A Reporter's View of the Apollo Missions: White Fire and a Pillar of Sun

How you cover a trip to the moon and share the news with the world.
Reporter's View of the Apollo Missions
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Joel Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- I began preparing for this day when I was 10.

A teletype operator sat at a gray-green machine, his index finger over a switch embedded in the lower left-hand corner. Like the hundreds of journalists sitting impatiently in a makeshift newsroom in Houston, he was listening to the spaceship-Earth transmissions over loudspeakers. It was, if it happened, destined to be one of the most illustrious events in human history.

"The Eagle has landed."

He flicked the switch, the machine started chattering, and the word went out. Journalists, who are not supposed to cheer events they cover, cheered. I was among them, a national reporter for Reuters, the British news agency.

Apollo 11 had landed. We could not imagine what the space program and its related technology would actually do for the world. We didn't know that as subsequent Apollo missions took over our lives a bored America would turn away from the moon.

My adventure began when the Reuters reporter who had covered space announced that even the first men going to the moon bored him. I almost jumped on a table screaming, “Take me!” A colleague said he thought I was going to hurt myself. I became head of space coverage and chief of an ad hoc Houston bureau.

Apollo press bleachers

The press bleachers for the Apollo 11 launch. 

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This image may only be reproduced with this Inside Science article. 

There was a launch every three months or so from Cape Canaveral. Reuters rented a cabin for me on the beach because it was cheaper than getting a hotel room with its jacked-up prices. The cabin became something of a social center for reporters, 300 feet from the Atlantic with a fully stocked bar.

We were carted around the Florida space center in buses. Once I sat next to author Isaac Asimov. The press bleachers were a mile away from the launch site, perhaps positioned so an explosion wouldn't kill America's elite science writing corps. It was long before the spread of desktop computers, cellphones, and the internet, so we had landline phones and portable typewriters (almost all light green Olivettis) on desks in front of us in the bleachers.

After the launch, we raced to the airport and hopped on a chartered National Airlines DC-8, the "Drunk Flight." The silliness of launching a rocket from Florida but controlling it from Texas can be explained in three words: Texas congressional delegation. If y'all are going to spend a lot of money in Florida, y'all better spend some in Texas.

It was a golden age of journalism and many media outlets were flush with money, especially Reuters, the oldest and largest news agency in the world. We got used to ignoring the prices on restaurant menus and I was ordered -- ordered -- to fly first class. One Reuters colleague, a wine connoisseur, taught me French wines. (Reuters' North American editor, an Englishman named Alan Paterson, told me in all seriousness that if you can't live better on the road than you can at home you should stay home. I loved that man.)

We formed -- about 100 of us -- a traveling circus that showed up at every spaceflight. There was journalistic competition among us to be sure, but there were also parties, and the bars were well attended. In many cases we were making friends we would keep for the rest of our lives. Mark Bloom, then a reporter for the New York Daily News, married an ABC producer he met at an Apollo press conference.

Many of us had cabinets full of NASA technical publications showing almost every nut, bolt, wire and screw in the module and the rocket. It required serious homework if you wanted to understand what was happening. Oh, and slide rules to convert in and out of the metric system and translate nautical miles to regular miles.

apollo 11 launch

Apollo 11 launches on July 16, 1969. 

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I found that reading science fiction since I was a kid helped with the physics and some of the jargon.

My colleague, Jerry Oster, had prepared a preliminary story to be loaded into the teletype and sent out when the first human footstep touched the dust of the lunar surface. It bore his byline and was mostly background and landing preparations.

We had no story written in preparation for a disaster, but the story was written so we could throw the important details, such as Armstrong's famous first words, on top. 

The story was punched into teletype tape, a yellow band of paper with holes signifying every letter and punctuation mark, proclaiming what Reuters called a "flash": MEN ON THE MOON. It would also make the teletypes around the world chime six times to announce, in what were then called newspaper wire rooms, that something really important had happened.

The teletype in Houston was connected to a telephone line to New York, which was connected to a Reuters underwater cable to London and from there to many of the world's newspapers and broadcast media. When Neil Armstrong announced the Eagle had landed, word of the landing was dispatched around the world in minutes.

