NB: I’m not a journalist (although I’ve married two of them). My comments here is my own opinion and analysis, researched as best I am able, although I’m sure it will be insufficient. My hope is that the historians, writers and past space workers, the Jim Obergs, Wayne Hales, David S.F. Fortrees, Chris Bergins, Matthew Travises and even the Amy Shira Teitels in the world can comment and correct any misconceptions and errors in my opinion.
When the first astronauts were introduced to the public in May, 1959, the American press saw them as both hero and curiosity. In a time where print journalism still held great power and television journalism had yet to come into its own, reporters clamored for details on the lives of the astronauts and their families at first, and less, at first, about the rigorous training the Seven were to endure.
The exclusive contract managed through NASA with Life Magazine slowed the personal scooping.
Journalists turned then to the technical news of the Mercury program. Unlike the virtual blackout of any activity by the American’s opponent in the new Space Race, NASA was a public institution that (in so far as they were able without divulging too much on some short and long-term strategies) was eager to ensure that the media had reliable information.
The Race to Cover the Space Race
Curiosity turned into fascination with the first launch of an American into space on May 5, 1961. While the newspapers and magazines could give exhaustive details on the Mercury flights, it was the immediacy of television that allowed people to experience the event firsthand, not having to wait a few hours or a day for a newspaper. Nothing in a newspaper could top the roar and flames of a powerful rocket.
Leading the charge on television coverage of spaceflight were American radio and television. While radio was comparably easy to deploy on-site, the visual element of television put faces on the names of Shepard, Grissom and Glenn.
Television brought to homes the gleaming, misty ICBMs, apparently tamed, to become launch vehicles to the spacecraft. A word derived from aircraft and less passive than “capsule,” spacecraft inferred exploration by the pilot, and not simply a place for the astronaut to sit and wait to come home.
By 1961, three major television networks formed their own space-race race. Initially at the lead was NBC News and their popular team of anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Supporting them were a cadre of reporters that did more than report, but had to learn what they were reporting in order to translate the jargon or explain the technology or processes of a spacecraft, its rocket or the overall mission.
But CBS News would not be denied their viewers, also learning the lingo and also adding in-depth interviews and reports as Mercury ended and Gemini began.
The most common word used to describe Walter Cronkite’s coverage was “avuncular.” While NBC’s coverage was straightforward, informative and timely, Cronkite (who certainly came into his own since the JFK assassination coverage in 1963) demonstrated excitement and amazement of the events unfolding that the sometimes somnolent NBC team of Huntley, Brinkley, Frank McGee and other reporters simply could not always counter.
With reporters such as Roger Mudd and Harry Reasoner also in play, CBS News created special sets for space mission coverage, including incredibly impressive mockups. They also got exclusives with McDonnell and North American Aviation/Rockwell test astronauts such as Robert Sharp and Leo Krupp, sitting in their company spacecraft mockups for detailed explanations on every facet of a mission.
The fledgling ABC network, a very distant third in overall ratings, much less in broadcast news, struggled weakly to get attention away from its competitors. Part of the reason came from ABC’s early programming.
To get ratings in the 1960s, often ABC and its few affiliates weren’t bothering to compete against CBS and NBC at their own game. They chose to be open to unusual, even spectacular, trendy programming. ABC is credited to the popularity of the TV-formatted original production motion pictures (“The Movie of the Week”). Such creative programming continued to attract viewers well into the 1970s with TV shows such as “The Love Boat” and “Three’s Company.”
But ABC News hardly had an evening news program to speak of by 1961. Their program lasted only just 15 minutes, so most affiliates didn’t bother to broadcast the news at all until a very young Peter Jennings briefly held the seat from 1965 through 1967.
When ABC finally moved to a 30 minute format and Frank Reynolds took the center seat with Howard K. Smith by 1967, his calm but humorous reporting, somewhere in mood between Huntley/Brinkley and Cronkite, was balanced in most broadcasts by who was arguably the strongest journalist of the time in terms of spaceflight technical reporting and on-spot analysis–Jules Bergman.
