The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Walter Cronkite’s coverage of the early space program attracted large audiences, but was his work journalism or publicity? (credit: Dolph Briscoe Center for American History)

And that’s the way it was in space

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In today’s fractured media landscape, it’s hard to imagine a time, just a few decades ago, when most Americans turned to a handful of men on evening television to learn about the day’s events. The three major TV networks in the US still have their evening newscasts, and they still have some influence, but they seem a shadow of their earlier selves as people can now get news—and often with it commentary from their preferred political perspective—from 24-hour news networks, news web sites, blogs, or Twitter.

“If the Vanguard hadn’t exploded on takeoff, it’s reasonable to surmise that Reasoner would have become CBS News’ how-to space reporter; it wouldn’t have been Cronkite’s beat,” Brinkley argues.

When those media alternatives didn’t exist, though, the evening TV newscasts were a major source of news for Americans, and for much of the 1960s and ’70s that meant, for many, sitting down at 6:30 pm Eastern to get the news from Walter Cronkite. Widely revered as the “most trusted man in America”, Cronkite was also the de facto voice of the American space program during its early heyday, a role than garnered him fame but also some media criticism. Cronkite’s life, including a review of his work reporting on—and, perhaps, uncritically promoting—the space program, is the subject a massive new biography, Cronkite, by Douglas Brinkley.

Cronkite was involved in coverage of American space efforts from its early days, narrating a documentary series for CBS in the late 1950s called The Twentieth Century that focused heavily on the emerging space race and related military efforts. Yet he was not the network’s first choice to cover space: it sent another reporter, Harry Reasoner, to Cape Canaveral to cover the launch of Vanguard 1 in late 1957. The failure of Vanguard, Brinkley suggests, gave an opening to Cronkite: “If the Vanguard hadn’t exploded on takeoff, it’s reasonable to surmise that Reasoner would have become CBS News’ how-to space reporter; it wouldn’t have been Cronkite’s beat.” That failure, and CBS’s subsequent decision to not air the launch of Explorer 1 live, gave time for Cronkite to make the case he was the network’s best reporter to cover the nascent space program. As another contemporary of Cronkite, Andy Rooney, recalled, Cronkite’s work on The Twentieth Century let him build “the best space Rolodex in the business”, outmaneuvering Reasoner.

By the early 1960s, Cronkite had become one of the leading, if not the leading, journalist covering the space program, particularly through his coverage of the early Mercury manned missions. Part of that was due to the amount of effort he put into preparing for his coverage, learning as much as he could about the space program; John Glenn recalled being “flabbergasted” by Cronkite’s knowledge of Mercury when the two first met. “His CBS broadcasts were the main factor in the public understanding my mission,” Glenn said.

Cronkite, though, also benefited from an unmatched level of access within NASA. Other reporters covering Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight in May 1961 “noticed that Cronkite had a behind-closed-doors alignment with NASA, as if he knew their secret handshake,” Brinkley writes. Later, in the run-up to Apollo 11, Brinkley writes that some speculated CBS and NASA “were in cahoots” to turn the mission into a giant spectacle (as if the first mission to land humans on the Moon wasn’t spectacular in and of itself). Brinkley notes that there’s little documentation of any agreement between the network and the space agency regarding cooperation in the coverage of the space program, but Cronkite “was essentially accorded carte blanche treatment by the powers at NASA” as he prepared for that historic mission. CBS producer Don Hewitt suggested that there was an unspoken, undocumented understanding between CBS and NASA: “If we continued to help the space agency get its appropriations from Congress, they would in turn give us, free of charge, the most spectacular television shows anyone had ever seen.”

Cronkite “became deeply trusted at NASA; he was uplifting, controllable, willingly submissive, part of the NASA team, the facile voice of a fellow player.”

That relationship raised another issue: was Cronkite, in his coverage of NASA, acting as a journalist or, instead, more of a promoter and publicist for NASA? Brinkley’s book suggests he was more the latter. Cronkite “didn’t respect critics of Apollo 11,” Brinkley writes, describing how he cut ties with Norman Mailer for several years after Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon appeared to belittle the Apollo astronauts. “Walter had so bought into space that any criticism of the moon launch in 1969 was anathema to him,” recalled Bill Plante who, as part of CBS’s coverage of Apollo 11, reported on how some people on the street in New York thought the space agency’s efforts were a waste of money. (Plante added that Cronkite still let that report air.) Another reporter, ABC’s Lynn Sherr, concluded that Cronkite “was more of a cheerleader than a reporter.”

