NASA Podcasts

Covering the Space Shuttle Program
09.30.10
 
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BILL HARWOOD:
I think as long as you're strapping people to rocket ships and accelerating them to five miles a second in eight minutes, that is inherently exciting and there'll always be people who want to come cover that, both 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.

TODD HALVORSON:
In my mind, covering the space program is probably the best job in journalism and covering the explorers of our generation is just a compelling and wonderful thing to be able to do.

JAY BARBREE:
Why I want to cover it - it is so necessary for the advancement of the human race. We only advance because we continue to learn.

NARRATOR: For millions of people in the United States and around the world, the space shuttle experience was seen on television, heard on the radio or read in a newspaper.

Increasingly, it's read about in short updates on Internet blogs or in longer discussions on cable news stations.

The story they receive is relayed through the senses of reporters, correspondents and editors who spent decades learning the intricacies of one of the most technical operations humankind has devised.

BILL HARWOOD:

It was two years down here as a full-time space reporter before I even felt remotely comfortable covering the shuttle, 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 do it well is an enormous challenge and I think it is, it still is today.

NARRATOR: Reporters got their first taste of the Space Shuttle Program when Columbia launched in 1981.

HUGH HARRIS: 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.

NARRATOR: Thousands of people lined the beaches and riverfronts around Kennedy Space Center to witness that first launch in person.

It was the first time a spacecraft with wings launched, and it came more than six years after the last time astronauts flew into space.

CRAIG COUVALT:

We were also very worried at the time because it was an extremely dangerous flight test mission.

JAY BARBREE: There was a lot of questions, because, first of all, it was really advanced.

HUGH HARRIS: Until it's in orbit, really, you don't breathe a lot. I mean, you're listening very intently to the information that's coming in and making sure everything is going well and of course everything went very, very well.

NARRATOR:
Two days later, on the West Coast of America, thousands more came out to Edwards Air Force Base in California to see Columbia return on wings instead of parachutes.

BOB CRIPPEN:
I remember when John Young and I were coming in for a landing at Edwards Air Force and he was banking left and we looked down out on the lake bed there and there were thousands of people that we could see.

We were about 35 . . . 40,000 feet at that particular point, but I said, 'Look at all those folks out there! They came out to see us land!'

NARRATOR:
During the next three decades, the news media would transfer the excitement, drama and tragedy of NASA's space exploration to throngs of viewers and readers.

BILL HARWOOD:
I think the most challenging aspect of the job is the complexity of the hardware and understanding how space missions are carried out.

TODD HALVORSON:
I think a large part of our job is translating NASA into English. 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.

COUNTDOWN COMMENTATOR:
Four
Three
Two
One
And liftoff!
Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower .

BILL HARWOOD:
Before Challenger, you realized this was a dangerous business, but you didn't really believe it.

NARRATOR:
Reporters have also witnessed two space shuttle accidents firsthand and relayed it to their audience. Challenger's launch in January 1986. . .

CAPCOM:

Columbia, Houston, comm check.

Columbia, Houston, UHF comm check.

NARRATOR:
. . . and Columbia's breakup during re-entry in February 2003.

TODD HALVORSON:
I'll always remember I saw this little girl in the parking lot of the Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn and she just pointed up at that conflagration in the sky and said, "The teacher's up there. The teacher's up there." And that sticks with you.

BILL HARWOOD:
As someone watching the shuttle take off and land, and gets to know these people, they were both gut-wrenching.

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.

The loss of life of course is the number one thing that sticks with you.

And you can't, never get over that and you'll always put yourself in the family's shoes and friends and you feel the same sympathy anybody in the public would feel.

TODD HALVORSON:
Some crews you get to know very well. When you see the shuttle launch and you have friends on board and people that you've interacted with for a period of time in the lead-up to launch, it really makes a difference because you know there are men and women flying on board that have families, that have children, and it makes it all that much more real.

NARRATOR:

The news media would see its own numbers grow and adjust to new forms of communication including the advent of news channels and the revolution of the Internet with its own specialized brand of reporting.

BILL HARWOOD:

When I first came down for my college newspaper I had a manual typewriter and you'd read the story to an editor and you were writing for the next day's newspaper and there was this huge delay between when you did a story and when it actually showed up in print.

And as the shuttle program evolved, cable news networks began and all the sudden you evolved into this 24-hour news cycle.

TODD HALVORSON:

The days of going out and covering a launch and writing a story for the next day's newspaper are gone. We're finding ourselves being kind of, I play a TV reporter on the Internet.

BILL HARWOOD:
For the space enthusiast, for someone who is already interested in this and would follow it anyway, even if it was by magazine or whatever, it's a great thing for them because with all the blogs that are out there and the Web presence of magazines, newspapers, television, you can get an enormous amount of information that would have been much more difficult to get before.

JAY BARBREE:
Because they can ask questions, they can participate, they can get into it.

NARRATOR:
NASA also began broadcasting on its own network during the shuttle program, originally called NASA Select, now called NASA TV.

JAY BARBREE:

Believe me when I started back in the business, radio was the big thing, not TV.

TV was trying to catch up with what radio was so I've seen it all change.

LISA MALONE:
People are very curious about what's going on and that's a good thing from a public outreach standpoint, it's really good to have that kind of interest in our launches here.

NARRATOR:
Although they found increasingly advanced ways to cover the shuttle, the shuttle itself remained the center of attention, and a touchstone for many societal changes, too.

CRAIG COVAULT:
The same 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. 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.

NARRATOR:
Space exploration is expected to remain a focal point for news media just as it has in the past.

JAY BARBREE:
I think all coverage will get more personal to the audience. I think people will demand that they get the freshest and the latest and that they will 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.

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