Air Force One, President Kennedy’s sleek four-engine jet, touched down gracefully on the Cape Canaveral runway known as the “skid strip,” and rolled gently to a halt. There, a large turnout of excited space workers and media types eagerly awaited his appearance.
As a young newspaper reporter, I felt fortunate to be among the greeters on that memorable day, Nov. 16, 1963 – nearly five decades ago.
A mobile stairway was moved into position, and the fuselage door slowly swung open. President John F. Kennedy, the youngest president ever to serve in that high office, emerged and the hushed crowd burst into thunderous applause.
Smiling broadly in appreciation for the warm reception, the president waved as the Air Force band struck up “Hail to the Chief” and “Ruffles and Flourishes.” Looking tan and trim, the president was greeted by NASA Administrator James Webb and General Leighton I. Davis, Commander of the Air Force Eastern Test Range.
This was President Kennedy’s third visit to Cape Canaveral, but for the first time he would actually witness a launch. A decorated World War II Navy Officer and legendary commander of PT Boat 109, Kennedy had expressed a strong interest in viewing a Polaris Missile that was to be fired from a submerged nuclear submarine, the USS Andrew Jackson, out at sea, 30 nautical miles from the Cape.
An experienced sailor who loved the sea, the president was looking forward to joining his Navy buddies for the critical test of the Polaris Missile. But this main event was scheduled as the finale of his tour, and the president and his entourage were running behind schedule – 15 minutes to be exact.
After a few brief introductions and exchange of pleasantries, the president climbed into his limousine and sped off to Complex 37, the planned launch site for the Gemini missions. I scrambled aboard one of several waiting buses furnished to the press corps and we followed the president’s limo in hot pursuit.
As we traveled along “missile row,” hundreds of aerospace contractor employees stood alongside the road waving hand-made signs saying, “Welcome, Mr. President.” It was a festive occasion, more than just an official presidential visit.
Then a surprise happened. The president made an unscheduled stop to shake hands with a group of exuberant space workers. The Secret Service agents accompanying the president were obviously apprehensive, but they needn’t have been. This was not Dallas.
Arriving at Complex 37, the president was greeted by astronauts Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper, both slated to pilot the two-manned Gemini flights that were not scheduled to take place for at least another year. Grissom later lost his life in a tragic fire while training in the Apollo spacecraft that also killed astronauts Roger Chaffee and Ed White. The accident would occur on this same launch pad on which we were standing.
In the chaos of milling reporters and photographers, I attempted to get as close as possible to the president conversing with the astronauts. I pushed, squeezed and shoved my way to the front so that I finally was able to get near enough to snap a few pictures and catch several quotes for my story that I was to file later by telephone from the press site.
Only a few hundred feet away was the “block house” where mission control was located. There to greet the president was George Mueller, NASA’s Space Flight Chief, charged with the onerous task of guiding the spacecraft and two astronauts to a safe landing on the lunar surface while a third astronaut circled the moon.
Using scale models, Mueller demonstrated how the lander was to separate from the lunar orbiter and touch down on a designated spot on the lunar surface known later as the Sea of Tranquility. With the briefing concluded, the president departed the blockhouse accompanied by Wernher Von Braun, the famous German rocket scientist, who was instrumental in designing the Apollo Saturn Rocket with the 8 million pounds of thrust necessary to take the astronauts to the moon and return safely to Earth.
Ironically, these two men were on opposite sides during World War II, but now were on the same team – partners in a historic space venture. I captured a photo of the two men together engaged in friendly, animated conversation.
I watched with a strange feeling of sadness as the president bid farewell and hopped aboard his helicopter for the final leg of his tour – the launch of the Polaris missile.
Six days later, I was at my desk in the Orlando Sentinel-Star editorial office typing a story for the morning edition when The Associated Press newswire teletype machine began ringing frantically. That indicated an important bulletin was about to be sent.
I ran over to the machine and it had already printed one short line: “Dallas, Tex (AP) President Kennedy was shot.” The time was 12:30 p.m. The date: Nov. 22, 1963.
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Walt Mack graduated from Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and received his master’s degree from Florida Institute of Technology. He and his wife, Cathy, have two daughters and live in Chapel Hill.