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Fly me to the Moon: Covering the Early Space Program

Recently NASA has been talking about man returning to the moon in a renewed space program. The target date is 2024 for a walk on the moon and 2028 for a permanent colony. It is ambitious but not surprising because space has always been one of America's macho concepts. Called Artemis, the new program calls for a series of rocket tests by the end of 2021 followed by a crewed moon landing several years later. 

It is hard to deny the thrill of men and women flying in space. The idea of adventuring into space to further conquer the moon or the audacity of trying to step on Mars will be with us forever. Recently there was an obituary about a space pioneer, which was reverent, yet, in the context of the times, an afterthought. Al Worden, who had been the command module pilot on the Apollo 15 lunar landing in 1971, had died at 88. A member of the fifth astronaut class of 1966, he had retired from the space program in 1975 after 11 years. During his trip into space, only the fourth to the moon, his fellow astronauts David Scott and James Irwin walked on the moon's surface, where they tested the first lunar rover. He circled the moon for three days, not exactly a minor task. Though Apollo 15 was his only space flight, he was the first astronaut to walk in deep space outside the space module. More than 200,000 miles from earth Worden spent 38 minutes outside the lunar module he had been piloting. He did repairs on the "space ship" and retrieved film of the mission. It is a story of a pioneer in one paragraph, a deed that held the world's attention at a time when space flights were part of everyday life and of extensive news coverage. 

In the early 1960s I was part of the NBC News space unit with its headquarter in New York. My first assignment was to write fifteen and 30-second introductions to almost 250 prepared pieces that we would use during our broadcast. It may have been the dullest assignment I ever had. But I did it, wrote the intros and then filed them away until we needed them.  

As a writer and producer I spent many weeks at Cape Canaveral covering Gemini flights, Challenger, and the space shuttle Columbia. I had a lot of fun doing it despite the primitiveness of the conditions we had to endure. We worked in sub-tropical climate where humidity ruled. Often the question of the day was what rocket would land in the nearby Banana River, where failed rockets went to die. The answer came when a flight failed, but fortunately no astronaut ever found his way into that sparse waterway. 

Having covered America's space program off and on over many years, with my favorite time the 1960s, there is much I could tell you, though almost nothing about the science of space flight itself. The mechanics of rocketry have always eluded me. I cared about the adventure and the daring men and eventually women who put themselves at risk as pioneers going where no one had previously ventured. Covering space in the 1960s was freer and more open for journalists, with only the three major networks spending a great deal of money to show a live launch of astronauts before dawn and then, often that night in a prime time special program about that days launch. 

In those early days at Cape Canaveral fandom had not yet exploded. It was not yet the modern age of celebrity in America but there were hints of its coming on the horizon. In 1963, Cape Canaveral became Cape Kennedy in honor of the recently dead president. Then in 1973 it became Cape Canaveral again. Back then, astronauts were everywhere in public. Gene Cernan (who walked on the moon twice), Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Michael Collins and other astronauts walked the streets of Cocoa Beach and Melbourne, Florida, known as the Space Coast, where they lived, worked, ate, and drank in restaurants without autograph hunters besieging them. People were more respectful than they have since become when dealing with celebrities. Keep in mind there was no Internet, no social media, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Google. For TV there were only the three networks, ABC, NBC and CBS. On flight days groupies, followers and gawkers came to watch liftoff, landings, and frequent the bars and motels along the strip where they enjoyed themselves between launches. Sometimes they slept in their cars or on the beach waking in time for the morning's launch of a rocket or satellite. 

Most of the press usually stayed at the Starlight Motel or the Satellite Motel. We drank late night beers in their bars and lounge where you would often find an astronaut or two and the main TV anchors, even sometimes Walter Cronkite. We ate our meals in restaurants such as Ramon's, Alma's Italian, and the Moon Hut. The food was uneven at best, but meeting with and sharing time with NASA engineers and other technicians was worth every minute. In those days the press had open access to everyone who worked at NASA and who lived the experience to the fullest. They needed us as much as we needed them, allowing it to become a successful marriage. 

NBC News had three knowledgeable reporters covering space at that time. Frank McGee was the anchor of our coverage: calm, collected and very knowledgeable. Roy Neal and Jay Barbree were the two principal reporters who did admirable work. I and the other writers and producers left it to them to explain what was going on. When not at the Cape for a launch, McGee worked out of huge mockup of a space capsule that took up a whole wing of a major studio in the NBC Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Jim Kitchell was our executive producer and he knew space as well as anyone.  

In Florida we worked out of barely serviceable reconditioned aluminum trailers that had white asbestos siding and no air conditioning. We kept the small windows closed to keep out the bugs, sand flies and sand in general. Our working conditions were terrible but it hardly mattered considering the story we were covering. We used manual and electric typewriters. Computers and smart phones did not exist. We wrote our notes with ballpoint pens and Number 2 pencils and kept those notes on legal size lined yellow pads or in stenographer notebooks. When we typed our stories, we hoped the ribbons would not tear or snap because replacements were near impossible to find. There were no hardware stores near the space center to buy needed supplies.  

