Before the Fire

Veteran space reporter Jay Barbree recalls Apollo’s darkest day.

Jay Barbree (left)and Gus Grissom around the time of the astronaut's Gemini 3 flight in 1965. (Courtesy Jay Barbree)

NBC space correspondent Jay Barbree was still a cub reporter for WALB radio and TV in Albany, Georgia, on the night the Russian Sputnik 1 satellite was launched in October 1957. So taken was he by the event that he moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida, and began reporting on the burgeoning space race. In his book  U.S. manned space mission—offers personal portraits of astronauts along with his fellow journalists. Here he recalls how, as the first Apollo spacecraft was nearing completion in late 1966, Gus Grissom and his fellow astronauts became increasingly concerned about sloppy engineering.

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Despite Gus and his crewmates’ problems, Apollo was coming. So were the big network stars. Huntley, Brinkley and Cronkite wanted to be part of man’s first landing on the moon and so did their New York handlers. The lunar landings were being sold to such big advertisers as Gulf Oil, and these corporate giants wanted to see Chet Huntley and David Brinkley sitting on camera in front of their logo.

Many have asked me if it didn’t piss me off to spoon-feed information to the New York stars. My answer was simple. Hell, no! That was my job. A person from my background had a slim and none chance of getting on national television and I was damn happy to be the exception to the rule.

I was grateful, and more important, I knew my limitations. How could I not be pleased living and working in paradise? I had long ago recognized a solid fact. I did not have the background to be a Chet Huntley or a Walter Cronkite, and I simply did not want to be. NBC was very fair. I not only had been blessed with a wonderful wife and children, I had a job that was one of the most exciting in the country, and I had cultivated solid sources. They were filling me in on all bits and pieces of Apollo, including the growing tension between Gus Grissom and Apollo managers. And I was aware of another fact. No outside reporter could compete with me on my turf.

The Apollo astronauts were in their jets commuting almost daily between their homes in Houston and the Cape, and that evening Gus was at Wolfie’s Nightclub in Cocoa Beach. The club featured a popular folk singer named Trish, and Gus loved to hear her sing. When I walked in he invited me to pull up a chair. “We need to talk,” he said quietly.

I nodded and sat down. I could see he was troubled.

Over Trish’s mellow vocals he slowly began. “Jay, we need your help.”

“You got it, Gus.”

“Apollo is a piece of crap,” he said flatly. “It may never fly. We have problems and they’re not getting solved. It’s nothing like Mercury and Gemini and working with the Mac folks in St. Louis.” He shifted in his chair. “Hell, these California guys in Downey haven’t a clue. They’ve got their big fat contract and no know-how.” He paused again, leaning closer. “You guys in the press, well, shit Jay, you guys have to help us. Apollo is not ready.”

I nodded, knowing I was listening to the most engineering savvy astronaut in NASA. “I’ll do what I can, Gus,” I smiled promisingly. “What’d you think is behind it?”

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