On August 17, 1958, there had been a 76-second opportunity for euphoria to build and for Americans glued to their TV sets to cheer. At 77 seconds, that excitement ended in a massive fire-laced cloud of white smoke. A first-stage failure at 50,000 feet sent the remains of a Thor-Able rocket and its lunar probe into the waters off Florida.
The occasion was the first “live camera” coverage of a space launch from Cape Canaveral. With no direct-transmission lines available, the film was sent to the West Coast, taped, and replayed back to New York for NBC’s “Today Show.” The first truly live telecast, that of another Thor-Able’s successful launch of the Pioneer I lunar probe, would take place on October 11. My colleagues at the Jacksonville, Florida television station WFGA-TV were responsible for both.
The video and audio for each had been the responsibility of station manager Jess Cripe, complicated by technical limitations of the era and an Air Force edict outlining stopwatch-precise restraints. Foremost, not until “after fire in the rocket’s tail,” it read, could any video be transmitted to the public. The rationale, the Air Force conceded, was to avoid the embarrassment of broadcasting mishaps or scrubs.
There had been multiple rules and restrictions complicating 1957 and early ’58 coverage of the U.S. space program. Those of us at WFGA-TV had generally managed to cope with most of these, so WFGA was designated the “pool feed”—the sole engineering and production facility servicing all the national television networks. Our transition into that role had begun in late 1957, after Russia had launched an intercontinental ballistic missile in August and put Sputnik I in orbit in October. What had been sporadic news coverage of U.S. missile and rocket programs by the networks suddenly assumed competitive priority.
Quickly, Jim Kitchell of NBC Television had sought a permanent network presence at the Cape through one of its affiliates, our own WFGA. Despite our having been on the air only a few weeks, Kitchell had liked our style. Cripe was enthusiastic. He thought pioneering TV coverage of the space program would be fun.
Further, WFGA reporters and cameramen had been at Canaveral covering all types of rocketry, from captured German V-2s to more sophisticated space probe forerunners. The station had set up a full-time TV news bureau, and every launch and briefing, no matter how insignificant, was being covered. Cape officials were well aware that WFGA was there.
So did the NBC assignment desk in New York. It had interest in the black-and-white film we had shot from dunes south of the launch sites, which later would include a spectacular failure of a Vanguard launch vehicle on December 6, 1957, a copy of which was requested by Cape scientists. As a result, our news teams were among the first allowed at the launch sites in January 1958.
Cripe and Kitchell were beginning to forge a working relationship that would span three decades. They also started nagging a reluctant telephone company to provide TV relay facilities in the Canaveral area. In the interim, they used motorcycle couriers, a light aircraft from nearby Merritt Island, a police escort in Jacksonville, and fast processing to get film on national television in less than 90 minutes. The first example was the January 31, 1958 launch of Explorer I, the first U.S. satellite, by a Jupiter C.
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!”