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A Reporter's Moon Trip

The rewards of reporting an epic journey of man are more than the excitement of the moment. The audience shares new perspectives on another world.

This article was first published in Technology Review’s October/November 1969 issue. It is being published online in celebration of Apollo’s 40th Anniversary.

“… Voyages to the end of man’s experience and into the beginning of space are … the physical embodiment of the modern age of mental exploration–the age of science … in a land where minds and ships can roam beyond the reach of authority, tyrannical forms cannot endure.”

I cannot remember just when I became convinced that men would land on the moon someday, just as I am now convinced that men will go on and land on other bodies in the solar system.

When I was a child, I gave no special thought to a lunar landing, because Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (of the 25th century) already were making much longer journeys to imaginary planets. To be sure, the little books from the Hayden Planetarium said that one would be able to leap about remarkably on the moon, but they also told what your weight would be on Mars or Jupiter or Saturn.

A moon-trip definitely was real for me before President Kennedy in 1961 announced the national goal of a lunar landing in this decade (I remember asking myself then whether the nation was so self-doubting, so sick, that it needed such a tonic). When I visited Antarctica as a science reporter in November, 1960, it struck me that the glimpse I was getting of icy emptiness was the closest I would ever come to the feeling of walking on the lunar surface.

Often since then I have rolled that thought around in my mind, as a way of expressing the sense of the extreme which Antarctica gives. But I never was prepared for the familiarity of the view when the ghostly dots and lines from the little television camera on the moon spread across a screen in the large auditorium of the Manned Spacecraft Center near-Houston, Texas, the night of July 20,1969.

The Benignity of an Age of Science
It is to be present at events like the televising of the moon-walk and to write about them that I became a science reporter almost as soon as I graduated from college in 1957. I believe that events in science and en­gineering are the keys to the world in which I exist.

The first science story which truly excited me was medical. In Charlotte, N.C., where I was working at the time, I happened to see a closed-circuit television broadcast of an open-heart operation, in 1957 still an experimental procedure. A surgeon in Philadelphia, whose voice could be heard along with a kibitzing panel of leading heart surgeons, cut open the patient’s chest to reveal a beating heart, throbbing about wildly in the open air. I reflected then that until open heart surgery had become practical, the largest number of such operations had occurred on top of a pyramid in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, as religious sacrifices. But here a modern physician, with the confidence born of scientific knowledge, was operating on the heart to heal it, not tear it out. To do this, he stopped the beating with a drug and turned over the heart’s functions to a heart-lung machine while he scraped out the coronary artery (a number of the panel thought the operation rather unlikely to be useful for long).

There it was, the spirit of experimental investigation linked to the desire to heal. I have never been cured of that image of the essential benignity of an age of science.

Sensing the Quality of Exploration
Despite the fact that a whirlwind of interest in space, set moving by Sputnik, also led to my finding a market for science reporting, I never saw a rocket-firing of any size until November 9, 1967, when the first U.S. Saturn V lifted off from Cape Kennedy, Fla., on a flawless first test of the moon booster.

It was only my third visit to Cape Kennedy. The first had been a brief Air Force Reserve trip aboard a DC-3 in 1962, just before John Glenn’s three-orbit flight. (This was less than a year after Yuri Gagarin’s one-orbit inaugural of the era of manned space flight–Will the Russians get a man to the moon as quickly after Apollo 11?)

A second visit to Cape Kennedy came on January 28, 1967, just a month after I joined the Boston Globe after three years’ reporting abroad for Science magazine. It was the day after three astronauts had suffered an almost-instant death by suffocation in the cabin of an Apollo spacecraft intended for launch the next month. The atmosphere at Cape Kennedy was incongruous. In brilliant midwinter sunshine, a horde of reporters wan­dered around, searching for insights into what had happened. Many of them, like me, knew so little that they had nothing to contribute to the story. I had no en­gineer friends from whom I could obtain even frag­mentary information. I hated the leaden, grief-filled atmosphere of rumor.

My only function, I decided, could be to resist rumors and remind readers that a huge system for going to the moon had been constructed, that such a system could not be perfect, and that its momentum would be slowed but not stopped by the deaths of three astronauts, Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. I was helped to make this point when Richard Lyons, then of the New York Daily News and now of the New York Times, showed me an account of remarks made the previous month by Joseph Shea, then Apollo Spacecraft Manager in Houston, in which he noted that some 20,000 failures had showed up during the preparation of the first Apollo spacecraft and that at some point a space engineer, like any other, had to decide when things were good enough.

