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

( 6 )


Some fifty years ago, while a cub reporter, Jay Barbree caught space fever the night that Sputnik passed over Georgia. He moved to the then-sleepy village of Cocoa Beach, Florida, right outside Cape Canaveral, and began reporting on rockets that fizzled as often as they soared. In "Live from Cape Canaveral," Barbree—the only reporter who has covered every mission flown by astronauts—offers his unique perspective on the space program. He shares affectionate portraits of astronauts as well as some of his fellow ...

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Some fifty years ago, while a cub reporter, Jay Barbree caught space fever the night that Sputnik passed over Georgia. He moved to the then-sleepy village of Cocoa Beach, Florida, right outside Cape Canaveral, and began reporting on rockets that fizzled as often as they soared. In "Live from Cape Canaveral," Barbree—the only reporter who has covered every mission flown by astronauts—offers his unique perspective on the space program. He shares affectionate portraits of astronauts as well as some of his fellow journalists and tells some very funny behind-the-scenes stories—many involving astronaut pranks. Barbree also shows how much the space program and its press coverage have changed over time. Warm and perceptive, he reminds us just how thrilling the great moments of the space race were and why America fell in love with its heroic, sometimes larger-than-life astronauts.

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Editorial Reviews

Larry King
“Jay Barbree of NBC News is arguably the best correspondent to ever cover the space program.”
Tom Brokaw
“This man knows more about space than anyone I know.”
Tom Brokaw
"This man knows more about space than anyone I know."
Larry King
"Jay Barbree of NBC News is arguably the best correspondent to ever cover the space program."
Publishers Weekly

NBC TV reporter Barbree will be a familiar figure to many readers for his frequent appearances on the Todayshow and his decadeslong coverage of the space program. As a cub radio announcer in Georgia in the late 1950s, Barbree (coauthor of Moon Shot) realized the next big story was taking place on the rocket launch pad in Florida. He began a string of scoops early on when, hiding in a men's room stall, he heard that a satellite launch would carry the first broadcast from space, a recorded message from President Eisenhower. Barbree's inside access allows him to give pungent details: in 1961, "[t]he astronauts' crew quarters... were smelly, military, uncomfortable and too damn close to the chimpanzees' colony" (a chimp having preceded man into space). While recounting the exploits of the early cowboy astronauts, he gives equal time to the tragedies of Apollo 1and Challenger(he broke the story on the cause of the shuttle's disaster) and the near-tragedy of Apollo 13. Barbree writes with infectious enthusiasm about the glory days of space exploration, and his book will be an enjoyable introduction for a new generation and a fond remembrance for boomers. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
NBC journalist Barbree, who holds the distinction of being the only reporter to cover every space mission flown by astronauts, recounts the fascinating, tragic and ultimately inspirational history of the U.S. space program. The author lived among the astronauts, socialized with them and watched as they strapped themselves into small metal canisters perched atop unimaginable explosive force. His personal involvement with the men who conquered space distinguishes this book from Tom Wolfe's classic, bumptious look at the space program's early days, The Right Stuff (1979), curiously not mentioned here. Where Wolfe projected himself into the astronauts' culture and mindset, Barbree shared them, and his enthusiasm for the material is irresistible. Stories of wild pranks, insanely reckless midnight drives and steadfast loyalty shared by the test pilots-turned-spacefarers leaven the impressively researched technical information, which is presented in a clear, accessible fashion. The author provides a trenchant analysis of the emotional underpinnings that initially drove the program, based on an epic rivalry with the Soviet Union. He isn't shy about venting his frustration at the government and military bureaucracy that impeded the program's progress and cost the lives of too many brave men and women. Passages on the tragedies that befell Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia are by turns anguished, outraged and cogent in their examination of what went wrong and what preventive measures might have been taken. Barbree (co-author, A Journey Through Time, 1995, etc.) was the reporter who broke the story on Challenger's faulty O-rings, and his account of his struggle to get the story past NBC brasscrackles with narrative tension. A final chapter on NASA's plans for building a permanent lunar station, to be used as a base for future colonization of other planets, concludes the narrative on a note of awe and optimism-the very feelings that inspired humanity's first steps into the Great Beyond. It's hard to imagine a more comprehensive or enjoyable history of the Space Race.
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 73, 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 [Slayton, chief of flight crew operations] 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. --Paul DiFilippo

The author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul DiFilippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award -- all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061233937
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/19/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 626,954
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.92 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Jay Barbree, seen left reporting live from the launch of Gemini 6 in December 1965, has covered the space race since Sputnik as a correspondent for NBC. The NBC space unit won an Emmy for its coverage of the first Apollo moon landing. Barbree also broke the world news exclusive on the cause of the Challenger explosion. The coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Moon Shot, he lives near Cape Canaveral.

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Table of Contents

Preface   Tom Brokaw     xi
Sputnik     1
The Early Days     14
The Astronauts     31
First in Space     47
John Glenn     65
On Orbit     81
The Worst of Times     95
Gemini     105
"I've got a fire in the cockpit!"     121
A Christmas Moon     136
The Secret Side of Space     144
Highway to the Moon     149
The Landing     159
Moon Walk     167
The Successful Failure     175
On the Moon     188
After the Moon     199
A Handshake in Space     204
Down Home with Jimmy Carter     211
The Space Shuttle Era     216
Challenger: A Disaster     226
What Happened?     236
An Eternity of Descent     249
Sudden Death     254
How High Is Up?     269
As the Century Turned     279
Columbia: Had They Only Looked     291
That's a Wrap!     300
Index     309
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First Chapter

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

Chapter One


In 1957, Cape Canaveral was the most vital and most intensely exciting place in the country. It offered cutting-edge technology in a time of nineteen-cent-a-gallon gasoline, nickel Cokes, two-bit drive-in movies, and the hit of the television season Leave It To Beaver. It was a time when doors went unlocked, when virgins married, when divorce ruined your social standing, and when folks spent their lives working for the same company with the promise of lifelong retirement checks.

