Only one person on the planet has covered every manned launch out of Cape Canaveral and now, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of spaceflight, he’s written a book about it.
Veteran NBC space correspondent Jay Barbree’s memoir, “Live from Cape Canaveral,” is being released over the Labor Day weekend by Smithsonian Books.
(MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)
“There are an awful lot of guys ... who were here for the early days, and they’re no longer here,” Barbree, 73, said recently at the Kennedy Space Center, squeezing in an interview before hurrying off to cover a NASA news conference.
“So I just got to thinking, no one really knows their stories. No one really knows what the, and I underscore the astronauts were like, and when I say the astronauts, I mean the seven original Mercury, and the pranks and the fun times that they all went through.
“Today, it’s pretty much all computers. But in those days, they went out, kicked the tires, flew it, checked it out themselves. So I thought, well, if that story is going to be told, I’ve got to do it.”
His book opens, naturally enough, with the beginning of the Space Age on Oct. 4, 1957 — the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik.
Working at the time for WALB in Albany, Ga., Barbree caught a glimpse of Sputnik’s spent booster rocket orbiting overhead, then filed radio and TV reports. The one-time farm boy and Air Force recruit was hooked.
Barbree talked his way to Cape Canaveral and covered America’s humiliating Vanguard launch failure at the end of 1957 and the following success of the nation’s first satellite, Explorer 1, on Jan. 31, 1958. He joined NBC News from the Cape six months later.
150 missions under his belt
What is remarkable is that Barbree has been present for all 150 of NASA’s manned launches. No other journalist comes close. Many of those who competed with him over the years either quit, retired or died. And even a sudden-death experience in 1987 did not ruin Barbree’s record. He dropped dead while running on the beach, was revived by medics and managed to recuperate in plenty of time for the first post-Challenger mission.
When asked to comment on the book, T.J. (Tom) O’Malley, 91, the Mercury-Atlas test conductor who pushed the launch button for John Glenn’s flight, joked, “I wouldn’t believe a word that guy put in there.”
Seriously, though, O’Malley said, there were only three newsmen back then whom he trusted — and Barbree was one of them.
Barbree quickly learned which Mercury man would be first in space in 1961, despite NASA’s efforts to keep it secret. But because Alan Shepard himself divulged the news off the record, Barbree couldn’t go with it.
He did break the news 25 years later about the source of the Challenger launch disaster: O-ring seals in a booster rocket. He went on to become a semifinalist in the short-lived journalist-in-space project.
First-name basis with astronauts
“Live from Cape Canaveral” is Barbree’s eighth book. He co-authored 1994’s “Moon Shot” with Shepard, Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton and former Associated Press aerospace writer Howard Benedict, all now gone.
Of all the missions, Barbree rates Glenn’s first orbital ride in 1962 as his favorite, with Shepard’s suborbital flight in 1961 a close second.
Of the three tragedies, the Apollo spacecraft fire in 1967 hit him hardest. He mourned the death of commander Gus Grissom as he would a good friend’s.
Indeed, when Barbree talks about the Mercury Seven, he speaks of Alan, Gus, John, Scott, Wally, Gordo and Deke as though they were family. He writes that Shepard told him in later years that not all the stories about him and the other Mercury guys were true. But he wasn’t too bothered by it, Barbree says.
One well-known astronaut, on the other hand, did not want a rather compromising tidbit about himself ending up in the book. When Barbree ran into him in May, the astronaut was visibly relieved his personal foibles would go unmentioned.
Who was it?
“Naturally, I’m not going to tell you. I would have put it in my book,” Barbree said with a laugh. “But it didn’t really belong in the book. The whole idea of the book is not to hurt somebody.”
Kirkus Reviews notes that Barbree’s personal involvement with the astronauts distinguishes his book from Tom Wolfe’s 1979 classic, “The Right Stuff.”
“Where Wolfe projected himself into the astronauts’ culture and mind-set, Barbree shared them, and his enthusiasm for the material is irresistible,” Kirkus writes.
Barbree still lives just a quick drive from the space center with his wife of 47 years, Jo. He intends to keep covering shuttle missions until the very last one in 2010 and hopes to be around when astronauts blast off again to the moon, supposedly sometime in the next decade.
“If my flesh makes it, I will be in my 80s,” Barbree writes. “If not, my spirit won’t be far away.”