Space History Has Roots in One Florida County
They were rocket scientists with families, young women brought in to teach at new schools, cocktail-quaffing friends of astronauts and engineers who worked through the night.
They came and built the Space Coast in the late 1950s and 1960s with one goal, "before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth," as President John F. Kennedy told Congress in 1961.
Forty years have gone by since Apollo 11 fulfilled that mission in July 1969, and some still say it was the pinnacle of their lives.
"I think the whole country was hungry for success in the American space program," said Al Guthrie of Melbourne, who came to Brevard County in 1960 as a budget and schedule expert for NASA. "I think all the interest and desires and motivations in those days was: Let's catch up with and beat the Russians."
That dedication meant working long hours, said Bob Sieck, former launch director at Kennedy Space Center and an engineer during the Mercury and Apollo programs.
He lived with his wife, Nancy, and son and daughter in Titusville.
"It was tough on the families and home life," Sieck said of the workload. "If you had the right balance between work and family, many were able to deal with that, but a lot of them weren't."
To blow off steam, he stuck close to home, tinkering with his beloved 1954 MG. That way, his kids knew where to find him when he wasn't doing 12-hour shifts at the space center.
"There's no question work prevailed," Sieck said. "The phone rang around the clock, and you had to have a family that could accept it."
Frank Sullivan worked in the family citrus business after returning from a stint in the Army in 1960.
"It was really an exciting time, especially an exciting time to be single in Brevard County," he said. " . . . The original seven astronauts were running around in their Corvettes, and you could run into them at different restaurants and bars. Walter Cronkite was in and out of places; you'd see him once in a while."
From 1960 to 1970, Brevard County had the fastest population growth of any Florida county: 106 percent.
"They were proclaiming Titusville as the Miracle City," Socks said.
Bob Bryce opened a Buick dealership in Titusville and, upon request, began lending cars to astronauts' wives during missions. "They all appreciated that, so my wife and I got very friendly with most of the astronauts," he said. He and Virginia have boxes of souvenirs and signed photos to prove it.
It was a gorgeous hot summer morning in Titusville the day of July 16, 1969.
Visitors camped and parked anywhere they could find a space. VIPs rolled into Kennedy Space Center. Everywhere, traffic piled up.
"When we had the Apollo 11 flight, you couldn't rent a car from here to Atlanta," Bob Bryce said. "Every bus, every car was gone, because we had the biggest crowd for the Apollo 11 launches you'd ever want to see."
Sieck, the former KSC launch director, was used to seeing launches on a tiny black-and-white TV inside the firing room, but he lucked out for Apollo 11. He didn't have to work.
So he and his wife loaded up the car with the baby girl - their son went with neighbors to the Cape - and drove from their house in Titusville toward the river. They quickly encountered gridlock and had to park and walk.
"There was traffic in all four lanes stopped, (but) people weren't honking their horns and trying to get through," Sieck said. "They were sitting on their hoods on top of the car.
The crowd was captured in a famous helicopter shot showing shoulder-to-shoulder spectators, many of whom had traveled through the night to arrive in time for the 9:32 a.m. launch.
"As the countdown proceeded and they got down to the last 25, 30 seconds, it was complete silence."
When the countdown got down to 10, Socks said, the crowd began chanting along "'10, 9, 8 - and then you would hear this, see this incredible ball of fire, and the rocket would come out of that misty, cloudy smoke, and off it went."
In Titusville, "people were cheering, clapping, honking the horns," Sieck said. "It was an emotional moment for me . . . the rocket scientist, as well as all these people. . . That was the first time I had seen a human launch from outside in a crowd."
Gayle Kennedy of Cocoa, who made demineralized water for the astronauts heading to the moon, was excited to be part of it. That's the way everyone felt; they were part of history.
"It was a once in a lifetime," he said. "It will never happen again."