‘The Fires of Their Ascent’

An excerpt from Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer’s seminal 1969 account of Apollo 11

The Saturn V Rocket begins to launch, leaving behind it a trail of fire and clouds of smoke.
Ralph Morse / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series reflecting on the Apollo 11 mission, 50 years later.

In 1969 and 1970, Norman Mailer published his reflections on the moon landing as a series in Life magazine. Where most coverage of the time bowed before the force of history, Mailer rebelled with crude, melancholy, and visceral language. Below, his account of watching the Apollo 11 mission blast off.

The voice of the public affairs officer came out of the loudspeaker mounted on a speaker’s platform on the grass in front of the grandstand.

This is Apollo-Saturn Launch Control. T minus 61 minutes and counting—T minus 61 minutes on the Apollo 11 countdown, and all elements are GO at this time. Astronaut Neil Armstrong has just completed a series of checks on that big Service Propulsion System engine that sits below him in the stack. We want to assure ourselves before lift-off that that engine can respond to commands from inside the spacecraft. As Neil Armstrong moved his rotational hand controller we assured ourselves that the engine did respond by swiveling or gimbaling.

This article is adapted from Mailer’s 1969 book.

The voice was clear only if one forced oneself to listen to it. He tried to picture the scene in the Launch Control Center with hundreds of men scanning hundreds of consoles and computers, but there was not a real interest. He found himself going for a walk along the grass. Between the grandstand and the lagoon was a field about the size of a Little League baseball park and the photographers had all set themselves up at the edge of the water, their cameras with telephoto lenses set on tripods so that they looked from behind like a whole command of Army surveyors taking a lesson in their instrument. And the object on which they were focused, Apollo-Saturn, looked gray and indistinct across the air waves of heat shimmering off the lagoon.

. . . all is still GO as we monitor our status for it. Two minutes 10 seconds and counting. The target for the Apollo 11 astronauts, the moon. At lift-off we’ll be at a distance of 218,096 miles away. Just passed the two-minute mark in the countdown. T minus 1 minute 54 seconds and counting. Our status board indicates that the oxidizer tanks in the second and third stages now have pressurized. We continue to build up pressure in all three stages here at the last minute to prepare for lift-off. T minus 1 minute 35 seconds on the Apollo mission, the flight that will land the first man on the moon. All indications coming in to the Control Center at this time indicate we are GO. One minute 25 seconds and counting. Our status board indicates the third stage completely pressurized. Eighty-second mark has now been passed. We’ll go on full internal power at the 50-second mark in the countdown. Guidance system goes on internal at 17 seconds leading up to the ignition sequence at 8.9 seconds. We’re approaching the sixty-second mark on the Apollo 11 mission. T minus 60 seconds and counting. We have passed T minus 60. Fifty-five seconds and counting. Neil Armstrong just reported back, “It’s been a real smooth countdown.” We have passed the 50-second mark. Forty seconds away from the Apollo 11 lift-off. All the second-stage tanks now pressurized. Thirty-five seconds and counting. We are still GO with Apollo 11. Thirty seconds and counting. Astronauts reported, “Feels good.” T minus 25 seconds. Twenty seconds and counting. T minus 15 seconds, guidance is internal, 12, 11, 10, 9, ignition sequence start, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, zero, all engines running, LIFT-OFF. We have a lift-off, 32 minutes past the hour. Lift-off on Apollo 11.

But nobody watching the launch from the Press Site ever listened to the last few words. For at 8.9 seconds before lift-off, the motors of Apollo-Saturn leaped into ignition, and two horns of orange fire burst like genies from the base of the rocket. Aquarius never had to worry again about whether the experience would be appropriate to his measure. Because of the distance, no one at the Press Site was to hear the sound of the motors until 15 seconds after they had started. Although the rocket was restrained on its pad for nine seconds in order for the motors to multiply up to full thrust, the result was still that the rocket began to rise a full six seconds before its motors could be heard. Therefore the lift-off itself seemed to partake more of a miracle than a mechanical phenomenon, as if all of huge Saturn itself had begun silently to levitate, and was then pursued by flames.

No, it was more dramatic than that. For the flames were enormous. No one could be prepared for that. Flames flew in cataract against the cusp of the flame shield, and then sluiced along the paved ground down two opposite channels in the concrete, two underground rivers of flame which poured into the air on either side a hundred feet away, then flew a hundred feet further. Two mighty torches of flame like the wings of a yellow bird of fire flew over a field, covered a field with brilliant yellow bloomings of flame, and in the midst of it, white as a ghost, white as the white of Melville’s Moby Dick, white as the shrine of the Madonna in half the churches of the world, this slim angelic mysterious ship of stages rose without sound out of its incarnation of flame and began to ascend slowly into the sky, slow as Melville’s Leviathan might swim, slowly as we might swim upward in a dream looking for the air. And still no sound.