Lacking the budgets that CBS and NBC had for mockups, Bergman gave viewers rich, accurate and exhaustive detail on any and every facet of a mission.
He knew, often by heart, the crew biographies, what switch did this and that, and could accurately and immediately translate virtually any acronym or phrase uttered by Mission Control or the astronauts and, thus, what was going on at any time.
Bergman’s voice gave an even but alert tone, rarely appearing to waver in uncertainty or indecision.
Bergman was never far away from a model of a Gemini or Apollo spacecraft, demonstrating knowledge of any and every space mission in a manner that often made NBC and CBS reports comparably minimalist.
During the Apollo 13 crisis, Bergman was the man to watch, as he appeared to understand the strengths and limits of the stricken Apollo 13 spacecraft more than many others. Here’s a summary of some of his coverage. Some of it will be familiar as portions of it was used in the “Apollo 13” film.
The First Moon Landing
When Apollo recovered from the Fire and the first manned launches began, the networks really opened up their cans of creativity to depict adventures they could not directly see from earth. The age of the video simulations began, innovative in a time where rocket-mounted webcams and 3D computer-generated depictions of spacecraft were not possible.
CBS had the best creativity if not budgets. Their animations were versions from NASA films, timed perfectly to each stage separation. Often, they made live simulations with actors in spacesuits and mockups to fill in (although not necessarily performing) the otherwise invisible work by the astronauts. CBS News’ coverage of Gemini 9’s spacewalk with Gene Cernan belied the near-disastrous events as Cernan struggled, but the simulation with a full spacecraft mockup were impressive sims, nonetheless. Just look at this quality animation of the Gemini re-entry process.
And Cronkite’s clear enthusiasm of spaceflight showed, decorum be damned, when the first Saturn V rocket launched, Apollo 4, in November 1967. Just watch it and smile as “Uncle Walter” completely and happily loses his shit in the roar of the massive rocket.
Cronkite’s joy for spaceflight earned him, through NASA in 2006, a singular honor in space journalism. He became the only non-NASA person to own a moon rock. He donated it to the museum at the University of Texas at Austin, where many of his papers reside.
By Apollo 11, no effort was spared to make a realistic depiction of the landing.
CBS News clearly won with very detailed and impressive animations, moving perspective around to create an immersive adventure. However, because Armstrong had taken manual control longer than expected to find a safer landing spot, the CBS animation “landed” about 30 seconds earlier than Eagle itself. Cronkite had Wally Schirra as co-commentator for this and other Apollo flights, the first of the astronaut-commentator/subject matter experts that would return again by the 1980s.
The budget-stricken ABC News was not to be outdone, using crude but effective live models with actual flames flicking out of the LM descent engine during the landing phase. Jules Bergman was on-point with commentary that was exacting and helpful, often avoiding talking over the astronauts as CBS’s Cronkite tended to do on occasion.
Like CBS, the ABC engineers realized that Eagle’s landing was longer than scheduled and tried to hold their model, hovering aboard their simulated lunar landscape as long as they could before the “engine’s” flame either went out or tried to catch their diorama on fire.
Sadly, the landing coverage of NBC News is hard to find on the internet as of this writing. It would be curious to see how it compared to the competition.
CBS continued its dominance during the walk itself by having men in live simulations of the exit of the astronauts from a mockup Lunar Module, seamlessly cutting over to the live coverage once Armstrong had opened the MESA and their camera was live. They used this same live simulation trick with the camera-less Apollo 12.
In the end, CBS seemed to win the space-race broadcast race, but ABC’s weak second-place or strong third-place, depending on your point of view, was a foretelling of their future dominance in news in another decade.
The Waning of Apollo
Covering Apollo moon missions must have been difficult for some space journalists. Apollo 11’s landing certainly formed the pinnacle for all involved, but NASA, often through no fault of their own, did themselves no favors in keeping television viewers interested.
Apollo 11’s Lunar Module Eagle contained a weak black-and-white camera that did a poor job of balancing the extremes of light and shadow as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked for 2 hours, in the late evening in the U.S. on July 20. Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean was cursed with bad luck with cameras, accidentally and permanently damaging their color TV camera, leaving nothing for the networks to show.