The men and the few women who ran things for NASA lived and worked under similar conditions as we did. The NASA launch operations center on Merritt Island, Launch Complex 39, was a sparsely furnished building with rows of equally Spartan computers and earnest engineers hard at work. They sat at rows of plain desks with primitive computers. As many calculations as they did by hand, they also used the basic computers to calculate the flight, manned or not, they would direct on the day of a launch. Men wore either short sleeve white shirts or long sleeve white shirts with dark ties pulled as tight as possible against their close shaven necks. Their upper left hand pocket usually had a plastic pen and pencil holder filled with more pens and pencils than one could count. In this time before smart phones and our ubiquitous smartphone pocket computers, they did many difficult calculations by a slide rule in its own leather case, which when not in use, attached to the belt on the engineer's waist. A plastic holder with their nametag hung around their neck. The low level buzz at mission control sounded as if it was coming from a moderately active beehive. It was as if the Stepford husbands were in charge. Their genius was that these engineers conducted their work under the most trying of conditions and succeeded marvelously. 

In our network production trailers we had black plastic dial phones that were off the scrap heap. Every ring sounded the same. We did not have the option of choosing our own ring tone. Our tape editing equipment flown in from New York surprised us when it worked despite the heat, sand, and bugs our common enemy. Using razor blades, a magnifying glass, and store-bought Scotch tape and, sometimes, only prayer, we edited pieces slowly, carefully, hoping the tape we joined the edits with would stick when we fed it into a network program for broadcast. Wastebaskets overflowed with discarded newspapers, empty paper coffee cups, and various iterations of scripts that never made it to air. People shared battered desks and broken chairs in seriously overcrowded conditions but it did not matter. The story mattered more.

What also mattered were the good times that went with what we did for a living. Part of being at the Cape or any other venue as a journalist was what happened after we finished working for the day. Most rocket launches took place in the very early morning, usually in the dark before sunup. As a Today Show producer, I was there along with other early morning staff. Bleary eyed from lack of sleep because we played hard the night before -- too many drinks, too little decent food -- we always arrived on time for the launch. We prepared for our broadcast, sipped bad, mostly tasteless coffee, chewed on a hard roll or an uninteresting Danish and allowed the caffeine in the coffee to cascade through our system.

Set and ready to go, we waited patiently for the launch because that was all we could do. Dawn rose slowly. The bright orange sun dominated the sky. The astronauts walked slowly to the capsule that would carry them into outer space. With little fanfare, they entered their home away from home, and settled into their cramped quarters. The countdown began. Then, usually on a tight, computerized and targeted schedule the rocket blasted off with a thunderous sound and bright yellow-orange light. The earth beneath our feet shook and rumbled, as if an earthquake had struck the sands at Cape Canaveral, while the space ship made its way into the sky above. 

The big crowds of people, many of who had slept overnight in campers, in the backs of their cars or in sleeping bags on the ground, and who numbered in the thousands outside the perimeter of the launch site cheered, applauded and yelled encouragement. Soon the rocket was out of sight. An announcement told us the flight had been successful. Our work done for the day, it was time to head home. Our bags packed and loaded into our cars, we made our way from the NASA launch site and into heavy traffic crowded with the people who had just witnessed the launch. Many of us were on the same road leading to the highway and the Orlando airport across the state. There we would make our flight home, me to New York, others to the city where they lived. 

For all the excitement I had covering the many launches I witnessed at Cape Canaveral and, later, after it was renamed Cape Kennedy, one of biggest thrills was more mundane. There were days when life was boring on the Cape when we had little to do but wait for the perfect weather a launch required. Then we played touch football. Usually it was Nightly News versus the Today Show. The sand at the Cape was rocky, not soft and almost silky like the sand I grew up with in Brighton Beach and Coney Island. Walking on the ground was not easy and often the rocks and shale cut into the bottoms of our sneakers. But we played touch football with fury. Usually the Today Show lost because we had more women on the team who were not good at the game, especially roughhouse touch football. 

One day after a launch, we had played a few hours in the hot sun in our usual desultory fashion drinking water -- no beer permitted -- until we on the Today side of things had one series of plays remaining. I lined up in the backfield and sprinted for all I had into what was our end zone. I turned and saw the football floating to me and I thought it beyond where I could catch it. I looked over my shoulder again, and to my eternal surprise there was the ball. I reached out, grabbed the ball going away into the end zone for the winning touchdown. I bent over, breathing hard, panting and sweating. At first, only silence followed the catch. But, no. Soon came cheering. And through the cheers, a voice rang out above all the other voices: "I didn't know he had it in him." That was the perfect end to my day. For one brief moment in time, life did not get better than that.

With the world seeming to be in free fall, as we learn to live with the pandemic and virus that will probably be with us for many years, will the public love space flight as it once did? Going to the moon or Mars is expensive for the taxpayer as well as news organizations. Will people, many of whom will still be struggling to get through a normal day attach themselves to space for its entertainment and daring as in the past? Will TV that helped keep NASA's programs alive because of extensive coverage fund the showcasing of these new space programs into the wild blue yonder for its audiences? At least I knew there was a time when we all had it in us. For the future, only time will tell.