(This column originally appeared in the July 16, 1969 edition of The Forum. 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. — For 50 miles, all up and down the beach, they are squatting in tents and cars and lean-to's and some are just standing.
They come from Hawaii and Alaska and Ohio and all the other states and they have been here since Monday — suffering in the heat and eating hamburgers and "the letting the kids go to the bathroom in the water."
Who are they — and what in the world motivates them to drive here from places like California?
It is not just to see the shot. They can see the launch much better on their TV sets at home.
I walked the beaches Tuesday and I talked to them.
What it is is just being here. They sit on the water's edge and their eyes are always looking across to where Apollo 11 sits — 12 miles away in some cases, depending on how far up the beach you go.
A man from New Jersey has enough to buy and sell you and me. But he can't get into my $3 a day room because I got it.
He drives all the way down here, takes his chances like everybody else and he explains, "See it on TV? No. You have to be here to feel it."
An unemployed carpenter from Arkansas has an umbrella tent. There are holes in it and he and his wife are living in it. He borrowed $100 from a loan shark to make this trip.
He looks over at his young boys frolicking on the beach and says, "OK, so there won't be Christmas presents. This trip is our Christmas present."
A couple from Indiana, young, not much money, are paying $2 a night for a parking place on the beach. They sleep in their car.
"Why are you here?" I asked them.
She is blond and her slacks and blouse are wrinkled from sleeping in the car and she appears puzzled by the question. She answers, "Because this is where it is."
He looks to be about 23 and his eyes gleam. He says, "We're goin', man. We're goin' to the moon."
WE'RE going. This is how they feel. This is their rocket. The man even admits that he will have to skip paying the light bill for months when he gets home.
I sat for two hours with five of them — one a man who is with me and who works at the Cape, two from North Carolina, one from Ohio and one from Texas.
They ask my friend from the Cape a thousand questions: Can you use the pads over and over? Yes. But in the Apollo 10 blast-off, a brick firewall came loose and the backfire from the rocket fired bricks like bullets over a 2-mile area. A traffic sign was found with a hole right through it, but it was unbent. That should show you how fast the brick was traveling.
They hang on to his every word. They want to know all the small, intimate details about missiles and the men who will ride it. My friend is not intimate with the men. But he is with the missiles. He has seen them all.
He works for Boeing which builds one of the stages. He tells you that there are about 23,000 employed at the Cape — but that when this shot is over, 5,000 will be laid off.
We are sitting on the fans and some other people come over to joins us and the talk turns philosophical.
"Why do we go?" asks a man from Denver.
A kid with long hair who looks about 18 answers him, "Why are you here?"
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If Americans didn't go, the kid says, we would all still be sitting behind the Allegheny Mountains. The kid looks across the water to Apollo 11, "Man, we just got to go."
Our group has swelled to about 15 people now and there is one red-faced man from Alabama who is here to see blood. It is obvious. He keeps wondering what will happen if the rocket blows up on the pad, or if we can't get our people back from the moon and he drools when he talks about it.
He says, "I was at the Indianapolis 500 this year. Bad race. Nobody got hurt."
He is here for the lions against the Christians.
A frail, sickly-looking girl from Arkansas looks at you when you ask a question, and she says, "I guess I don't have nothin'. I've got two kids and one of them died and the other one is ..."
She points to a young boy who is playing near the water. His head is enlarged. He is obviously retarded.
"No," she says, "I don't have nothin' except America. We're goin' to the moon and I'm goin' along."
If she can't share in life's happiness, she can, by God, share in America's triumphs.
Our group talks of the wonders of space and an aging man with gray hair, says, "There isn't anything we can't do if we announce a goal. I mean technically. When we announce that we will put a man on the moon in this decade, we do it."
He paused and said, "Why can't we solve human problems the same way? Why can't we announce a goal of eliminating all hunger in this country and then do it?'
A very old man who came in from North Carolina raises his voice.
"It's wrong," he says in a quivering voice. He actually does not believe that Apollo 10 went to the moon. He thinks it just went up into the sky out of sight and then they came back and told everybody that they were close to the moon.
He says that and it gets very quiet because he's an old man and nobody wants to embarrass him.
The old man continues, "Yes, it is wrong. Because the Bible says that God created earth and heaven. And the earth is here, not anywhere else. The sky is here, not anywhere else."
Everybody sits there with downcast eyes as the old man raises his right hand and points a gnarled finger across the water at Apollo 11.
"That machine is wrong. This is our earth and this is our sky. God has said."
It is quiet for a moment and the pale, sickly-looking girl from Arkansas says softly:
"Sir, your God isn't big enough."