Brinkley appears to agree with that assessment, saying that Cronkite “publicly embraced Kennedy’s moon pledge with the ardor of a convert” and that he was “more NASA collaborator than reporter.” Cronkite “became deeply trusted at NASA; he was uplifting, controllable, willingly submissive, part of the NASA team, the facile voice of a fellow player.”

Cronkite said he regretted one time when he did become more journalist than publicist when covering the space program. Interviewing the Apollo 11 crew a few weeks after their mission, he pressed Neil Armstrong on what, if any, religious affiliation he had, in response to claims (that Armstrong denied) that he was an atheist. Afterwards, Brinkley writes, “Cronkite felt like a bum. Had it really been necessary to push Armstrong on religion?” Another CBS colleague, Ed Bradley, recalled that Cronkite told him that interview was “the biggest on-air mistake he’d ever made.”

But while Cronkite’s relationship with NASA may have generated criticism—or at least jealousy—from other journalists, the public loved the enthusiasm he had for the space program. Shepard’s flight made Cronkite a “mega TV star” that became even bigger with his launch-to-splashdown coverage of Glenn’s flight. “Looking fit and feisty,” Brinkley writes, “Cronkite soared to TV newsman fame on the exhaust of John Glenn’s Redstone [sic] rocket.”

Career advancement could have been one reason why Cronkite attached himself so closely to the space program. He started covering it several years before becoming the iconic anchor of the CBS Evening News; at the time, he was trying to move up the ranks in CBS’s still relatively new television news operations, and the airtime and public attention he got from his space coverage certainly helped him win the job in March 1962, just weeks after Glenn’s flight. Brinkley also surmises that Cronkite was drawn to the space program, and to cover it positively, out of duty to the country in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Brinkley called it an “Eighth Air Force complex”, as Cronkite, working as a United Press reporter in World War II, covered the Eighth Air Force in England and even flew on raids over Germany.

The biggest reason, though, might be that Cronkite was simply, as Brinkley put it, a “space nut” fascinated with spaceflight. How Cronkite became enamored with space isn’t clear from the book, but his interest in aviation dates back not only to his coverage of World War II military aviation but to a ride in a barnstormer’s plane as a seven-year-old in Missouri. Whatever its origins, that passion for space was evident in his broadcasts and continued long after the Apollo missions, although “something inside him died” when Apollo ended, Brinkey writes. In the 1980s, after he retired from the anchor’s chair at CBS, Cronkite applied to be the first journalist in space; he even donned a NASA powder blue flight suit and helmet for a Life magazine photo shoot. Those dreams of spaceflight ended, though, after the Challenger accident and NASA’s termination of its Citizen in Space program.

Cronkite, who brought space into the homes of millions of Americans through his television broadcasts, did not get to go into space himself. Yet, he did get to touch the Moon.

After Challenger, Cronkite was concerned interest in space was fading: in 1988 he was “dismayed that Mars exploration was not being embraced fulsomely enough by Congress,” while a year later, at ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11, he worried that President George H.W. Bush, who had just unveiled was became the Space Exploration Initiative, “hadn’t given a tight deadline or strong financial commitment to Mars exploration.” (SEI, of course, would die a lingering death over the next few years due to lack of Congressional support and infighting between the White House and NASA.) His last moment in the space limelight is when he covered John Glenn’s return to space on shuttle mission STS-95 in 1998 for both CNN and CBS, a bit of a nostalgic victory lap for the legendary anchor.

Was Cronkite’s genuine enthusiasm for spaceflight, combined with a dose of patriotism and perhaps a dash of career advancement, appropriate for a journalist covering the space program during the heady days of the 1960s space race? “He was seeing it as a big special-event story,” Brinkley said in a recent interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. “So the question is whether he is right to be focusing on space and pushing that story narrative. I feel [the answer is] yes.”

Cronkite, who brought space into the homes of millions of Americans through his television broadcasts, did not get to go into space himself (he lobbied to fly with Glenn on STS-95, but recent heart surgery ruled out any possibility of that happening, the book notes.) Yet, he did get to touch the Moon. During a break in TV coverage of Apollo 12 in November 1969, Brinkley writes, a NASA scientist visited the studio’s green room and motioned to Cronkite and a few guests, including author Arthur C. Clarke and former astronaut Wally Schirra. Tucked away in a coat pocket were vials of lunar soil returned by Apollo 11. “He held the moon soil in the palms of his hands,” Brinkley wrote. “All Cronkite could do was stare.”