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Author of the Month

Richard Hoagland, Author of the Month for December 2007

Dark Mission: the Secret History of NASA (cont.)
By Richard C. Hoagland and Mike Bara

For the actual flight of Apollo 11, I was assigned (at my own request) to the Downey, California facility of the prime contractor for the Apollo Command and Service Modules, North American Rockwell. I was there to personally oversee construction and special effects use of my pet project for our nonstop CBS coverage of "Lunar Landing Day" — a "walk-through solar system" constructed by North American technicians specifically for myself and CBS in a huge, drafty aircraft hanger. It was in this miniature, recreated version of the solar system that I had successfully proposed that Walter Cronkite interview via satellite key engineers, project managers and "special guests" — those who had built the Apollo spacecraft at North American or had special knowledge in the realm of history and space — to comment on the historic legacy of the Apollo 11 flight.

One luminary I was proud to bring before the cameras, to chat with Walter in New York regarding the extraordinary nature of events occurring that historic night, was Robert A. Heinlein, the dean of American science fiction. Decades earlier, Bob had co-written the screenplay for Destination Moon, one of the first technically accurate film depictions of the lunar journey then unfolding on live television before a billion people all over planet Earth. As the successful author of a pioneering series of "juvenile" SF novels that, for the first time, introduced realistic space travel and engineering concepts to an entire generation of future NASA scientists and engineers, Robert Heinlein had, almost single handedly, "inspired the workforce" for the entire space program.

I must admit, I had a certain smug satisfaction that night, watching Bob Heinlein stroll through "the solar system," emphatically predicting to Walter and literally the world, via satellite, that "henceforth, this night — July 20, 1969 - will be known as 'the Beginning of the True History of Mankind.'"

After the heady events of that unforgettable 32 hours — the landing; the eerie EVA, complete with ghostly television shots "live from the Moon"; and then, after the crew had slept for a few hours for the first time on the Moon, the successful liftoff of the Lunar Module "Eagle" and rendezvous with the Command Module "Columbia," still in lunar orbit — CBS moved our unit up the street, to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. There we would cover the remainder of the flight, arriving at JPL right after the three Apollo 11 astronauts blasted home toward Earth and "splashdown" in the South Pacific, three days later.

The reason was that NASA had another mission underway during "the Epic Journey of Apollo 11" — a fly-by of two unmanned Mariner spacecraft past Mars, for only the second time in NASA's history.

With only one "CBS Special Events Unit" in California, to cover all of NASA's space activities on the West Coast in those years, it was up to our small group in Los Angeles — a producer, a correspondent, a couple of camera guys, maybe a couple of technicians, a make-up person and me — to overlap our continuing coverage of Apollo 11, now originating from the Von Karman Auditorium at JPL, with new commentary covering the second unmanned NASA mission to fly by Mars in history.

Mariner 6 was to cruise past Mars on July 31 — recording television images, making spectral scans, conducting remote atmospheric measurements, etc — just ten days after "Columbia" left lunar orbit, heading for the Pacific Ocean.

Our arrival at JPL on the afternoon of July 22, in preparation for this Mariner 6 fly-by was heady stuff for a 23-year-old network science consultant, as this was my first "in-person" tour to cover an actual live mission.

The circumstances of my first fly-by live from JPL are etched indelibly in my brain, if for no other reason than it was the moment when television lightning struck. One morning our Executive Producer, Bob Wussler, suddenly decided to put me on the air across the entire CBS television network to explain the upcoming Mariner fly-by to the nation!

How could one ever forget their first professional network television appearance — and their first official network commentary for a NASA mission flying by Mars, no less? But for the life of me, I can't remember a thing I said that morning. I do remember that I had literally to borrow a sportcoat and tie from one of the floor crew for my first appearance on network television.

And, I vividly remember a bizarre scene that happened only a couple days before at JPL, as we arrived.

It was controlled bedlam. Close to a thousand print reporters, television correspondents, technicians, special VIPs, as well as half the staff at JPL itself, were all attempting to register for the limited seating in the (relatively) small Von Karman Auditorium — that had been the scene for all live network coverage of JPL's previous extravaganzas ever since Explorer 1 had been placed in orbit by an Army/JPL team one January night in 1958.

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