The weekend thus gave me my first taste of the im­mense difficulty of covering the moon-flight program– or even of achieving much sense of the quality of what was going on. The program was too huge and too im­portant for me to grasp its many operations easily, or to permit of easy access to important places or people.

This does not mean that the program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is some sort of deep dark secret. To be sure, the agency has hundreds of public relations people, under the overall manage­ment of Julian Scheer, who has the rank of Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs. But it is not the job of these people to keep N.A.S.A.’s name out of the papers. Quite the reverse.

The justifications of N.A.S.A.’s program are unusual– some would say shaky. It may be that going to the moon is inevitable, but many people argue against the urgency of doing it this decade, or even this century. The existence of a large “constituency” for N.A.S.A. in states like Florida, Louisiana, Texas and California where there are big agency installations or contractors’ factories is not sufficient shield. The pathway to con­tinued popular support that has evolved is an outpouring of news releases and briefings and tours that is simply stupefying. There is danger of drowning in the thou­sands of pages of releases and the dozens of hours of briefings.

Such an outpouring is not merely “news management.” It could not have continued for a decade unless some­body out there–a sizeable fraction of the people of the world–were interested.

This view of Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston during the Apollo 11 flight suggests the multiplicity of information which is available to the technical direction of the mission. Much of that information–a veritable Niagara, says Mr. McElheny–is also available to the press in the adjoining press room.

Information and Insulation
It is this Niagara of information–making the U.S. space program so public that it turns out to be a secret, hidden like the vital piece of paper in Poe’s “The Gold Bug” by being displayed in the open–that is the real problem of covering trips to the moon, not N.A.S.A.’s occasional attempts to conceal possible political implications in the award of a large contract or to play down the serious­ness of a rebuke to such a contractor for sloppy work.

But during an Apollo mission, the flood of information is vitally useful. With trifling exceptions, the entire volume of chatter between the astronauts and their controllers on the ground is made available, at first “live” over loudspeakers (or wires into stereo headsets) and then in the form of mimeographed transcripts made available within two hours of the time of the actual transmission.

At least twice a day, the flight controllers for one of three eight-hour shifts in Mission Control meet the press for questions about events during their shift. A reporter can attend such a briefing and ask his own questions; he can listen in from his desk in the nearby newsroom while looking at closed-circuit television; or he can tune in to the briefing over a local FM station which breaks into its running music program with all important Apollo mission transmissions, including briefings. If the re­porter is trying to catch a meal or possibly some sleep, depending on his own deadlines and the sleep-work schedule of the astronauts, he can always fall back on the mimeographed transcript of the briefing.

As a further check on the accuracy of his own ear and also that of the relays of secretaries who make the transcript (there is a tendency for the secretaries to launder the text a bit, despite repeated injunctions from the press), the reporter can either record the transmis­sions himself on his own portable tape recorder or go into N.A.S.A.’s news office and listen to its tape of the proceedings.

All of this means that a reporter covering a moon flight is rather insulated from the quality of the event; and unless he takes care, he may easily fall out of sympathy with the environment and thus allow his copy to go stale. A great deal of time must be spent chained to a work table listening to current transmissions while studying the transcript of past transmissions and brief­ings; going to briefings; and returning to the work table to write stories which are either dictated to the home office over a telephone specially installed at the table for the duration or over nearby pay telephones (often in short supply) or, page by page, over teletypewriter cir­cuits.

After all this, the reporters retire to nearby restaurants and bars in small clannish groups to interview and tease each other according to an elaborate code that is too amorphous to describe.

In such an environment, glimpses of real-live space men, or even of the moon up above, are fleeting.

One means of penetrating a little deeper into things is to use the little telephone on the work table to call up space officials you know and ask them questions. Another is to go see them, either by making a formal request to do so or by direct arrangement. Still another is to take somebody out to dinner at a restaurant well away from the space centers. Better still is to try to arrange interviews with key people at quiet moments when they are not too busy. But most of the time, re­porters with deadlines to meet must be content with a hurried personal question asked immediately after a briefing.

With all this to do, reporters also find themselves in fairly continuous contact with their home offices, which want to know what stories the reporter plans to write, what their leading points are, and why the reporter hasn’t included a particularly sensational point already available from the wire services. I think it’s fair to say that the people who receive the largest number of phone calls are the reporters from the New York Times, and it is certain that the phone calls are not always ap­preciated.

“Sometimes You Can Push Too Far!”
In such a fevered climate, there isn’t much room for spontaneity. I am reminded of how the same issue sur­faced in 1959 on the Iowa farm of Roswell Garst when a horde of several hundred reporters, Harrison Salis­bury in the lead, chased Nikita Khrushchev and Garst across the cornfields.

