Sunday, July 19, 2009

Apollo 11 and Walter Cronkite

Do you remember this day, 40 years ago?

Through the magic of the internets, the computer the past few days has been streaming "real time" the Apollo 11 moon mission, as it nears 40 years since man first set foot upon the moon. I'm too young to remember where I was when JFK was assassinated (though I vaguely recall the black and white broadcast of the funeral procession), but you can bet the events of July 20, 1969 are indelibly etched into my brain.

Forty years ago, I don't recall if most young boys wanted to be baseball players or football stars when they grew up, but I know I wanted to be an astronaut. My pre-teen imagination was fueled by the photo spreads in LIFE magazine and the gee-whiz articles in Weekly Reader promising a future colonizing space. Equipped with a crudely-drawn cardboard "control panel," and a blanket stretched over a couple of kitchen table chairs, I could easily escape earth's gravity in my own "capsule" and pretend it was me out there, leading our nation's charge forward against Godless communist domination of the solar system.

I guess for kids these days, the space program must seem like a relic of the past. Every since "Star Wars," the reality of space just didn't seem as exciting as what Hollywood could create. The computing power of the Apollo spacecraft is challenged today by a $19.95 calculator from Office Depot, but it seemed impressive at the time.

Amid the low-key celebration of the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, I caught a few minutes of a panel discussion of space historians, who offered the opinion that while we certainly have the technology available to get us back to the moon--and Mars--in short order, NASA has become so risk-adverse that it will take us decades to do so. That, of course, and a few hundred billion dollars is all that's keeping us earthbound. My 8-year-old son, a NASA buff himself, wonders if we really will be back on the moon again by 2020, when he'll be 19 year old.

My mind today will be largely on a nostalgia trip. A nine-year-old watching a fuzzy black-and-white image on the Zenith console set in the basement family room of the family home in Salt Lake City in the summer of 1969. Forty years ago. A lifetime in the past.

Walter Cronkite and Apollo 11: linked by history. (Photo by Ernest Robl ,who graciously allowed me to repost his photo). . .

R.I.P Walter. . .

Cosmic timing being what it is, Walter Cronkite's death this week couldn't have come at a more fitting moment, as he's indelibly linked with television coverage of the space program. Who could forget his speechless reaction to the landing of Apollo 11: rubbing his hands with glee, the best the veteran newscaster could come up with was an "Oh boy!" that probably shared the feelings of most of us who watched fiction become reality 40 years ago today.

Television in the 1960s was only four channels in most places: NET (today's PBS) and the three networks, each of which had strong, reliable anchorman on the air at the time. Over on ABC, we had Frank Reynolds and John Chancellor (with Jules Bergman handling much of the space reporting); at NBC the team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley held sway.

But Cronkite was the most popular, and for much of his 19 years as the CBS Evening News' editor and anchorman, Cronkite was consistently voted the most trusted man in America. His career followed the rise and dominance of network news, and he was there for most of it: the JFK assassination, civil rights unrest in the south, the Vietnam War, and the space program. He retired relatively young (at 65--these days guys like Rather are pushing 80 and won't get out of the room), and retired at just the right time, before cable's ascendency diluted the power and authority of the network newscast.

At a time when printed journalism is teetering on the brink of collapse and television news is splintering amid the biased perspectives masquerading as "news," we need journalists like Cronkite like never before.

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