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Walter Cronkite became indelibly tied to the space program during the 1960s thanks to his extensive television coverage. (source: Walter Cronkite Papers, © CBS, Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin)

Cronkite on space: inspiration, not information

Honoring the enthusiasm, overlooking the inaccuracies

NASA’s ceremony last Tuesday, February 28, to honor veteran newsman Walter Cronkite with his own personal piece of a Moon rock was a fitting reminder of how central Cronkite was to the American public’s impressions of the Apollo Moon landings. Cronkite, the only non-astronaut ever to be awarded such an unearthly memento, wasn’t actually allowed to keep it (it remains illegal for any US citizen to own lunar samples brought back by Apollo astronauts), so he “loaned” the specimen to his alma mater, the University of Texas in Austin.

According to NASA’s February 16 press release, the award was explicitly attributed to Cronkite “for his coverage of America’s space program”, and adds that he “is the best remembered journalist for his commentary and enthusiastic coverage of the historic progression of missions from the early Mercury launches, through the ground-breaking Gemini missions, to the Apollo 11 and subsequent moon landings.” Continues the NASA citation: “His marathon, live coverage of the first moon landing brought the excitement and impact of the historic event into the homes of millions of Americans and observers around the world.”

Cronkite made absolutely no mention of his feelings toward the plans to return to the Moon, even if the first trip was his favorite news story of his life.

And that’s the way it was, for sure, and it makes the award marvelously proper. But when it comes to his covering aerospace news, it’s not the whole story, not by a long shot. Commentary, yes, and enthusiasm, again and yet again yes—all worthy of such extraterrestrial honors. To keep the record straight, however, we must recognize that Cronkite’s news coverage was far from straight and far from complete.

After all, the most significant message from last week’s ceremony was actually what was not said. After decades of enthusiastic support for America’s space program, Cronkite was (in the words of a participant in the ceremony) “carefully non-committal” about NASA’s current project to resume human flights beyond low Earth orbit. A journalist at the event (there were few: the Associated Press wrote its news story purely based on NASA press releases, and used a stock photo of Cronkite taken last year), agreed: Cronkite made absolutely no mention of his feelings toward the plans to return to the Moon, even if the first trip was his favorite news story of his life.

He wasn’t always so reticent or reserved. I remember being awake early enough one morning in November 1967, when space shots were still televised live, to watch him cover the first launch of America’s Saturn 5 Moon rocket. Although it was unmanned, it was critical to fulfilling Kennedy’s pledge of landing astronauts on the Moon before the end of the decade.

With a growing roar and flares of light, the booster ignited. Cronkite was sitting in a recently-built CBS News studio at the press site about three miles from Pad 39 where the launch occurred. Behind him, through a picture window, the searchlight-lit booster gleamed white against the rosy pre-dawn sky. At least, I assumed it was rosy: I only had a black-and-white TV set in my apartment at graduate school where I was an eager NASA trainee on a three-year scholarship from the space agency.

He gave a rapid-fire commentary on the beginning of this important mission, and then turned partially away from the camera. “The roar is shaking the studio”, he exulted, his voice rich with excitement that rapidly shifted to anxiety: “The window is coming loose!” Cronkite reached out his right arm, against the window, and held it in place as the rocket climbed skywards and the rumble faded.

That’s the way it was, the way I remember his space coverage: live, exciting, celebratory, uplifting in every way. If America loved its space program, it was because many of them saw it through Cronkite’s eyes, felt it through his heart, and learned about it from his words, expressions, and gestures.

That was a long time ago. Decades later, as Cronkite the emeritus newsman worked on his memoirs, special projects, and occasional newspaper column, the memories of the real space program had sufficiently faded that for most people, all they remembered was Cronkite’s reportage and Cronkite’s accounts.

And then we had a problem, Houston. That was because, emotional rush aside, so much of what Cronkite said then and wrote later was only distantly related to the realities of space history. People who went to him for space information may have been excited, all right, but as often as not they were also misinformed.

As a veteran Apollo-era astronaut told me privately, Cronkite “seems marvelous, unless you happen to be an expert in what he’s talking about.” Sadly that was the consensus among space workers, who still loved him for his unabashed enthusiasm.

