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50 years later, trip to Apollo 13 launch conjures vivid memories

4/6/2020

Debra Levey Larson

Mark Lawson when he was an undergrad in 1970
Mark Lawson when he was an undergrad in 1970
“T minus 7 seconds: Ignition. A flash of light and some smoke come from under the Saturn V.  It is quiet except the 200 camera shutter clicks combine to sound like walking through piles of fallen leaves.” Mark Lawson, BS ‘72

 

In April 1970, Mark Lawson was a sophomore and James Wronkiewicz was a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was the Apollo decade and both were students in the Department of Aerospace Engineering (then called the Dept. of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering) who took a chartered flight to Florida to witness the launch of Apollo 13.

James Wronkiewicz in 1970
James Wronkiewicz in 1970
 Wronkiewicz was the president of the student chapter of American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the time. His proposal to the group that they travel to a Saturn V launch was an easy sell. He quickly had a committee of half a dozen students working on the trip April trip to Melbourne, Florida.

Although in the 70s, it was common for students to pile into cars for long road trips, one student on the committee learned that U of I had been given a retired United Airlines DC-6B. It was used to transport U of I athletic teams. They were able to charter the flight to Melbourne for just $69 per person.

About the DC-6B, Wronkiewicz said, "It was refitted with 64 'first-class' seats, four across opposed to the normal coach seating five across. This plane entered service in 1956 as the 'Mainliner Sacramento,' United retired it in 1968. DC-6’s were the most economical of the piston airliners, one of the last piston airliners until the new 727’s forced retirement of these still young airliners."

Lodging for the trip was arranged in the visiting team dorm rooms at the Florida Institute of Technology at no cost.

According to Wronkiewicz, one student contacted a congressman from the St. Louis area who was able to secure VIP passes for everyone to the launch, with additional passes for the three flight crew and two cabin attendants. Members of AIAA got first dibs on seats, then their friends. Wronkiewicz brought his girlfriend, Rita, who eventually became his wife.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 launch and that AIAA trip, he compiled his photos and memories of the trip and posted it as a video on Youtube. 

Students and chaperones with AIAA-chartered DC-6B for flight to Apollo 13 launch in 1970
Students and chaperones with AIAA-chartered DC-6B for flight to Apollo 13 launch in 1970
With the launch scheduled for Saturday, April 11, the DC-6B left Champaign at dawn on Thursday, April 9.

Lawson recalled the political turbulence of his years on campus, leading up to the trip.

“Multiple protests were happening daily, several classmates had been drafted into the military or signed up to serve in the military. Unemployment was high and the stock market low. A trip to ‘geek out’ in Florida was a welcome relief from the turmoil,” Lawson said.

As a die-hard aero engineer, Lawson remembers some of the flight details on the DC-6B.

“This plane does not have the smoothness of a B-777 or A320 that we fly today. It has four, 2500 horsepower prop engines that must be warmed up by revving them up to the upper range of their specs. It is spectacularly loud. We were thankful when the plane rose from the ground and that the two-inch thick carpet was absorbing some of the noise.”

Before launch day, the group took tours of the campus tours of the Florida Institute of Technology and the Kennedy Space Center in between “tackling their massive homework load.”

On Saturday, they were bused to a VIP viewing area, about two miles from the launch towers where they gathered with a couple of hundred photographers and 600 to 700 other VIPs.

Lawson’s countdown memories remain particularly vivid.

“T minus 7 seconds: Ignition. A flash of light and some smoke come from under the Saturn V.  It is quiet except the 200 camera shutter clicks combine to sound like walking through piles of fallen leaves.

T minus 5 seconds: As the cloud builds up around the base of the launch tower, we feel the earth start to tremble. Cameras continue to click.

T minus 0: The rocket finally starts to move against the background of the tower. Cameras still clicking.

T plus 3 seconds: A blast of sound builds up quickly to what must certainly be the loudest sound I have ever heard in my life. The VU meter on my cassette recorder is pinned in the red.  If the cameras are clicking, you can’t hear them.

T plus 10 seconds: The rocket reaches and clears the top of the launch tower.

T plus 25 seconds: The rocket noise subsides and there is a great cheer from the VIP stands.

T plus 90 seconds: The white dot of light that is the rocket is barely visible in the southern sky.  Our jaws remain open for an additional 90 seconds.”

Lawson received his BS in 1972 from Illinois. In 1974, he earned an MBA at Illinois and married U of I psychology student Paula Nuger. He also went back to school and in 1989 received an MS from Northwestern University in education and social policy.

Wronkiewicz went on to receive his BS in 1971 in aero/astro and an MS in 1972 from Illinois in mechanical engineering.