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Media Advances Follow Shuttle Achievements
When Columbia lifted off on the first space shuttle mission April 12, 1981, Americans could watch the countdown as it happened on any of the three major broadcast networks. It was front page news in the next morning's newspapers from New York to Los Angeles and many a town in between.
"There was a lot of questions, because, first of all, it was really advanced," said NBC's Jay Barbree, who has covered all of NASA's human spaceflight missions starting with Alan Shepard's Mercury flight in 1961.
Thirty years later, Americans still could watch any launch live, but not without a cable or satellite connection for their television. NASA began broadcasting on its own network and the Internet became an outlet with loads of features and insight tailored to the interest of the space enthusiast. A missed launch, even one from decades ago, can be called up with a few keystrokes.
It's as different a media world as one could have expected when Columbia lifted off the first time.
"The days of going out and covering a launch and writing a story for the next day's newspaper are gone," said Todd Halvorson, who has covered the space beat for Florida Today since 1986. "We find ourselves being kind of, I play a TV reporter on the Internet."
By the time the first shuttle lifted off, NASA had not launched astronauts into space in six years. The previous mission, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, launched in 1975. Consequently, many of the reporters who covered the early space program moved on after Apollo, leaving a fresh batch of media whose first mission was also that of the shuttle's.
"For the first launch there was more than 2,000 reporters and probably 95 percent of them had never seen a rocket, so we had a real learning experience to try and put them through," said Hugh Harris, former Public Affairs chief at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the launch site for all the space shuttle missions.
Harris also had to learn the intricacies of the revolutionary space shuttle in fantastic detail because he would be the first launch commentator for the new spacecraft. That meant memorizing volumes of countdown procedures and hours sitting in the Launch Control Center at Kennedy listening to launch simulations.
"You have maybe a thousand-page checklist and it goes on for days once you pick up the count and start going through that," Harris said. "So my job was to make sure I reported the significant things that were happening so that the press and the rest of the world would know where we were."
As the person relaying the countdown's progress to the public through the media, the pressure Harris felt for the first launch was immense.
"If you said something, instantly, millions of people heard that and if you're wrong, they were hearing the wrong thing," Harris said.
As the program continued, pressure on the launch commentators remained as keen as ever, in part because NASA began broadcasting its launch program on its own cable and satellite channel, letting the public listen in directly to the countdown. Not to mention the Internet revolution, which further personalized launch coverage.
"There is a lot of pressure," said Lisa Malone, who served as the first female space shuttle launch commentator and now heads Kennedy's Public Affairs Directorate. "My palms start sweating. A lot of people are listening, not only here at the center in terms of the visitors and VIPs and the news media, but we're going up live on NASA TV, transmitted out on our website, blog sites, it's being tweeted, so a lot of people are listening."
No one expects it to change, either.
"I think all coverage will get more personal to the audience," Barbree said. "I think people will demand that they get the freshest and the latest and that they be able to participate, and you can do that on the Internet. And I think it's going to get more and more and more that way."
The changing media presents numerous challenges and opportunities, but the excitement and drama of space has remained consistent for those who see the space program up close almost daily.
"Why I want to cover it, it is so necessary for the advancement of the human race," Barbree said. "We only advance when we continue to learn."
Reporters also tend to be drawn by the visceral impact of a launch, whether it's the brilliant white and yellow flames or the thunder that echoes over the launch site as the shuttle climbs skyward.
"I think as long as you're strapping people to rocket ships and accelerating them to five miles a second in eight minutes," said Bill Harwood of CBS News, "that is inherently exciting and there'll always be people who want to come cover that because it's a significant technology story, it's a political story, it's a human interest story, it's all of those things. Space really wraps that up into one big ball and it's a lot of fun to cover."
Many media also recognize, and try to convey, the importance of such exploration and the part space technology plays in the modern world.
"There's very little done in the United States and around the world, really, that doesn't involve space operations in some manner," said Craig Covault, who started covering NASA for Aviation Week and Space Technology during the end of the Apollo era.
Covault's career began on the printed page of an aerospace industry magazine, he adapted to a general audience that found him on the Web. There, he could share his take with an audience that craved details from someone with an insider's perspective.
It's a career evolution familiar to most reporters.
Harwood said he drove down to Florida in 1981 with a car stuffed with supplies and a manual typewriter to cover the second launch of the shuttle era for his college newspaper. Although he was conveying the STS-2 mission, the first time a spacecraft had gone back into space, it would be some time before he felt like he mastered the subject.
"It was two years down here as a full-time space reporter before I even felt remotely comfortable covering the shuttle," Harwood said, "felt like I really understood what was going on to any degree at all and I think translating that to the public, being able to convey that complexity translated into simpler terms. And to do it well is an enormous challenge and it still is today."
Reporters consistently find themselves interviewing some of the smartest people in the world, people whose research in engineering and basic sciences breaks new ground and often leads to unintended discoveries. Learning how to express that to a non-technical audience can be daunting.
"I think a large part of our job is translating NASA into English," Halvorson said. "There's a lot of jargon, there are a lot of acronyms, and we have to figure out a way to explain highly technical material in a way that your average newspaper reader is going to understand."
Although the media has changed, what constitutes news -- something new -- hasn't. The shuttle program has given reporters plenty of occasions to break into broadcasts during its 30 years.
Columbia's 1981 launch and landing, which marked the first time a spacecraft came back to Earth on wings to land like an airplane instead of plunking down under a parachute, was seen on network television in living rooms, workplaces and schools across the country. As the program stepped up its pace, astronauts could be seen flying jetpacks outside the shuttle to snag satellites for repair. In one case, STS-49, astronauts were allowed to reach out with their gloved hands and grab a satellite.
There also was a pair of accidents that cost astronauts their lives, the Challenger launch in 1986 and Columbia's break up during re-entry in 2003. In both missions, those who had to tell viewers and readers what happened were talking about people they knew well having perished.
"As someone watching the shuttle take off and land, and who gets to know these people, they were both gut-wrenching," said Harwood. "The first time, Challenger, you know you're looking at that fireball in the sky, you know you're watching seven people give their lives for something they believe in. That's gut-wrenching. And the same with Columbia."
Reporters also told the triumphant stories. For example, the first time astronauts would work from the shuttle to service NASA's captivating Hubble Space Telescope, and ultimately build the largest structure ever deployed in space, the International Space Station.
To some, the shuttle's history of advancement can be transposed on the American experience of the last 30 years.
"The shuttle orbiters were used to assemble the International Space Station that is made up totally of international partners who in the last 60 years were at war with each other," Covault said. "The Europeans, from the standpoint of Germany being a major player, plus Japan and Russia, all bitter enemies of the United States when our parents grew up, now getting together on the space shuttle and building almost a million-pound facility in orbit."
So although the shuttle fleet made its name on technological advancements, its achievements across several fronts have provided a grand and expansive story arc for the storytellers of its age.
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center