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Veteran space journalist Jay Barbree, who covered more than 160 missions, dies at 87

The NBC News correspondent began covering NASA in 1957 when the agency was struggling with a series of humiliating explosions.

Space journalist Jay Barbree died Friday in Florida. The veteran NBC News correspondent was 87.

Barbree began covering NASA in 1957 when the space agency was struggling with a series of humiliating rocket explosions.

In 1958, Barbree joined NBC News and began a storied career that would span 59 years.

He went on to cover every human space mission to leave U.S. soil, beginning with Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight in 1961, until the last space shuttle mission in 2011.

Image: Jay Barbree
NBC's Jay Barbree in Cape Canaveral, Fl., on July 6, 2011.NBC News

In all, Barbree reported on 166 human spaceflight missions.

Along the way, he authored several books focusing on NASA and the space race, including "Moon Shot" and "Live from Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space Race from Sputnik to Today."

He is survived by his wife, Jo, who he married in 1960, two daughters, one son and six grandchildren.

Barbree was working at Albany, Georgia, TV station WALB when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, ushering in the Space Age.

Barbree was fascinated. He went to Florida, and on May 5, 1961, watched Shepard take off in the first manned space flight by an American.

"That was a day that you’ll never forget. We saw that rocket climb above the tree lines — everybody everywhere stopped," he said in an interview in 2007. "They stopped their cars, they fell on their knees, they fell in prayer watching this go. Everybody was pulling for Alan Shepard, and that was the very first for this country."

Barbree was friends with some of the nation's most recognizable astronauts.

When Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, died in 2012, Barbree recalled succinctly: "You could not use the word 'good' too much. He was a good man."

"He would be most pleased if what he accomplished here on Earth during his 82 years was remembered by those who will come again, and that they will continue the progress into space," Barbree said.

Barbree would go on to write "Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight," which came out in 2014. He collaborated with Shepard and fellow Mercury Seven astronaut Deke Slayton in the earlier book "Moon Shot."

In 2012, Barbree reflected on the International Space Station and how it was teaching people to live in space — and he raised the possibility of one day being able to travel to Mars.

"How the Armstrongs, the Aldrins, the Glenns — all of us who were here for Mercury, Gemini and Apollo — would like to be around for the 21st century’s greatest adventure!" he wrote.

"Our mortality says we can’t, but our spirits won’t be far away."

CORRECTION (May 15, 2021, 12:53 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article included an incomplete list of Jay Barbree’s survivors. In addition to his wife, two daughters and six grandchildren, he is also survived by a son.