And none of the networks cared to give any extensive coverage on Apollo 13, outside of the launch, until their oxygen tank exploded. While there was no moonwalk, the earth drama in Mission Control and the astronaut’s families brought a spike in ratings.
Apollo 14 received slightly more coverage, if only to see if the new safety features introduced in their spacecraft would get Al Shepard’s “all-rookie” crew to the moon and back. The color camera on 14 was incredibly vivid. But television sports and programming was far more interesting to some, and networks adapted by giving occasional but far shorter special reports for launches, landings and splashdowns, and larger digests of a mission’s day on the evening news. The landing itself was a 2 minute highlight on the evening news.
Since its start in the late 1950s, journalists seemed to love the “space beat.” It wasn’t tragic, confusing , terrifying or saddening as covering politics, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the race riots or news about the Generation Gap. Spaceflight was optimistic at the least, adventurous certainly, and filled with something literally and figuratively uplifting in contrast the dark routine elsewhere in the world.
During Apollo 14, something bittersweet began with space coverage. The journalists watched the waning crowds and sinking ratings as well as the quiet but quickly rusting unused launch pads of Gemini and Mercury. They began to report on the layoffs at NASA, and the budget cuts.
Every network gave very powerful, illuminating and outright mournful reports that the Golden Age of American Spaceflight was dying. For their part, CBS, NBC and ABC’s reporters seemed to increase their enthusiasm over the last Apollo missions, buoyed by their past experiences from launches. It seems clear, in hindsight, that the reporters knew the space-beat was not long for this world.
By the pre-launch evening news reports in December 1972 for Apollo 17, after their last reports on the work strikes and agency propaganda campaigns to keep the Apollo support crews attentive and on the job despite impending cutbacks, these journalists also reported on funding and approval for the next generation of spacecraft. Later, the networks dutifully reported on the post-Apollo Skylab missions. With the last Apollo flight to meet a Russian Soyuz by 1975, the space journalists had to move on to other work until the Space Shuttle was to fly. The expected launch dates of the STS missions in 1977, 1978 and 1979 came, and went. Spaceflight was beginning to become a memory.
The New Era of the Shuttle and Poorer Coverage
By the time that the Space Shuttle program began in 1981, television programming had grown several orders of magnitude. The most immediate spin-off from the unmanned space program, the communications satellite, became commonplace and readily available by any station, allowing networks to report anywhere, anytime on just about everything.
There was also, with more powerful satellites, the advent of non-broadcast news and ever-growing programming through special private providers: Cable television.
Six years were a long time for space coverage to go into hiatus. Inflation, politics, terrorism, corruption and more were the news stories then, often and easily eclipsing any reports on the first Space Shuttle under construction and readying for launch.
When Space Shuttle Columbia was ready to fly in April 1981, a few of the old space-beat veterans from the Golden Age were still around. NBC had John Chancellor, who took over the anchor seat from the deceased Huntley, a few Apollo missions under his belt. ABC’s team of Frank Reynolds and Jules Bergman were still about. Walter Cronkite had retired a month before.
The first three or so STS launches got mostly live coverage. But the proposed routine of the Space Shuttle flights worked against NASA and journalism as a whole. Despite their complexity, fewer journalists seemed to have even a simple understanding of the Shuttle’s fundamental design elements, including and especially the launch escape system. Most importantly, fewer and fewer launches were ever covered live on broadcast television until all coverage ended except for evening news. Astronaut-commentators such as Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan appeared, but eventually there were none as live coverage faded from the broadcast waves.
By 1986, only the Cable News Network, CNN, barely as old as the STS program itself, cared enough to cover any Shuttle launch live, although only for the first 2 minutes of it. On the morning of January 28, 1986, the “Daywatch” morning news program was doing the news. The expected State of the Union address by President Reagan. The lop-sided Super Bowl win by the Chicago Bears over the New England Patriots. They mentioned Challenger’s attempt to fly (after a previous delay) that morning, despite some cold temperatures.
