It’s a story of nostalgia and whimsy, of paying respect to a previous generation while teaching the importance of family to the next. It’s a yarn enabled by the power and reach of modern technology, of Kickstarter, of Twitter, of Google and Zipcar. It’s the tale of how America has changed from lithe, optimistic superpower to weary, paranoid Goliath, suspicious, litigious and entirely inflexible. It’s the story of a rocket launch, a car park in upstate New York, a graphic designer and his ragtag crew of collaborators. It’s the story of how typography can be the death of a project.
But let’s begin at the beginning, back in October 2012, when the Saturn V Relaunch Kickstarter campaign started to ricochet around the digital transom. It was a photography, design and video project from Paul Sahre, a New York-based graphic designer. He had written a short but beautiful essay about a memory from the early 1970s. That’s when his father, an aerospace engineer, had lovingly and achingly slowly built a Saturn V model rocket. He’d taken the family, including then eight-year-old Paul, to a field to launch it. They’d all watched with bated breath, and then put their hands over their eyes and ears when said rocket’s parachute didn’t deploy and the intricate model crash-landed horribly.
Sahre’s father died in 2009, and while going through his effects, Paul had come across that original rocket launcher. He decided to try and restage the event, to have a shot at redemption on behalf of his dad, and in the process introduce his two young sons to the grandfather they’d never known. An added bonus, he wrote, he could pay “tribute to the days before NASA cutbacks when every kid wanted to be an astronaut in order to explore the unknown, if only in our own backyards”. It was nostalgic, sentimental, beautiful, all wrapped up in some gorgeous-looking graphic design. As one of the project backers, Kio Stark, wrote, “I cannot even express in words how much I love this idea, and I am a writer.” Tom, another backer, added, “I feel like I’m watching a Wes Anderson film.” I pledged $75 and was pleased when the project earned a grand total of $19,753. After all, how often do designers get to be their own client?
Time passed. A poster arrived, with the slogan ‘Try Try Again’ printed in beautiful type. “I will frame this,” I thought. A Saturn V Relaunch patch also arrived. “I will continue to not know what to do with this,” my brain added.
More time passed, and then the Saturn V Relaunch-related chatter started up again. Pictures of the rocket were circulating. “I’m envisioning a Nascar type situation, with the rocket covered with names,” Sahre had written in his original description. There was my name, along with many others, in vertical type glory. It felt personal, strangely affecting, and boy did it look cool.
And then there was a launch date. And then I got this nagging feeling that I should go along and watch. There was no earthly reason to do so, of course. This was clearly a deeply personal project that was absolutely unrelated to me.
But it was also a Kickstarter project. And I was a contributor! Maybe I should go? My friend Maggie decided to humour me and shut me up all at once. “We’ll go,” she said firmly. “It’ll be an adventure.” So we went. We booked a Zipcar, we got coffee, we started driving, with Google Maps as our guide. And as we approached Binghamton, a dull town in upstate New York made grimmer by the grey clouds and clearly impending rain, it began to sink in that we had no earthly idea what we were doing.
For one thing, neither of us actually knew Paul Sahre. He was words on a computer screen. He was updates on a Kickstarter-related blog. On that particular day, he was a series of Google map coordinates and a couple of harried-sounding tweets. And right as we pulled into Binghamton, he was clearly not checking Twitter, our only means of communication. Was the launch happening? No idea. Was the site really a deserted car park in an 2 3 industrial park next to a truck wash and a company called Southern Tier Plastics? Unclear. We checked Twitter again. Nothing.
So we drove around depressing Binghamton and felt simultaneously stupid and slightly giddy. Then, not knowing quite what else to do, we headed back to the deserted car park. Only now it wasn’t deserted. I think I punched the roof of the Zipcar in excitement. Maggie and I both laughed a bit hysterically. People were marching purposefully about. I recognised Paul from his Kickstarter photo and said hello. “Hello!” he answered cheerfully. “We’ve already had a run-in with the law! Do you want to see the rocket?” We admired the rocket and tried to stay out of the way. People were attempting to paint ‘Try Try Again’ in a circle on the tarmac. The paper stencil kept blowing away, and it was clearly difficult to keep the type aligned. It was charmingly inept. Photographer Michael Northrup tested his home-made aerial camera, which whirred and buzzed overhead. Paul dashed about. Cars pulled up. Family arrived. I chatted with the designer James Victore, who was there with his son. A security guard approached, then retreated. And then things got really real.
When the first police car pulled into the carpark, a low ripple of “ohhhh” washed through the assembled crowd of, by now, about 40 people. When the second one arrived, it became clear that things had taken a turn. Nonetheless, none of us really thought that they wouldn’t let Paul set off his rocket. It was a toy rocket, for heaven’s sakes! But then we saw what they saw; a group of misfits who’ve turned up on private property, defaced it with paint (albeit a wash-clean variety) and buzzed the sky with a drone-like object. We are apparently hellbent on setting off a rocket. In America. In 2013. Forget the two small boys running around clutching their toys. Ignore the record player, all set up to belt out the William Tell overture. This is some weird anarchic shit happening right here, and the troopers are not having a bar of it.
Paul was the last person to realise that things were not going to go his way, and he wasn’t going down without a fight. He dragged the rocket into the almost-finished type circle anyway. The trooper looked a bit cross, then told him, “You have two options: getting arrested and not setting off the rocket, or not getting arrested and not setting off the rocket. But you’re not setting off the rocket.” This was admittedly a pretty good line, and we took a collective breath and watched, spellbound, to see what would happen next. Then Paul’s wife Emily stepped into the type circle and broke the spell. “No, no, no,” she said. And it was over. Paul clearly, suddenly realised it was quite possible the memory his sons would have of this event would not be one of victorious daddish heroism but instead of their father being arrested.
The rocket was taken off its launch stand and packed back into the car. People repaired to Paul’s mum’s house for a beer and a debrief. Typography was blamed. Maggie and I quietly sloped off back to New York, unsure what we’d just witnessed.
A few months later, I checked in with Paul again. It turns out, the launch did happen. He and a much smaller group later headed to a public park to set off the rocket. It was a bust. “The rocket went up about 30 feet and then crashed in a way that totally destroyed the tail,” he told me. “It was so utterly anti-climactic it was actually fantastic.” Yet the whole thing had left a bad taste. “In the end, it was this thing that really was horrible. It was terrible,” he told me. “My brother was totally freaked out after I trampled on this sacred memory for him. My mom was pretty good about it, but I realised you can’t do these things without reverberations. When you take something so personal, it’s a minefield.”
That’s why the epilogue of the project was purely for him. In October, he headed back to the exact place of the original launch, in the woods near that now-infamous car park. And this time, with absolutely no family around him, he set off the rocket one last time. And guess what happened? It worked perfectly. Out of sight of security guards, Saturn V.II soared 500 feet in the air. The parachutes deployed, textbook style. And then it landed in thick undergrowth. Beautifully, perfectly, appropriately, the rocket was gone for good, never to be seen again.
Helen Walters is a design writer based in New York, thoughtyoushouldseethis.com