His place with space
A journalist who’s covered every manned NASA launch will be on the job Wednesday when “Atlantis” takes off.
By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published September 4, 2006
CAPE CANAVERAL — He was there when the first American astronaut blasted into space, a 27-year-old Georgia farm boy-turned radio reporter.
And he’ll be there again Wednesday for the scheduled launch of the space shuttle Atlantis.
Jay Barbree, 72, is a longtime correspondent for NBC News whose unflagging passion for space flight has allowed him to claim a unique spot in space history.
Barbree is said to be the only journalist to witness every manned launch by NASA.
Starting with Alan Shepard’s historic 15-minute journey into space on May 5, 1961, Barbree has covered all of NASA’s 146 manned space launches, he said. That includes every blast-off in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle programs.
NASA News Chief Bruce Buckingham of the Kennedy Space Center said the agency doesn’t keep a running count of how many launches journalists have covered, but it’s well known Barbree has been there since the early days.
“He has been around for as long as I can remember, and he was around for a long time before then,’’ said Buckingham, who started at NASA in 1985.
NASA recognized him in 1995 “as the only journalist known to have covered all 100 flights’’ at that time. A photo shows him receiving a memento from a former NASA public affairs official, along with Shepard and then-space shuttle Commander Robert “Hoot’’ Gibson.
Barbree remains a fixture at Kennedy Space Center, and says the only American astronauts he didn’t see take off were those who launched in Russia on Russian rockets.
“I’m proud that I’ve been able to accomplish something that can never be matched,’’ Barbree said. He said he’s sure other journalists will cover as many launches in the future, but no one else will be able to say they did so from the start.
“If I died tomorrow you could say 'Jay was satisfied.’ ’’
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, few places in the United States brimmed with the futuristic excitement stirring on Florida’s nascent Space Coast.
The Soviet Union had beaten the United States into space by launching the first satellite in 1957. But American scientists and military planners charged into the race and began launching more and more test rockets from Cape Canaveral. The looming Cold War gave all this rocketry a sharp sense of urgency.
To Barbree, shooting rockets into space seemed like a real version of the adventures he had watched in movies like Forbidden Planet and The Conquest of Space.
Barbree grew up on a small farm in Early County, Ga., entered the Air Force in 1950 at age 16, and later worked at WALB radio and TV in Albany, Ga. He did a story there in 1957 about Sputnik.
Barbree was so enthralled with space flight that he paid his own way to Cape Canaveral a couple of times, phoning radio reports to Albany about rocket tests. He eventually got on at WEZY radio in Cocoa, and covered more launches when he wasn’t knee-deep in traffic reports.
He eventually worked his way into NBC News, first as a part-timer and then as a full-fledged correspondent. Unlike many colleagues, he turned down offers to go to Washington or New York, preferring to stay near Cape Canaveral so he could cover the story he loved.
By covering endless test launches, Barbree slowly built up sources. One of his most exciting scoops started with a conversation in the bathroom between a general and another official, neither of whom realized Barbree was sitting inside a stall.
That’s how he learned that an upcoming launch was to be Project SCORE, an early American satellite. With a little digging, he discovered that President Eisenhower planned to use the satellite to broadcast a tape-recorded Christmas message to the world from outer space.
When Project SCORE blasted off in 1958, Barbree broadcast his story, assured that the military would not deny it now that the satellite was actually in space. But what he remembers as much as the scoop was the beauty of the nighttime launch.
In a draft of his upcoming book 50 Years in Space, Barbree writes:
A little more than a minute off the ground, the rocket was instantly out of night. It was back in daylight. The line of shadow cast by the Earth stretched far over our heads and now Atlas 10-B was rushing across a blue sky beyond our darkness. It was being bathed by sunlight from a sun that had already disappeared below the Cape’s horizon. We stood frozen by what we saw … a rocket flame glowing blood-red, followed by dazzling blues and greens and yellows, all creating a shimmering aurora in space.
When America’s first crop of astronauts was introduced to the public in 1959 — the “Mercury 7’’ — they became instant heroes. Much has been written about how the new agency called NASA carefully managed the public image of the astronauts.
Barbree was on both sides of that wall, covering the story, but peeking behind the veil to get the story.
In those days, he said, astronauts could be found sipping a drink at certain restaurants or bars on Cocoa Beach.
Once he became a familiar face, Barbree joined them for cocktails. The astronauts became friends. As he put it, “this is a job where … you have to be, whether you like it or not, a certain member of the space family.’’
Barbree became so much a part of that space family that he says Alan Shepard told him something “off the record’’ one night: He had been picked as the first American astronaut to go to space.
But if he violated Shepard’s confidence, he would have found himself outside of that “family,’’ he said. So he sat on the story and held onto his friendship.
Later, Barbree helped write the best-selling book Moon Shot with Shepard, astronaut Deke Slayton and Associated Press reporter Howard Benedict.
He grew close to several astronauts and some even carried items to the moon for him.
“I had a gold coin ... that went on Apollo 11 in Neil Armstrong’s personal preference kit, and on Apollo 12 Pete (Conrad) took six flags and six Apollo 12 patches in his personal preference kit for me, which I gave out to people that I worked with,’’ he said.
Barbree is not afraid to let his admiration for the space agency reveal itself. At a recent news conference, he said he wanted to step out of his journalist’s role to congratulate the team for a space shuttle launch.
He knows this sort of camaraderie is frowned on today, but said his style has not interfered with his ability to cover the news. Barbree said his extensive sources have gotten him stories others couldn’t touch.
After the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1985, he called a recently retired official in the space shuttle program who went back to Kenndey Space Center, looked over materials, spoke with former colleagues and reported back to Barbree.
Barbree then reported that officials suspected the cause of the explosion to be faulty O-rings. This proved correct.
But Challenger in some ways also showed how much space journalism had changed even for a veteran like him.
Now that NASA has more than 100 active astronauts, he learns the crew lineups the same way most other reporters do: By reading online NASA news releases.
None of the changes he has witnessed, including the explosion of Challenger, has diminished his enthusiasm for what he does. Barbree said he recently signed a four-year contract with NBC. If everything goes on schedule, that would allow him to cover all the remaining space shuttle missions.
And he still hasn’t stopped looking to the future.
NASA has talked about returning to the moon in 2018, and he can’t help but think about how much he would enjoy seeing a new moon shot, almost half a century after the first one he witnessed in 1969.
“I’d be 85,’’ he said. “It’s not out of the question.’’
Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.