You should watch it, this first 30 minutes of the accident from CNN’s eyes. It’s a fascinating slice-of-life as well. CNN reporter Tom Mintier (a man who’d also be in the right place at the right time for two other news events) commentated the launch. Just as the throttle-up command was given, Tom was signing off when the explosion occurred.
CNN was at the right place at the right time for the first American space tragedy. But their journalism was significantly unbalanced and uninformed for a time. I tend to wince when one of the co-anchors, Mary Ann Loughlin, I believe, asked, paraphrasing here (on seeing a single white parachute in the air) “Are there parachutes for the astronauts, and how many?”
CBS News, in the hands of Dan Rather, was hardly better. I recall listening to Rather over-speculating at one point, misinterpreting Mission Control’s acknowledgement of the vehicle’s successful roll not as “Roger, roll, Challenger,” as “Watch your roll, Challenger.”
To be fair to the reporters of this event, handling what was then the most-tragic event in American space history could not have been easy, with sparse information in the wake of the accident and NASA closing down media operations to gather data for a later investigation.
Yet many of the networks, even the broadcast networks, had not done their homework over the then-six year history on the strengths, certainly not the flaws, inherent in NASA’s new spacecraft.
From the Challenger disaster, however, came a few new subject matter experts. Possibly realizing their gaffes during Challenger, CNN had John Holliman, a colorful and knowledgeable reporter that knew the Shuttle’s systems up and down.
With Holliman’s untimely death in a 1998 car crash, reporter Miles O’Brien (not that one) picked up the mantle. An experienced pilot himself, he was broadcasting on CNN when Shuttle Columbia did not return in 2003, and made his network the place to watch during this tragedy, O’Brien leading the live coverage over 16 continuous hours.
The New Space Race
After Columbia’s demise, the Space Shuttle’s 30-year reign was near. A replacement program was hastily developed to be ready when the last of the International Space Station’s construction was completed. In July 2011, shuttle Atlantis landed and the STS program ended.
NASA fought operational funding and changes in government that hobbled development of the Constellation project, intended to return men to the moon. It wasn’t long before President Obama killed that project, leaving NASA to scramble for another cause.
Reporting all of this wasn’t the usual band of cable and broadcast reporters. A new communications medium had appeared by the mid-1990s.
The internet allowed the ability for virtually anyone to post pictures, video and text to anyone else. Soon, the World Wide Web technologies developed sufficiently for anyone to form personal journals, known as weblogs or just “blogs,” to document whatever came to mind.
But while all journalists are writers, not all writers are journalists.
Over the years, several web-based journalists keep those who want to know about the nuts and bolts of spaceflight informed. NASASpaceFlight offers news and forums to discuss past, present and future projects, as does Space.com, SpaceflightNow, Spaceflight Insider, Universe Today, The Planetary Society…the list goes on and on.
Many of the reporters in these website-based news groups are space enthusiasts, at the least, trained reporters as well. Dozens of Jules Bergman-styled people report on the “New Space” movement, the private companies that design, build and launch their rockets and spacecraft, getting NASA funding and private com-sat dollars. Unlike the ratings-based era of space journalism, no detail of space news is insignificant in the internet era.
The space journalists today have it easier, with the rocket manufacturers or government agencies (if not a NASA or ESA launch) offering webcasted live coverage of their launches. Even the once-secretive Russians broadcast their ISS launches. And new space programs in Japan and India are doing well. China hasn’t quite opened up to show their launches as yet, but coverage after the fact is fast and furious.
And there’s live cameras on many flights themselves. An excellent example is by SpaceX, who currently holds the popularity vote in the U.S. Recently they’ve had a webcam on a Falcon 9 booster from its launch to its landing back at Cape Canaveral during the CRS-10 mission. Blue Origin’s latest conceptual video of the New Glenn launch vehicle promises to do the same in a couple of years.
Perhaps, soon, a journalist will get to have the best seat in the house, broadcasting live a manned flight into space from inside a spacecraft as a passenger. Anything is possible, as the last 60 years of spaceflight journalism has shown.