Safe splashdown and homecoming for the two-man crew of Gemini 7—Commander Jim McDivitt in the water and Ed White, riding somewhat high and dry. 
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updated 7/26/2005 1:46:01 PM ET 2005-07-26T17:46:01

The questions you’re asked most if you’re in this business for any amount of time -- right after “what’s Barbara Walters really like?” -- come down to this:  Where were you when … and what was it like then?

And if you’re in this business, you always know the answer if the “then” was one of the big ones.  Here’s my sampler:

When Jack Kennedy was assassinated?  Running the day shift assignment desk at CBS News; starting what would be a 96-hour day and wondering what the hell had happened to the country I lived in.

When Martin Luther King was murdered?  Somewhere near the DMZ in Viet Nam covering THAT war and suddenly discovering that my story was no story at all.

When Bobby Kennedy was shot?  On the aircraft carrier USS America in the Gulf of Tonkin discovering again just five weeks later that the story we were shooting was no story at all.

You remember those lows with crystal clarity but you also remember the highs the same way and for me, most of those highs were associated with the nation’s rush into space.  For just about all of its early stages I know exactly where I was:  As close to the launch pads as the press could get at Cape Canaveral and then at the Kennedy Space Center.

And what was all of THAT like?  A wonderful collection of heart-challenging moments from Alan Shepard’s first sub-orbital hop in May of 1961 right through the Gemini two-man missions and then most Apollo launches and the lunar landings.  For all of that, I was lucky enough to be “ringside” on the story side of the television screen.

For that first Shepard flight it really was frontier time for NASA but also for the press.  No anchor booths then.  Walter Cronkite was crammed into the back of a station wagon and each time he broadcast, the rear window had to be rolled down. And when the clock reached T minus nothing and the little Redstone artillery rocket pushed Shepard and his Mercury capsule up and out over the Atlantic there were no objective journalists. We all cheered.

And it was that way every time out. 

Whether it was Glenn’s first orbital launch on an Atlas ICBM or the Gemini launches on top of the Titan 2 ICBMs or the three-man Apollo missions that were launched by the first civilian, made-for-space-and-not-for-warfare, Saturn 1Bs Saturn Vs  which were all so big that NASA always ducked the question about the force with which one would blow up, if it did,  the feeling was always the same.  WOW, tempered by dread. 

Put a man or men on top of a thing built by a collection of the “lowest bidders” that could and would blow up if mistreated in any way and there had to be the inevitable period during the final minutes when you wondered if your heart rate was higher than the astronauts’ and it probably was.

It was all rockets’ red glare and excitement and in a way had the same feeling as it must have in the stands and infield at the Indy 500.  Everybody was rooting against it but waiting for something to go very wrong because sometimes it did. 

The one like that I remember most clearly was the first I ever saw -- an Atlas test launch in 1961 while we were waiting for Shepard to become “the first American in Space.”  They trucked us out to the press site, sat us in the stands and we waited and then watched as this Atlas lit and flew--up and up.  Straight up and that was the problem. 

Instead of arcing out over the Atlantic the damned thing just kept going straight up until it blew up -- destroyed by the range safety officer in a great boil of blacks and reds and noise and a rain of millions of dollars of debris to keep it from falling back on Orlando which it would as the earth rotated under it.

They were going to put a man on top of one of those?  “You betcha,” the NASA information officer told us, “That was no big deal, just an anomaly.”

Just an anomaly, an unforeseen technical glitch like the one that destroyed Challenger on launch on January 28, 1986 and the one that destroyed Columbia on re-entry fifteen years later almost to the day. 

And so the stage is set for this launch and what NASA and we are calling  “Return to Space,” a phrase that more properly should include the word “second” or “third” to be totally accurate and better explain the stakes for Discovery and NASA and the nation’s space program.

So what will it be like waiting for this one?  I’m going to find out and so will you and to help Flashes and Flashbacks will return as a blog starting about 72 hours before launch. 

And that Barbara Walters question -- what was she really like?   Nicer than you can imagine in ways that you cannot imagine but that’s for another blog at another time. 

This one is going to be about an event for which “high anxiety” is going to be about as apt a descriptive as there is.


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