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NASA’s ‘Voice of Launch Control’

Oct. 16, 2020
by Mark Ollig

His voice will be remembered by many of us who followed the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo NASA missions.

I am speaking of Jack King, NASA’s launch control public commentator from 1965 to 1971.

His voice described the events taking place during the final minutes leading up to a rocket launch.

I mostly remember King for his balanced and calm narration during the televised launch of Apollo 11.

The Apollo 11 Saturn V (pronounced “Saturn five”) rocket would, for the first time, take humans to the surface of a celestial body outside the Earth’s atmosphere, specifically, the moon.

The Saturn V rocket was an incredible sight, standing 363 feet high, about the height of a 36-story-tall building.

By comparison, the Statue of Liberty, including its pedestal and foundation, stands 305 feet tall.

The Saturn V rocket weighed 6.2 million pounds at liftoff.

By comparison, a NASA space shuttle’s gross liftoff weight was 4.5 million pounds.

The Saturn V engines produced 7.6 million pounds of thrust (the forward or upward force), which, according to NASA, would be equivalent to the power of 85 Hoover Dams, or the combined horsepower of 543 jet fighter planes.

Watching on television, a Saturn V liftoff was a magnificent sight.

I can only imagine what it would have been like to witness a Saturn V rocket launch in person.

Let’s revisit the early morning of Wednesday, July 16, 1969.

Huddled in front of our television sets, we eagerly listened to Jack King’s confident and reassuring voice during the final minutes before Apollo 11’s liftoff from Launch Pad 39A in Florida.

Television cameras zoomed in on the mighty Saturn V rocket.

King informed us, “T minus three minutes and counting . . . T minus three; we are go with all elements of the mission at this time. We’re on an automatic sequence as the master computer supervises hundreds of events occurring over these last few minutes.”

At two minutes, five seconds before liftoff, King announced, “The target for the Apollo 11 astronauts, the moon, at liftoff will be at a distance of 218,096 miles away.”

As a youngster, I recall feeling excited and a bit nervous while listening to King’s description of the events taking place during the countdown.

It was now less than two minutes until liftoff.

The television screen switched between the Saturn V rocket on the launchpad to the busy flight controllers at their console positions inside the Mission Control room in Houston, TX.

“We’ve just passed the two-minute mark in the countdown. T minus one minute, fifty-four seconds and counting. Our status board indicates that the oxidizer tanks in the second and third stages now have pressurized,” King confirmed.

I briefly looked away from the television to glance out the living room window.

In the sky, I could see a very faint moon in the distance and felt the wonderment of the moment. “The rocket on TV with three people in it are going there,” I thought, while gazing at the moon.

“T minus 60 seconds and counting. Neil Armstrong just reported back that it’s been a real smooth countdown,” King said.

At approximately 46 seconds before launch, King relayed with confidence, “Power transfer is complete. We’re on internal power with the launch vehicle at this time.”

“Thirty-five seconds and counting, we are still go with Apollo 11,” King continued.

The following still gives me chills whenever I re-watch the launch of Apollo 11 and hear Jack King say, “T minus 15 seconds . . . guidance is internal. Twelve, 11, 10, nine . . . ignition sequence start . . . six, five, four, three, two, one, zero [huge red flames now begin billowing out of the rocket’s engines as a loud roar is heard] . . . all engines running. Liftoff! We have a liftoff! Thirty-two minutes past the hour ... liftoff on Apollo 11!”

Apollo 11 rose from the launchpad at 8:32 a.m. Central Standard Time July 16, 1969.

The Saturn V rocket slowly and majestically begins its ascent into the blue Florida sky, clearing the launch tower while carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins into history.

You can hear King describe the last 30 seconds before Apollo 11 thundered into the sky on the NASA website at https://go.nasa.gov/33WuGKZ.

John W. (Jack) King, the composed, confident, and reassuring “voice of launch control,” passed away June 11, 2015, at age 84.

Stay safe out there.


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