For the wider public, such realization of reality has been rarer. Nostalgia of his impressive past, and especially his role in communicating the excitement of space exploration to the public, have led to many adulatory comments that exaggerate Cronkite’s accuracy on this particular subject.

As a veteran Apollo-era astronaut told me privately, Cronkite “seems marvelous, unless you happen to be an expert in what he’s talking about.”

For example, when noted political commentator Tom Wicker reviewed Cronkite’s book, A Reporter’s Life, in the New York Times (January 26, 1997), he asserted that “Cronkite also displays here his avid interest in and great knowledge of the space program.” Sadly, it is people such as Wicker, with little personal interest and less knowledge of space, who most easily can consider Cronkite’s off-hand retrospective comments as reliable.

On the subject of space exploration, Cronkite’s book and TV series in 1997, Cronkite Remembers, provided examples where “good stories” about space could get overdramatized and distorted. For people excited about space due to Cronkite’s admirable enthusiasm, the best strategy is probably to allow the enthusiasm to motivate a deeper exposure to reliable records, and to accept Cronkite’s stories as just that—interesting stories loosely based on vague memories of misunderstood events.

Nobody with a news career as rich and varied as Cronkite’s can escape an “errata” folder of flubs and oversights, and Cronkite has explicitly acknowledged that. For example, in reference to Wally Schirra’s dramatic seconds during a launch abort in December 1965, Cronkite clearly enjoyed telling the story in his book but had grown careless about the details. First, he referred to it as an “Apollo” mission (it was a Gemini). Second, he provided an elaborate scenario of confused flight controllers deferring in desperation to the on-site astronaut’s judgment, when all that really happened was nothing: Schirra did not pull the ejection handle despite an indicator that told him the booster had lifted off, probably because his “seat of the pants” instinct told him there was no liftoff and he was safe to stay on board. The original event was dramatic, but after three decades of over-dramatization, the historical accuracy of Cronkite’s verbal account has been lost.

Here’s another, more serious garble. In discussing his own role in NASA’s short-lived “Journalist in Space” program in the mid-1980’s, Cronkite’s version jumbled the chronology related to the Challenger disaster. He described himself going through the selection process, to become one of forty finalists, only to then have the program canceled after the Challenger disaster in January 1986.

This is far from accurate. Actually, the selection process did not even begin until months after that tragedy, and then continued through the choosing of the finalists (Cronkite among them). Only later was the program canceled. His sequence, and his cause-and-effect judgments, is entirely jumbled.

These comments may seem like “nit picking”, and any journalist needs a lot of slack for old stories. But they may also exemplify carelessness due to over-confidence. These are minor inconsistencies that are typical of relying on long-retold narratives, especially when (sadly, as in these cases) adequate efforts appear not to have been made to verify the memories against existing records. It is regrettable that nobody on Cronkite’s staff double-checked these passages. It’s too bad neither they nor his publishers ever seem to have seen the need to do so.

Even more serious is at least one significant journalistic lapse in the “Man on the Moon” episode of the televised series, Cronkite Remembers, in the mid-1990’s. There, he also repeated his erroneous sequence of events for the space journalist program. But worse: one of the most thrilling moments in human history got significantly distorted.

Cronkite showed laudable candor and his classic humor in discussing how the TV simulation of the Apollo 11 landing completed its Moon touchdown many seconds before Armstrong actually set the Eagle lunar module down on the surface.

But then when showing the view of Armstrong descending the LM ladder and giving his famous “One small step” oration, the program incorrectly matched the astronaut’s spring off the ladder onto the footpad with the moment of the comments about his step onto the surface.

Actually, once off the ladder and on the footpad, Armstrong jumped back up onto the ladder’s bottom rung, then moved back onto the footpad, and only then gently moved one foot from the pad to the lunar dirt. The motion was barely visible on the screen.

That was the real “small step” of his speech, not the incorrectly presented big jump off the ladder. With the incorrect audio-video matchup, a viewer is genuinely puzzled by the “small step” reference. And they would remain puzzled and misinformed until they realized that Cronkite’s account was bogus.