I wrote the main story a short time later. It carried my byline and may have reached a billion people.

One thing bystanders are not likely to forget is the fire and sound of the Saturn V rocket, still the most powerful rocket ever built. Television doesn't come close to capturing it even if Walter Cronkite did once fall off his chair on television in excitement.

The rocket's first stage erupted with white fire, a pillar of sun. You almost had to turn away.

But it was the sound that I always remember, or rather the feeling of the sound transmitted through the ground. It was a roaring crackle that went from your feet to your head, rattling every bone -- and I think-- every filling in your teeth. To sit strapped in atop this controlled explosion is beyond comprehension.

There was nothing elegant about Apollo. We got to the moon by brute force.

Apollo's technological legacy

After Apollo 17, the program's final mission, Jonathan Eberhart, who covered space for Science News, wrote an essay about Apollo called "Confessions of a Space Freak." Eberhart, one of the very best science writers, also was a poet and a musician. Like me, he was beyond happy covering Apollo.

Eberhart posited that we as humans were doing what humans do. We were exploring, reaching beyond our horizons. The trip to the moon was inevitable.

Just as surely as shiny things crawled out of the ooze to become human beings, it was absolutely unavoidable that those humans would keep climbing past their inalterably finite planet [he wrote]. They won't stop with the moon. You can study it to death but who wants it? They'll go to other planets, other moons and I simply cannot imagine that short of some fundament species-wide change or the sun going nova they won't go to other planetary systems, around other stars.

I wrote a column the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I was then working, completely agreeing with my friend. We explore because that's what we humans do. And there were the "spinoffs," the inventions (6,300 by some counts) that space engineers and scientists developed because of the space program, everything from CT scanners to invisible teeth braces.

circuit board

The space program helped launch the electronic revolution. 

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Sebastian Dooris via Flickr

Most importantly, modern engineering and computing developed for the program have changed the way scientists and engineers work and think, and triggered the electronic revolution. Among other things, the electronic age eliminated the job of teletype operator. Indeed, most work is now done differently from how it was done pre-Apollo, including mine.

Today, an iPhone has exponentially more power than Apollo's computer, which took up several rooms, and that is the direct result of Apollo and the earlier crewed missions. That alone should justify the space program.

NASA bragged about the science that could be done by astronauts, but it is worth noting Apollo revolutionized technology, not science. Apollo was a kludge put together by the largest collection of competent people in all of history.

Jonathan and I were both wrong. It never occurred to me, or Jonathan, that not only did we see the first humans on the moon, but the last for a very long time, if ever. America landed on the moon and turned away.

What comes after visiting the moon?

The reason for the moon landing was the Cold War and the fact that the Soviet Union got into space before us, so Congress opened the treasury -- $112 billion in 2019 dollars. Once we beat the Soviets, few cared any longer. Watching a bunch of guys collecting rocks is not intrinsically interesting even if it is on the moon. Neither is spaceflight unless, like Apollo 13, you get into trouble. Days would go by and -- hopefully -- nothing would happen.

And so, soon after it started, it was over. Poof.

Ten missions landing men on the moon became six and the wonderful adventure of flying to a different world was replaced by the space shuttle, essentially a placeholder program to keep NASA occupied. I won several awards for my columns in the Philadelphia Inquirer criticizing the decision to go ahead with the shuttle instead of trying for a moon colony.

Jonathan and I both opposed the space shuttle. I mentioned -- correctly, alas -- that it would be dangerous.

The fact the public quickly lost interest was a surprise to many, but not to NASA. Bloom, from the Daily News, said he heard NASA officials talking about it at a dinner during Apollo 12. The first clue was when the TV networks cut back on coverage.

In recent months, there has been a recurrence of interest in a crewed flight to someplace, Mars perhaps, or back to the moon. NASA recently estimated that completing a proposed 2024 moon trip would cost $20 billion to $30 billion. A trip to Mars would likely be more expensive and more dangerous. Could we make these trips? Absolutely. Will we?

"Not in my lifetime," said Bloom. Eberhart died in 2003.

I'm 81. I’ll never see it happen.

Author Bio & Story Archive

Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer in Baltimore who has also taught journalism and science writing.