Then it came, like a crackling of wood twigs over the ridge, came with the sharp and furious bark of a million drops of oil crackling suddenly into combustion, a cacophony of barks louder and louder as Apollo-Saturn 15 seconds ahead of its own sound cleared the lift tower to a cheer which could have been a cry of anguish from that near-audience watching; then came the earsplitting bark of a thousand machine guns firing at once, and Aquarius shook through his feet at the fury of this combat assault, and heard the thunderous murmur of Niagaras of flame roaring conceivably louder than the loudest thunders he had ever heard and the earth began to shake and would not stop, it quivered through his feet standing on the wood of the bleachers, an apocalyptic fury of sound equal to some conception of the sound of your death in the roar of a drowning hour, a nightmare of sound, and he heard himself saying, “Oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God!” and the sound of the rocket beat with the true blood of fear in his ears, hot in all the intimacy of a forming of heat, as if one’s ear were in the caldron of a vast burning of air, heavens of oxygen being born and consumed in this ascension of the rocket, and a poor moment of vertigo at the thought that man now had something with which to speak to God—the fire was white as a torch and long as the rocket itself, a tail of fire, a face, yes now the rocket looked like a thin and pointed witch’s hat, and the flames from its base were the blazing eyes of the witch. Forked like saw teeth was the base of the flame which quivered through the lens of the binoculars. Upward. As the rocket keened over and went up and out to sea, one could no longer watch its stage, only the flame from its base. Now it seemed to rise like a ball of fire, like a new sun mounting the sky, a flame elevating itself.

Many thousands of feet up it went through haze and the fire feathered the haze in a long trailing caress, intimate as the wake which follows the path of a fingerling in inches of water. Trailings of cloud parted like lips. Then a heavier cloud was punched through with sudden cruelty. Then two long spumes of wake, like two large fish following our first fish—one’s heart took little falls at the changes. “Ahhh,” the crowd went, “Ahhh,” as at the most beautiful of fireworks, for the sky was alive, one instant a pond and at the next a womb of new turns: “Ahhh,” went the crowd, “Ahhh!”

Now, through the public address system, came the sound of Armstrong talking to Launch Control. He was quieter than anyone else. “Inboard cutoff ” he said with calm in his voice.

Far in the distance, almost out of sight, like an all-but-transparent fish suddenly breaking into head and tail, the first stage at the rear of the rocket fell off from the rest, fell off and was now like a man, like a sky diver suddenly small. A new burst of motors started up, some far-off glimpse of newborn fires which looked pale as streams of water, pale were the flames in the far distance. Then the abandoned empty stage of the booster began to fall away, a relay runner, baton just passed, who slips back, slips back. Then it began to tumble, but with the slow tender dignity of a thin slice of soap slicing and wavering, dipping and gliding on its way to the floor of the tub. Then mighty Saturn of the first stage, empty, fuel-voided, burned out, gave a puff, a whiff and was lost to sight behind a cloud. And the rocket with Apollo 11 and the last two stages of Saturn V was finally out of sight and on its way to an orbit about the earth. Like the others he stayed and listened to the voices of the astronauts and the Capcom through the P.A. system.

PUBLIC AFFAIRS OFFICER: At 3 minutes, downrange 70 miles, 43 miles high, velocity 9,300 feet per second.

ARMSTRONG: We’ve got skirts up.
CAPSULE COMMUNICATOR: Roger, we confirm, Skirts up.
ARMSTRONG: Tower is gone.
CAPCOM: Roger, tower.
PAO: Neil Armstrong confirming separation and the launch escape tower separation.
ARMSTRONG: Houston be advised the visual is GO today.

In the late edition, Aquarius read that the Reverend Abernathy together with a few poor families had watched the launching from the VIP area, after making a request of Dr. Thomas O. Paine, Administrator of NASA, for special badges. “If it were possible for us not to push the button tomorrow and solve the problems with which you are concerned, we would not push the button,” Dr. Paine said.

Answered the Reverend Abernathy after the launch, “This is really holy ground. And it will be more holy once we feed the hungry, care for the sick, and provide for those who do not have houses.”

Aquarius thought more than once of how powerful the vision of Apollo-Saturn must have been for the leader of the Poor People’s Crusade. Doubtless he too had discovered that his feet were forced to shake. However, Aquarius was not yet ready to call this hallowed ground. For all he knew, Apollo-Saturn was still a child of the Devil. Yet if it was, then all philosophers flaming in orbit, the Devil was beautiful indeed. Or rather, was the Devil so beautiful because all of them, Johnsons, Goldwaters, Paines, Abernathys, press grubs and grubby Aquarius, were nothing but devils themselves. For the notion that man voyaged out to fulfill the desire of God was either the heart of the vision, or anathema to that true angel in Heaven they would violate by the fires of their ascent. A ship of flames was on its way to the moon.

This article has been adapted from Mailer’s 1969 book, Of a Fire on the Moon.