 of his poor people and two mules to emphasize the fact that there are still poor people right here in this moon port.
You can scorn this Moon effort by telling me that it cost $25 billion to get a man on the Moon and he is going to bring back about 50 pounds of Moon rock and that figures out to be $500 million a pound — higher than a T-bone.
But sitting here at the Cape, I firmly believe that in the history of man, it is our destiny to set foot on another heavenly body right now.
The time is now.