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Walter Cronkite  







Journalism; Space Program  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
7 Apr 1999

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Show: Geographic Century
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00:01:00 Begins with asides¿ Identify yourself in regards to your impact on American culture in regards to space. 00:01:35

00:01:36 Well, I think that¿s up to you to say rather than me to say. I suppose there was an impact of our reporting of, on the space program undoubtedly. A lot of people were getting most of their news from television and, of course, the vision of the space flights was an important part of the story so the public was turning to television for a lot of it¿s information. As a consequence, those of us who were broadcasting the space flights and trying to fill in the important engineering and political details that were behind those flights, I suppose had a following of a type.

00:02:27 Well, it was more than that from my perspective. This was not simply politics but there¿s something else in your space coverage, a sense that you were enjoying this story. 00:03:05

00:03:06 Well, I think that¿s probably true, in fact I know it¿s true. I did enjoy the story. I was enthusiastic about it. There was even some criticism from some of my colleagues at the time that perhaps I was a cheerleader for the space program. Interestingly enough, the people who were running the space program at that time didn¿t seem to think so. There was a lot of critics from them that I was a little harsh on them. That usually developed in the more internal aspects of the coverage, that is, the news conferences and the educational news conferences that they were having for us in the press. At those times I asked a lot of very critical questions and I think they thought of me as something of a bee in their bonnet. At some points I uh, I took these matters to the public in my space reporting but none of that diminished my enthusiasm for the entire program of getting man into space and in particularly in fulfilling President Kennedy¿s pledge to put a man on the moon and get him back safely in the decade. What a great incredible adventure that was! It was an inconceivable, almost, to most of us, a goal when Kennedy enunciated it. Even those of us who had been covering early rocketry in this country.. And I was interested in rocketry from, I suppose, my first experience with it in London when I was bombed out by one of Hitler¿s early rockets, I had watched the development of the rocket program with quite a bit of interest and occasionally covered matters. I went out to White Sands in the early days, for some of the testing by the German scientists primarily out there the Van Braun team. And as that program developed I became more and more fascinated with it. This was, what an incredible story this was! That man was finally going to escape his environment on earth and go out into that hostile environment of space for the first time. The men who were making those trips, some of them were thought to be merely substituting for monkeys, that anybody could ride the spacecraft into space. Not true! They were taking chances with their lives. When Glenn made the first orbital flight we had very little knowledge of what might transpire out there in that Mercury space craft of his. There had been two Russian flights before that in orbit but they weren¿t sharing their information with us as to what had transpired with their men in their flights what the space effect had been on them. Nor were they giving us information about the technical aspects of their spacecraft. Did we have the right formula to get the men out there and back safely? I¿m just talking now, about low earth orbit. We didn¿t have any information about that at all. It was really a remarkable series of flights, adventuresome to the extreme and I thought it was a great story!

00:06:50 You mentioned the Glenn flight, there were complications during his reentry and people didn¿t know what was happening. It really was a time when you didn¿t know how the story was going to come out did you? 00:07:16

00:07:16 No, no we didn¿t at all and there was that dramatic period at each of those flight when they entered the Earth¿s atmosphere again at this tremendous speed creating these tremendous temperatures. I forget the numbers exactly but it seems to me it was 4,000 degrees, in their reentry as they hit the atmosphere. And that heat shield, if it had failed in any way they would have been incinerated instantly. As they entered the Earth¿s atmosphere of course, this ion shield was built up around them of this intense heat also, blacked out communication. So we had that period of time a couple of minutes where we didn¿t know if they had survived reentry. Then we had the question of whether the parachutes were going to open at that intense speed and then the safe landing of the, in the ocean and whether the spacecraft would indeed float or whether there would be some leakage in it and it would sink before recovery. Could take place in the ships out there waiting for the spacecraft. We had in the case of Scott Carpenter, his missing his landing spot, and although they had good information in the Space Center they failed to communicate that to the press and we had 41 minutes In which we believed that Carpenter had been lost. And that was high drama. It, this thing, was a great adventure for man and nothing was clear cut about it as science had no way of assuring our success in those early days.