There is the story that Garst was so annoyed at the ten­sion and the crush that he found time to kick Salisbury in the shin. Somehow, that sort of thing sticks out in an affair as managed as a Soviet leader’s visit–or a moon flight–must be. The equivalent event during Apollo 11 came early on the morning of July 21, just after the moon walk, when Julian Scheer angrily ordered a tele­vision camera which was focusing straight at a bunch of sweating reporters frantically beating at their type­writers to be removed from the newsroom. When the camera would not move, the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs angrily shoved a technician out of the way and began moving the camera, which was still on.

At many points during the flight, it was the custom of television newsmen at Houston to use the busy back­ground of the newsroom during brief newscasts from the Manned Spacecraft Center. But this particular camera had been in a main aisle on an unusually crowded and tense evening for a long time. Immediately under the lights was a group from the French news­paper Le Figaro (which very kindly printed an essay about Apollo 11 which I wrote for the Globe but which it did not have space for). The French reporters, led by the capable Ann Thinesse, uttered not a word of protest. Ann continued to work on one of her sober, stylish dis­patches in longhand. But meanwhile, a technician was telling Mark Bloom of the New York Daily News to bend down out of the way of the camera and when he wasn’t quick enough about it the technician said, “Sometimes you can push too far, buddy.” Mark thought so, too. He hit the ceiling and went off screaming, something he almost never does, to Scheer. Scheer then acted, to the inexpressible delight of the writer-journalists looking on One “big eye” flickered shut, if only briefly.

Affirming the Events
There is, unavoidably, a good deal of jealousy among writer-journalists toward television, the medium upon which they depend to witness such key events of a flight to the moon as the walk on the surface or the splashdown in the Pacific. A great many reporters, and many of their managers back in the home office, are convinced that more and more people are relying on television, that few people are reading much of the vast number of words they are writing and printing.

Certain it is that most people’s view of an event such as Apollo 11 is shaped by what they saw of it on television, no matter how much better informed the best of the writer-journalists are than even the most enthusiastic television commentator, Walter Cronkite (who, quite frankly, makes a good many minor errors that nobody notices because he conveys a sense of personal involve ment in space flights). But it is also certain that people are reading more, not less, about a particular event be­cause they saw it on television; and they are reading with more care, because they feel, with some justice, that they know something on their own.

The more important point is that television not only is evanescent; it also is overwhelming. Too much happens too fast. Television thrusts raw events at people, and they may wish to make more considered judgments. The immediacy of television must be strengthened by analysis and reflection. Only then, a day or a month later, can fleeting impressions be converted into a permanent mental image. For this–and for a significanl proportion of the public–a writer is needed.

“Nowhere are the penalties of an estrangement from nature more apparent than in a place like the moon… . In such an extreme environment, many of the definitions of ordinary life must give way… . Man must be in sympathy with the surroundings–like Captain Nemo–or they will kill him.”

It is the writer who reminds the televiewer that Arm­strong not only said, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” but also, “Isn’t this fun?” and that Aldrin’s first description of the moon was, “Mag­nificent desolation.”

It is the writer who stays up late at night to watch the $50,000 party that President Nixon threw the Apollo 11 astronauts after they emerged from their multi-million-dollar quarantine quarters in Houston on August 13, and to remind television-sated Easterners who hadn’t stayed tuned that astronaut Neil Armstrong, in brief remarks near the end of the dinner around 2 a.m. E.D.T., recalled a sign he had seen during the ticker-tape parade that morning in New York. The sign read, “Through you, we touched the moon.”

It is the writer who watches a nationally televised press conference with the astronauts on August 12, in which the astronauts said the moon seemed friendly despite its barrenness; who notes that they had apparently come close to being unable to land because they had nearly exhausted their fuel margins; and who puts two and two together and reports the next day that Armstrong was so determined to land that he might have disregarded a warning from Houston not to touch down.

Armstrong made it clear that fuel margins which seemed small were in fact large in view of the circumstances; and that, if he had lost contact with Houston, he would have pressed on to a landing if the trajectory was safe. Armstrong was quietly making clear that the astronaut in charge of a lunar landing vehicle, the apex of a huge technological pyramid, was not a supine passenger.

The Social Power of Exploration
The writer is the special extension of his readers’ sensitivities. In the second row of the darkened auditorium in Houston on July 20, I was sitting next to Walter Sulli­van, the Science Editor of the New York Times. He, like me, had opted to watch the moon-walk uninterrupted, in contrast to many other morning-paper reporters in an immense, echoing press room nearby. They were watch­ing the event out of the corner of one eye in a glaringly-lit room, listening to the moon-talk over stereophonic headphones, and clacking away at typewriters.

