Before the Fire
Veteran space reporter Jay Barbree recalls Apollo's darkest day.
- By Jay Barbree
- AirSpaceMag.com, November 01, 2007
Courtesy Jay Barbree
(Page 3 of 7)
He nodded a thank you and moved his chair back, still troubled. Trish finished her set and joined us, and we ended the conversation with a handshake.
Gus enjoyed Trish’s company, her singing, but despite what some thought, there was nothing going on between the two except friendship. Trish and I were good friends, as we still are today, and I knew she was involved with an astronaut, but he wasn’t Gus Grissom. There were lots of stories in those days about the astronauts and women, but in most part they were just that: stories.
In one case, a sleazy private investigator had offered NBC an audiotape for a price. It supposedly was a recording of an astronaut in bed with a woman other than his wife. I asked him to leave the tape with me, telling him I needed to play it for my boss in New York. No sooner than he’d left the NBC bureau, I erased it, and called him with a “We’ll pass.”
Later, I learned he didn’t have a copy and my bosses, Russ Tornabene and Jim Holten, joined me for a good laugh.
In the coming days, I questioned Apollo managers often and regularly. I wanted to know why they weren’t addressing problems that had been brought to my attention. I wanted to know why they were in such an all fired hurry to launch in late 1967 or early 1968. John Kennedy had set the launch for before the decade was out. Why didn’t they take their time? Was beating the Russians more important than astronaut lives? But the news media then weren’t as aggressive as they are today. This was six years before Watergate, and no matter how many times I raised Gus’s complaints with colleagues, most reporters gave his concerns short shrift.
One exception was my friend Howard Benedict of the Associated Press. I briefed Howard and we both stayed on top of Gus’s worries, nipping at the heels of Apollo’s movers and shakers.
Howard had come to the Cape a year after I did – only a few years out of Tokyo where he worked with my boss Russ Tornabene on the Army’s newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. This sort of made us family, and he and I became tight. We spent three decades leading the pack and watching each other’s backs. Damn, I miss him! Howard was the kind of close friend you hated to see leave this world ahead of you.
I kept trying to get NBC to do more stories on the problems with the Apollo. The Today Show passed and Huntley-Brinkley turned the story over to one of their favorites. He kissed off Gus’ concerns while I did what I could on the NBC Radio Network. The press and public ignored the whole damn thing, and the first Apollo labeled “flight worthy” was stacked atop its Saturn 1B rocket. The launch team prepared for the one launch-pad test considered essential. Called a “plugs out” test, it was a complete shakedown of the spacecraft’s ability to fly safely -- a countdown simulation with 100 percent oxygen and fully suited astronauts sealed inside. The space agency posted Friday, January 27, for this “full dress rehearsal.”