Above & Beyond: "Aw, Hell, Television Is Here"
- By Harold Baker
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
U.S. Air Force
(Page 2 of 3)
Our peers may have been impressed, but apparently not so the Air Force or, later, NASA. When it came to providing facilities for the pictorial media, television was number two on their list. Our film crews worked at ground level, and they and their cameras were inevitably caught in the swirl of sand and dust created by military helicopters making last-minute security sweeps. Looking down on them, literally, were cameramen who filmed for the newsreel companies; they had choice spots atop a nearby building.
Such favoritism survived only until the first use of live TV cameras on that August day in 1958. The Air Force had simultaneously authorized direct feeds and construction of a temporary relay tower. Kitchell had contacted CBS and ABC, worked out details for pooled coverage of the launch, and told Cripe, “You’ve got 36 hours; get down here!”
Cripe had doffed his suit and tie and resumed his pre-WFGA status as a hands-on engineering supervisor. Most equipment for that first televised launch ranged from makeshift to barely state of the art. The spindly-legged 30-foot relay tower had but a four-foot-square reflector on its top and a microwave dish on the ground angled upward. The control center, by default, was WFGA’s none-too-commodious remote van where Kitchell, elbow to elbow with operating engineers, would make his switching decisions between two cameras, one that tracked the rocket and one on the ground for crowd reaction. As WFGA’s camera was hoisted to the roof, its arrival elicited an almost prophetic goodbye from one of the newsreelers. “Aw, hell,” he said, “television is here.”
For 40 seconds after liftoff, the Thor-Able blazed straight up. Working with a tripod-mounted heavy unit, Bob Knott had cleanly paced his camera lens with the rocket’s early acceleration. But as it continued to ascend, he had to tilt the camera back to its vertical limits and, as he slid down on his back, Cripe and others tilted back the mount by its front leg and strained to hold the combined weight steady. Others propped up Knott.
Viewers saw the rocket rise squarely in the middle of their screens for those 76 seconds and then the aftermath. Newspaper readers would see a United Press photo of Knott and his support system, the caption likening it to the photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima.
The camera mount was revised, and in October, early tracking of Pioneer I’s record-setting 71,000-mile flight had been almost perfect—though the moonshot ultimately fell far short of its target. For months, an Air Force colonel had shared space in front of wooden bleachers with our news cameramen, animatedly keeping his superiors in Washington apprised by phone about each launch. As Pioneer lifted off, he cradled the phone and turned to me. “Looks like I’m out of a job,” he said. “They’re seeing it on TV.”
Such success did not ensure WFGA’s eventual role in the space program. Upon petition by CBS, one of its own affiliates was granted the pool feed rights for the next telecast, the third lunar probe, on November 8. The third stage of the Thor-Able failed to ignite. In turn, the cameraman lost the rocket shortly after liftoff, and the TV audience saw mainly only contrails. Weeks later, on December 6, WFGA was back for Pioneer III, the fourth lunar probe, which reached 65,000 miles before its Juno II launch vehicle malfunctioned.
The next two years were to be a transitional period for the U.S. space program and for our coverage. NASA was preparing for manned spaceflight. WFGA was outfitting two house trailers for itself and NBC with studio space and the latest camera, recording, and transmittal equipment.