As it happens, Sullivan is the author of the best general history of Antarctic exploration (Quest for a Continent New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1957). We were both struck by how closely the barren ground of Tranquillity Base, viewed at the low sun angle of a lunar morning, resembled the blue and white snowscape at the South Pole during Antarctic summer.

Of course the resemblance was superficial, an accident of the medium–black and white television–by which most residents of the world’s rich nations could bear wit­ness to an event in a way that had never been possible before in the history of exploration. The astronauts themselves said that their surroundings in the Sea of Tranquillity, fancifully named by a 17th-century Italian astronomer, reminded them of a desert in the American southwest. As they spoke through the little two-way radios fitted into their back-pack life-support units, the astronauts were seeing the tawny colors of the moon’s surface, of which they brought back ample evidence in many color photographs.

But if the colors were different, there were many other similarities between the moon, whose exploration has just begun, and Antarctica, whose exploration began only 70 years ago, just before the invention of the air­plane.

Like the moon, Antarctica is a remote waste never in­habited by men until an age of scientific exploration. There is no trade with Antarctica and no military use for an expanse of 5.5 million square miles of ice at the southern extremity of the earth, dominating a hemi­sphere which is nearly all water and in which only 10 per cent of the world’s people live. A rocket base makes as little sense in Antarctica as it does on the moon. If one is to have rocket bases at all, there are cheaper places closer to home to put them, places where the guardians of the rockets can live with their families, take correspondence courses and quickly replace the rocket’s warheads when a better design comes along.

The circling of Antarctica by the ships of Captain Cook in the 1770’s, the discovery of Antarctic coasts in the 1840’s by Dumont d’Urville, James Clarke Ross and Charles Wilkes, and the attainment of the South Pole on foot by parties under Roald Amundsen and Robert Fal­con Scott in 1911-12–all are landmarks in a living history of human exploration.

This history has reached another of its greatest cli­maxes with the first visit to the moon.

To those who ponder the values of such human achieve­ments, let me simply proclaim that rigid intellectual forms, matching rigid social structures, cannot last in the face of a surprising new fact. It was possible to contest Copernicus’ ideas of a group of planets re­volving around the sun until Galileo’s use of the tele­scope in studying the moon, and the moons of Jupiter, gave the theories of Copernicus unchallengeable em­pirical support. The work of Galileo, so intimately linked with the mountains of the moon, is a good candidate (among many) for the decisive event which launched the age culminating in a landing on the moon.

The immediate effect of such discoveries may be vanishingly small, even in the Apollo case when hundreds of millions watched it. A moon voyage may seem to count for no more than the fall of Icarus did to the painter Breughel, who depicted a very tiny splash in the midst of an immense landscape. Yet the splash oc­curred. The fact cannot be denied, and the exploration will continue–at however jerky a pace.

It is easy for an artist to mock the strivings of an Icarus. Explorers do not have an easy time giving words to their compulsion for searching out regions where nature shows its face in some extreme way, throwing light on the history and character of the planet on which we exist. Just why explorers, by their wanderings, should go on asking the question, “What is a Planet?” is not clear.

Antarctica, where few things exist except mosses, lichens, a few breeds of insects, seals, gulls and pen­guins, is one such region. The moon is another: lifeless, airless, waterless, lacking a magnetic field, of a different density from Earth, and now known to be covered with a layer of rather glassy dust. Neither Antarctica nor the moon have failed to produce their quota of surprises.

In such an extreme environment, many of the definitions of ordinary life must give way. Only an exceptional few can ever go to such a place. To live in a region of ex­tremes means insulation from the natural environment; human contact with the surroundings must be restricted, remote. Yet, in order to design the protective equipment, someone must know enough about the surroundings to imagine their effect. Man must be in sympathy with the surroundings–like Captain Nemo–or they will kill him. Nowhere are the penalties of an estrangement from nature more apparent than in a place like the moon.

Such voyages to the end of man’s experience and into the beginning of space are only the physical embodi­ment of the modern age of mental exploration–the age of science. In such an age, a science like astronomy, which has modest practical importance for navigators, can open men’s eyes to the existence of another world. And in a land where minds and ships can roam beyond the reach of authority, tyrannical forms cannot endure.

Victor K. McElheny returned from his assignment in Britain as European Editor of Science in 1967 to become Science Editor of the Boston Globe at least in part so as to have first-hand experience with what he has called man’s “majestic” effort to reach the moon and outer space. Since his retirement in 1998 McElheny has published two books, Insisting on the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land and Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution. He is currently working on a book about the Human Genome Project.

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