00:09:09 It¿s been years since we landed on the moon. Did you ever anticipate our reaching Mars by the end of the century? 00:09:21

00:09:22 Well, not really in so many clear cut words like that, saying to myself, ¿By the end of the century we will reach Mars.¿ I expected further development in space and I was aware of the program and reported to some degree on the discussion between those who were expressing an increased amount of robotic flight in the belief that we could get deeper out there into space than with man at that given juncture. And those that said no, we should be putting most of our efforts into manned flight. The Carl Sagan, the great astrological scientist (all jumbled up), and spokesman for the space program was a strong supporter of the robotic flight. He was promising, as I recall, as I say promise I¿m not sure that that¿s exactly right, he discussed, certainly fully, the possibility that if we put our emphasis on robotic flight that we could get to Mars in the century and I kind of went along with that hope I guess.

00:10:44 There have been discussions manned flight vs. robotic. Do you think that robotic flight was a more efficient choice? 00:11:03

00:11:04 Well, it depends on what your goal is. If your goal is, indeed, to reach deeper into space than robotic flight is obviously a choice at this time. The manned flight is really not, well I can¿t say it¿s not feasible, it certainly is feasible. We¿ve learned that everything out there is feasible if you want to put enough money into it and enough effort, enough national effort into it we could be building that we could have been building, that city in the sky, the space station, permanent space station, years ago. From that we could very possibly be moving men, that is human beings beyond that space station, perhaps out to Mars by this period of time. But that is at vast expense. The robot program is almost infinitesimally small compared to manned program. With manned program everything has to be redundant. That is that we have to have more than one of each system to assure their safety. We¿ve got to build all this extra equipment for the support of human beings. It is a far more expensive way to explore space. For exploration, scientific exploration of space, as such, robotics are the way to go. For making use of space, so that man can eventually occupy space, work in space, gain some of the benefits of living in space, then obviously you have to continue to concentrate on human flight.

00:12:52 When the space program was getting going in the 50¿s there was a Cold War edge to a lot of it. Did you ever think of the space program as an extension of the arms race? Or only as a place for research and exploration? 00:13:15

00:13:15 Both, both. Undoubtedly their was the aspect of the race into space with the Soviet Union and that was a matter of not just simply national pride, although that played a major part when the Russians seemed to be ahead of us, with their human space flight. But far more than that there was this question of defense. We perceived that the nation which controlled space would have a major foot up on controlling what happened on Earth. And I think there is still a truth to that. The use of space satellites, spy satellites and the delivery of weapons is critical to the position of any nation in international competition and defense and that was a major part of our considerations at that time. The part that drove our efforts to get into space, as well as the scientific aspects. I think that in the public¿s eye the race with the Soviet¿s was far more important then scientific achievement.

00:14:50 Can you recall the moment that Armstrong stepped onto the moon?

00:14:56 You bet, I can recall, it seems to me, every second, every millisecond of it. That¿s the kind of thing that gets your attention and concentration to the degree that it¿s engraved on your memory. Just the other day I was doing a thing about golf, golf professionals and how this fellow 80 years old, these old golf pros can remember every stroke of a championship game. They can recall game after game. The stroke on this hole or that hole. Just exactly which club they used and how they did it. Details of that kind, all sportsmen can do. Race car drivers, for heavens sake, can go back and tell you on which lap they passed somebody and just exactly how they did it. A tennis player can tell you the strokes that he used in, at a certain stage in a championship game. It¿s a matter of concentration. When we really have to concentrate to that degree to achieve our job, we can remember every second of it. And that¿s man¿s landing on the moon was a matter of all our attention and concentration. I think that applied to the public as well as those of us who had to report it or has the privilege of reporting it.

