Live from Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space Race, from Sputnik to Today

We children sit in the sun-splashed classroom, squirmy and pleasantly anxious behind our steel-sided, tubular-legged desks. The date is May 15, 1963, and I am in the third grade. Today we’ve been promised a special treat: watching an American rocket take off from Cape Canaveral. An industrial-strength B&W television is wheeled into the classroom and the live coverage tuned in. We are told to get out paper (beige, coarse, flecked with wood pulp) and crayons (waxy colored sticks flat on one side) and begin drawing what we see. I meticulously render the stubby, waffle-cone-shaped capsule that will carry a man into space, and scrawl its name: Faith Seven. Excited voices issue from the set, and the rocket blasts off.

Chances are pretty good that the reporter’s voice my eight-year-old self heard narrating the launch belonged to Jay Barbree of NBC. At age seventy-three, Barbree is still holding down the job he’s occupied since 1958: covering the NASA beat. (He began tracking the space program for local radio stations in 1957, with the bombshell that was Sputnik.) Barbree is the only reporter to have chronicled every single manned launch NASA has performed — 150, all told, right down to Endeavour’s STS-118 mission in August 2007.

Now Barbree has put many of his fascinating professional memories into book form with Live from Cape Canaveral. His collection of anecdotes — alternately amusing, gripping or revelatory — does not purport to be a complete history of the U.S. space program. Although it is scrupulously factual, it offers instead a series of vividly recounted milestones meant to chart human progress in the quest to break free of our native globe. Along the way, we receive Barbree’s autobiography in bits and pieces, which finally cohere to form a charming portrait of a farm boy from Georgia fascinated by the moon and stars.

Barbree’s tale commences with a brief synopsis of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik orbital breakthroughs in 1957. As he does throughout, Barbree casts historic events he could not have seen (those that transpired, in this case, in Soviet Mission Control) into the same firsthand-observer’s voice that he uses to describe events he witnessed himself. This confers a novelistic smoothness to the narrative but does initially occasion some small wonderment about the accuracy of reconstructed dialogue. That said, Barbree’s preface explains that he drew on the “files and memories” of such luminaries as Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin, and, ultimately, the resulting dramatizations have the ring of authenticity.

Knowing that the American response to the Soviet challenge will center around Cape Canaveral in Florida, Barbree relocates himself to the sleepy seaside town of Cocoa Beach, and is on hand to narrate over the airwaves the spectacular failure of a Vanguard rocket at the end of that year. Before you can say “Wernher von Braun,” Barbree is chumming with the Mercury Seven astronauts, as they play practical jokes on each other and race their dealer-supplied freebie Corvettes up and down the Florida highways, while training to sit atop millions of tons of explosive and be blasted into the unknown. Launch by selected launch, Barbree catalogues the triumphs and disasters that befall these pioneers in brusque yet juicy all-American prose.

This portion of Barbree’s story will of course immediately summon up comparisons to Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. No two books on the same material could be more different, nor any two authors: Wolfe, the cynical, sensationalistic outsider clamoring for the spotlight; Barbree, not unsophisticated but an eternal optimist and ingenuous true believer, a steady-eddy, second-string team player. Immersed wholeheartedly in the NASA milieu, believing in the value and rightness of the space program, Barbree always chooses to accentuate the positive. Even the horrible Apollo 1 tragedy, in which Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died in a launch pad fire, is concluded on this note:

The tears flowed for five, perhaps ten minutes; Deke wasn’t sure. He could only stand there and hurt, and when the tears were slowing he turned once again to the blackened Apollo. ‘This won’t happen again, guys,’ he promised the fallen astronauts. ‘It won’t happen again.’?. And as Deke promised Gus, Ed, and Roger, it never happened again on his watch.

Yet Barbree is not above singling out injustices, bonehead mistakes, and even perceived personal slights. He disses LBJ for funneling pork-barrel dollars to Texas to establish redundant NASA facilities in Houston. He rightly lambastes NASA itself for the Challenger disaster. He chronicles jealousy among the astronauts and the tug-of-war between the media and NASA over information access. And he gets a little grumpy at how pretty-boy journalists with a fraction of his own experience get all the screen time.

After the Mercury program came the Gemini and Apollo campaigns, and Barbree zips from tragedy to triumph with a true storyteller’s zest. His solidly mortised, salty prose — reading like Ben Hecht’s — approaches poetry at crucial moments, hymning the engineer’s marriage of man and machine in pursuit of the ineffable.

The five big rocket engines that made up the first stage had compressed the Saturn’s three stages and Apollo’s two stages like an accordion. But those mighty engines were shutting down. The sudden cutoff threw the three astronauts forward in their seats. The accordion stretched out and then compressed again, and then the astronauts heard metallic bangs and a mixture of clunks and clangs as explosive bolts blew away the now empty stage.

The end of the Apollo program takes the reader nearly up to the two-thirds mark in the book, leaving the last portion to be filled with a condensed anthology of comparatively less exciting accounts of the Shuttle, the International Space Station, and the Hubble Observatory. Barbree’s trademark buoyancy occasionally lapses into a wistful melancholy for the heyday of the space program — a bring-down which finds a parallel in his personal life, as he experiences a “sudden death” heart attack that is usually fatal. But, recovering, he resumes his reporter’s post with remarkable and admirable vigor.

One glaring absence in this book is any mention of science fiction. A love of SF formed and propelled the space program. That literature was omnipresent among the engineers, if not the astronauts themselves. Barbree himself echoes many of SF’s tropes, explaining, for instance, how humanity must move out into the solar system to survive. Yet he omits any reference to even such famous events as Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke serving as commentators during the Apollo 11 mission. Barbree was best friends with the writer Martin Caidin, and Caidin’s novel Marooned is the only piece of science fiction cited. Yet the Caidin book comes too late in the timeline to be seminal. Still, this lone omission is hardly critical.

The Faith Seven mission I watched as a child ran into trouble, a fact I have no memory of. Perhaps the TV was too soon wheeled away for another lesson. But you can read here how Gordon Cooper astonishingly managed to land a dead ship, exhibiting a Horatio Alger?like humble heroism and devotion to duty — traits possessed also by Jay Barbree himself.