In 1957 few that walked this planet reflected on the fact they were actually inhabitants of a mortal spaceship eight thousand miles in diameter, circling one of the universe's 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (ten to the twenty-fourth) stars at 67,062 miles per hour.

However, two groups of men and women—given the era, it was mostly men—were actually consumed, day and night, by the realities that we were all astronauts living on spaceship Earth. One group worked in the United States at Alabama's Redstone arsenal; the other busied itself in a Soviet hamlet called Baikonur on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

Like the American group, the Russians developed and worked on machines to lift nuclear warheads and stuff off our planet, and on the evening of October 4, 1957, one of their creations, a large white rocket called R–7, was being fueled for what some would call the single most important event of the twentieth century. Nearby, inside a steel-lined concrete bunker, an intense middle-aged man named Sergei Korolev was at work. Hisjob, as the chief rocket engineer for the USSR, was to orchestrate the stop-and-go countdown. But unlike his American counterpart, Wernher von Braun, Korolev had the full blessing and support of his country's communist government.

While Korolev had been chasing the goal of space flight at breakneck speed, Dr. von Braun had been pleading with President Dwight David Eisenhower to let him launch an Earth satellite. Only the year before, von Braun had moved his rocket and satellite to its launch pad without permission. He was going to launch it anyway, pretending that the satellite accidentally went into orbit. But Lieutenant Colonel Asa Gibbs, Cape Canaveral's commander, ordered the satellite launcher returned to its hangar. Colonel Gibbs cared more about his ass and making full colonel than he did history.

Now, with von Braun's rocket in storage, Sergei Korolev's R–7 was fueled, and his launch team was ready to send a satellite into orbit and send Russia into the history books.

"Gotovnosty dyesyat minut."

Ten minutes.

Steel braces that held the rocket in place were folded down, and the last power cables between Earth and the rocket fell away.

"Tri . . .

"Dva . . .

"Odin . . ."



Flame created a monstrous sea of fire. It ripped into steel and concrete and blew away the night. It sent orange daylight rolling across the steppes of Kazakhstan, quickly followed by a thunderous train of sound that shook all that stood within its path.

R–7 climbed from its self-created daylight on legs of flaming thrust and soon appeared as if it were an elongated star racing across a black sky. It fled from view and left darkness to once again swallow its launch pad as it became just another distant star over the Aral Sea.

While others strained to see the final flicker of the rocket, Korolev was interested only in the readouts. He sat transfixed by the tracking information streaming into the control room. The data were perfect. He was intently interested in each engine's shutdown. Separation of each stage had to be clean. And when the world's first man-made satellite slipped into Earth orbit, he permitted himself to rejoice with the others.

It would be called Sputnik (fellow traveler), and ninety-six minutes later, it completed its first trip around our planet, streaking over its still-steaming launch pad, broadcasting a lusty beep-beep-beep.

A dream had been realized.

Wild celebrations exploded across the Soviet Union.

In the NBC newsroom in New York, editor Bill Fitzgerald had just finished writing his next scheduled newscast when the wire-service machines began clanging. The persistent noise rattled most everything. Fitzgerald ran to the main Associated Press wire and began reading.


London, October 4th (AP)

Moscow radio said tonight that the Soviet Union has launched an Earth satellite.

The satellite, silver in color, weighs 184 pounds and is reported to be the size of a basketball.

Moscow radio said it is circling the globe every 96 minutes, reaching as far out as 569 miles as it zips along at more than 17,000 miles per hour.

Fitzgerald froze. He didn't want to believe his fully written newscast had just been flushed down the toilet.

"Damn!" he cursed in protest before hurrying across the newsroom and bursting into Morgan Beatty's office. "Mo, we've gotta update," he shouted. "One of the damn Russian missiles got away from them, and they lost a basketball or something in space."

Beatty, a World War II correspondent, never came unglued in battles and he wasn't about to be upset by an agitated editor. "Give me that," he demanded, snatching the wire copy from Fitzgerald's hand.

Beatty's eyes widened as he read. "Jesus Christ, Bill, you know what this is? The Russians have put a satellite in Earth orbit! They've been talking about it, and damn it, they've really done it!"

Fitzgerald took a deep breath. "Okay, what do we do, Mo?"

The veteran newscaster didn't hesitate. "We've got to get this on the air, now!"

Sputnik came around the world, streaking northeast over the Gulf of Mexico and Alabama. Its current orbit took it south of Huntsville, where the U.S. Army's rocket team at the Redstone Arsenal was enjoying dinner and cocktails with some high-powered brass from Washington. One of the guests was Neil H. McElroy, who was soon to be the secretary of defense. Wernher von Braun was delighted. He judged McElroy as a man of action and when he replaced the current defense secretary, Charles E. Wilson, action would be . . .

"Live from Cape Canaveral"
Covering the Space Race, from Sputnik to Today
. Copyright © by Jay Barbree. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2013


    A great read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2012

    Read the sample.

    I just got done reading the sample and it hooked me. I've been trying to read up on my space history larely and this is one of the few that didn't get stuffy. It also has pictures (some times thats a plus.)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2012

    not read yet,looks interesting

    not read

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted April 18, 2012

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    Posted August 27, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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