True, this visual misrepresentation has become widespread in some other documentaries, and in at least one official NASA video history program. But Cronkite’s staff had no excuse for allowing it in his program. Televised image finally triumphed over technical accuracy, despite Cronkite’s long and laudable struggle throughout his space coverage to always “get it right”. Not this time: that’s not the way it was, I’m sorry to have to say.

Nor was any mention made in Cronkite’s television program about the Soviet side of the “Moon race” and its role in motivating the American side to complete the program. This has particular poignancy to me since it was an inaccurate statement by Cronkite in a 1974 CBS TV news special (“Fifth Anniversary – Apollo in Retrospect”) that sparked a major space history research project of mine.

The significance of these historical inaccuracies should not be overblown. In the bigger picture, Cronkite’s on-target appreciation of the intense drama of space exploration, and his ability to communicate that human interest to the general public, classify him indisputably as one of the “good guys” of the Space Age.

In researching that special, one of Cronkite’s staff had telephoned me among other “Soviet space experts” regarding the question of whether or not the Russians had been serious about “racing” us to the moon. After Apollo 11 had succeeded in 1969, Soviet officials declared they had never intended to send men to the Moon, and many Western journalists aided in the promotion of the notion that Apollo had been an empty victory in a one-sided race. It had been a pointless, expensive stunt, one that Moscow had wisely chosen to forego.

I told Cronkite’s staffer that the question of a “Soviet side of the Moon Race” was still unresolved but that the majority of serious observers (such as Charles Sheldon of the Congressional Research Service) were, like myself, of the opinion that the race had been real and the Russian excuses were rationalizations for their own inadequacies. I opined that Moscow’s claim that it had deliberately chosen not to send cosmonauts to the Moon was only a self-serving propaganda lie (as indeed, more than a decade later, it was proven to be).

Yet when the show actually aired in July 1974, Cronkite expressed no ambiguity: “It turned out there never had been a race to the Moon,” Cronkite told the audience, unconsciously endorsing Moscow’s public posturing about not ever being serious about manned lunar flight (and pulling the rug out from under the geopolitical significance of the project). I was so upset by this historical error that I was constructively motivated to prepare a long essay, “Russia Meant to Win the Moon Race”, which the following year won the National Space Club’s annual Robert Goddard Space History Award. Even then, NASA’s distinguished historian Eugene Emme insisted I alter the title by adding a question mark, to signify continuing uncertainty.

The essay later became a chapter in my 1981 book, Red Star in Orbit (without the question mark!), and my thesis about a real Moon race was ultimately vindicated by glasnost and post-Soviet disclosures from Moscow. Cronkite’s 1974 mistaken endorsement of Moscow’s phony excuse for losing, meanwhile, vanished from history, and judging from the 1990’s book and television products, is going to stay vanished!

The significance of these historical inaccuracies in the Cronkite’s 1997 book and TV series should not be overblown. In the bigger picture, Cronkite’s on-target appreciation of the intense drama of space exploration, and his ability to communicate that human interest to the general public at the same time that NASA publicity officials were doing their best to make the program boring, classify him indisputably as one of the “good guys” of the Space Age.

In later years, Cronkite’s love of space exploration transcended ideological biases and he received flak from the left for such attitudes. In 1989, when President Bush had just released his “Space Exploration Initiative” calling for eventual human missions to Mars, Cronkite was interviewed by Leslie Stahl on “Face the Nation”. Cronkite was instinctively all for the idea, but the reporter would have none of such nonsense. Stahl was so derisive about the idea that she literally laughed in Cronkite’s face.

Perhaps that explains why, in 2006, Cronkite found it proper to remain silent about supporting an activity he once had loved. His disdain for the current White House administration is well known, and perhaps it trumped his old pro-space instincts. That is entirely his right.

And as for historical accuracy, Cronkite would be the first to agree that no journalistic account (even his) should ever be considered an “original source” for any research. Anyone seeking precise and reliable chronologies should go to the detailed documentation, not the television-style summations.

It is in large part due to Cronkite’s unabashed love of the subject that so many people really still do go to the detailed books. So for his expressing that affection for space exploration, Cronkite will always have a special place in the hearts of space enthusiasts everywhere. That is the way it was!