00:16:29 Armstrong is so calm in the moment before the landing that those of us on Earth didn¿t know that he was almost out of fuel. Were you aware of that at the time? 00:16:58

00:16:59 No, that was a highly critical moment, obviously in that flight. But we did not know it. We were not told that by Mercury control at that particular, it wasn¿t Mercury control, Apollo control at that juncture. We learned it just a little bit later. As a matter of fact there a story that is not frequently told but it has been revealed that thousands upon thousands of people watching CBS television, millions I suppose, thousands gathered at Grand Central Station and other places where great public displays of our broadcasts were provided for the public they thought that the flight was safely down when there were still those three or four seconds of his trying to find a proper landing place. We had a simulation that we were running at that time and everything was going according to our simulation which we were showing of the simulated flight landing. We weren¿t kidding anybody. It had a big sign, ¿simulation¿ but at the same time the simulation was there and we saw the spacecraft there and we saw the spacecraft land in the simulation and I and Wally (?) at my side were vastly excited and actually the flight at that point was still at a point of considerable danger. It was only a few seconds of course difference but of course, it would have been terribly embarrassing to us and to our nation and a great tragedy if anything had happened.

00:18:44 What were you thinking as the spacecraft was coming down? 00:18:50

00:18:51 I didn¿t know that there was a problem and I was thinking of the knowing that delicate moment of having to land. We didn¿t really know, the people in the space program did not know that the lunar excursion module, the limb would land successfully, after all there was no way to test it. There¿s no was to reproduce a total lack of gravity or a near lack of gravity, on Earth. And this had to be all kind of computer-generated theory that this landing gear would land capably. We weren¿t sure that surface on the moon, we weren¿t sure where buried rocks would be and other problems as indeed happened when Armstrong got down there right within the landing. Here it turned out to be too rough to land, he had to avert and that¿s where the fuel expenditure took place.

00:20:01 You¿ve been a newsman for .. (WC You don¿t need to mention that.. Laughter¿ ) Talking about recording of Peary¿ It is incredible what has gone on in your lifetime and in this century. 00:21:20

00:21:21 It is, this century of ours, obviously is the century of the greatest progress of science and technology of any century we¿ve had. A lot of that could be put in the last half of the century in the developments in almost every area. In the scientific exploration, in that area of the world, we really say, have plunged in to 5 ages of man. Any one of them could be an era of its own. The Petrochemical Age, the Computer Age, the Television Age, the Space Age, the Atomic Age, the Nuclear Age. It¿s incredible what has happened, of course. But we, you know, there¿s so much adventure left. The books aren¿t closed on adventure. We haven¿t even begun to touch underseas exploration that is still a frontier which is beckoning adventurers of the future.

00:22:45 You wanted to be the first journalist in space.00:23:01

00:23:02Also, I¿ve done some deep diving with probably the outstanding archeological explorer of our time, Bob Ballard, of Woods Hole. I¿ve done some diving with him on the thermal rifts off of Baja California and other experiments of that kind.

00:23:28 You consider yourself still an explorer? 00:23:31

00:23:34 Well, no I¿m a voyeur, scientific adventurer voyeur.

00:23:41 There is something that calls to some people to experience exploration and discovery as you have. 00:24:04

00:24:05 Yes, and I think that they will be given more and more opportunities to do that. We are creating means by which non-scientists simply would be tourists, if you please, would be able to go to space. There¿s no reason why we can¿t use shortly use the shuttles to do that very thing, start taking some people out there, with the building of the space station there should be an opportunity for people to go, take a visit, spend a few days in space. I think that it¿s a shame that we haven¿t begun taking civilians in the shuttle already. The space program got scared off by the Challenger disaster and the death of Crista Macalliffe (SP?), the teacher and canceled what they had planned at that time as a civilian in space program. Next to go was would have been a newspaper person and then they were going to take a photographer and a poet and a few other selected types and then just general public, one by one. It¿s too bad that they¿ve abandoned that. There¿s space in the shuttle to do it. They could have been doing it. Underwater, very much the same thing. There are tourist submarines being built now. And near surface exploration of the reefs and underground, underwater phenomenon.

00:25:37 Talking about Sylvia Earle. Back and forth conversation.
Can you identify yourself for me.

00:26:22 I¿m Walter Cronkite, CBS one time space correspondent.

Out on 00:26:55

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