Howard Benedict
Khue Bui  /  AP file
Howard Benedict, seen here in 1998, developed terminology to explain space flight that is still being used today, such as "orbits."
updated 4/26/2005 6:56:29 PM ET 2005-04-26T22:56:29

Howard Benedict, who chronicled the triumphs and tragedies of America's journey into space in three decades as the award-winning aerospace writer for The Associated Press, has died. He was 77.

In his 37-year career with the AP, Benedict covered more than 2,000 missile and rocket launches, including 65 human flights from Alan Shepard's historic "Light this candle!" ride in 1961 to the 34th shuttle mission in 1990.

Benedict, who turned 77 on Saturday, died at his home in nearby Cocoa of natural causes. His body was found in bed Monday. Survivors include his wife, Joy, and two sisters. A memorial service was tentatively planned for Friday morning at the Kennedy Space Center.

Benedict had been ill in recent years, but he continued to work for the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which he headed for more than a decade, and wrote the chapter on aviation and space exploration for an upcoming book on the history of the AP.

"Always fair and objective, his coverage became the standard for America and indeed for the world," John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, said Tuesday.

Gemini and Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, the foundation's chairman emeritus, said astronauts "have not only lost a friend, but we have lost a true champion."

"Howard's unwavering devotion and support of the foundation is a tribute to a man that will live on for years," Lovell said. "ASF is what it is today in great part to Howard and his steadfast dedication to the astronauts, their legacy and the scientists of the future who benefited from his many years of work."

Benedict, a native of Sioux City, Iowa, joined the AP in 1953 in Salt Lake City and became head of the news cooperative's office in Cape Canaveral in 1959. Two years later, the same year Shepard became the first American in space, Benedict became the first AP reporter to be given the title "aerospace writer."

As the dean of space writing, Benedict developed terminology to explain the complex field of space travel in everyday English. While NASA referred to "revs" or "revolutions" around the Earth, for instance, Benedict wrote "orbits," and he introduced to the general public such early space terms as "retrofire," "multistage rockets" and "rendezvous," which referred to two spacecraft meeting in space.

All the while, colleagues recalled, he maintained a high degree of precision that made his writing accurate and readable.

It sometimes seemed that Benedict was never off duty. During a mission, he slept with a squawk box by his bed, and if Mission Control woke up the astronauts to a cowboy ballad, Benedict would show up for work whistling the tune.

With the lengthy hiatus between the Apollo and shuttle programs, Benedict transferred to Washington in 1974 and was White House correspondent for two years during Gerald Ford's presidency. He also worked as an aviation and transportation writer.

With space shuttle flights picking up, Benedict returned to Cape Canaveral in 1984 and reopened the AP's bureau at Kennedy Space Center.

Retired AP science writer Paul Recer, who covered the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and early shuttle missions with Benedict, said many of the techniques now used by space journalists came from his colleague.

"He recognized early on that if something serious happened, it was going to happen very, very swiftly and we had to know in advance what was important and to be able to respond," Recer said. "That reached the apex when Challenger blew up."

Benedict saw the accident on NASA video, and while others struggled to understand what had happened, his bulletin series provided a smooth, accurate account, careful to avoid speculation about such things as whether the astronauts could have survived.

"It wouldn't do justice to say that Howard rose to the occasion because, in truth, he was always like that," said AP managing editor Mike Silverman, who took Benedict's dictation that day. "His performance in the minutes and hours after the Challenger explosion was typical of the consummate professionalism he displayed throughout his career. Even though he had just witnessed the most awful disaster, he dictated hundreds of words on deadline without ever missing a beat."

The Challenger story earned Benedict the Associated Press Managing Editors award for AP deadline reporting in 1986, an honor he first won in 1969 for his coverage of the Apollo moon flight program.

Benedict wrote four books on space history, including "Moon Shot" in 1994, co-authored with Shepard and Deke Slayton, both Mercury astronauts now deceased, and fellow journalist Jay Barbree.

Benedict retired from the AP in 1990 to become executive director of the Mercury 7 Foundation, now the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, with an office at the Astronaut Hall of Fame, right next to Kennedy Space Center. Under his leadership, more than $2 million in college scholarships was awarded to engineering and science students.

He retired from the foundation in 1994 but remained on its board of directors and committees. In fact, he helped organize an induction ceremony planned for this weekend of three more shuttle fliers into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame.

A street at the space center news site bears his name: Howard Benedict Lane.

Before joining the AP, Benedict wrote for the military newspaper Pacific Stars & Stripes in both Tokyo and Seoul in 1951, following his recall to active Army duty for the Korean War. He returned from Asia, completed his journalism education at Northwestern University in December 1952 and began working for the AP six weeks later.

In a personal account written upon his retirement from the AP in 1990, Benedict remembered how manned rockets had been a dominant part of his life.

"It started with the first one — Alan Shepard's in 1961 — and continued through all 64 others, as Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle streaked across the pages of history. I have been fortunate to report on a whole new era of mankind, the Space Age, from its very onset to the present," he wrote.

He recalled that when Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon, "it didn't hit me at first. I was too busy writing. But hours later, as I stepped outside the AP office, I looked up at the moon, felt a lump and said, 'By gosh, we did it.'"

It was his final story for the AP, and he concluded: "It's been a fascinating ride."

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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