On a Weekend in July: Apollo in Orbit! Kennedy Passenger Dies!

By Paul Dickson

The writer, 29, at the time of the lunar landing.

Thoughts for the Apollo weekend:

I covered the Apollo program from the time of the tragic 1967 Apollo 1 fire through the 1969 lunar landing. I was a reporter for Electronics magazine covering NASA headquarters.

There was a great mix of reporters working the story including Bill Hines of the Chicago Sun-Times, whose dispatches appeared in the Washington Evening Star. Hines drove Director James Webb and other top NASA officials to distraction with his critical pieces on the agency.

Writing about the Apollo program for an electronics audience sounds limiting but it was anything but because electronics was critical to its success. The Germans taught us the rockets would work but it was the Americans who brought in the circuits boards and quality control that made it a success.  For a young reporter it was a dream assignment.

All the retrospective reporting we are hearing now is interesting but I’m also hearing some false chords played as people who were not there try to explain what it was like back then. My biggest criticism is the assertion that the American people were fully behind the program and mesmerized by the adventure playing out in space, something not borne out by the public opinion polls conducted at the time. Fact was, the time of Apollo was also a time of war, social unrest, and a general growing concern with the fate of the earth itself.

The Apollo 11 headlines that July weekend in 1969 were co-opted by the tragedy on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. Many Americans did not hear of this Kennedy tragedy until they got their Sunday morning newspapers with the two events appearing in stunning juxtaposition. The first and second headlines in the Washington Post read: APOLLO IN ORBIT, PLAN FOR LANDING:  KENNEDY PASSENGER DIES IN CAR PLUNGE.

On Monday, July 21, when the actual moon landing was reported, the news about Senator Kennedy was worse. Page one of the Baltimore Sun said, “KENNEDY WILL FACE CHARGE IN LEAVING ACCIDENT SCENE”, while the Philadelphia Inquirer carried a front page story, “POLICE TO FILE A COMPLAINT ON KENNEDY”.

Then the impact of later Apollo missions were overshadowed by their proximity to events such as Kent State and U.S. incursions into Laos and Cambodia. The Apollo programed was staged in front of a divided nation.

My personal take on the whole thing was that the moon race was an important surrogate for war itself—a concept embraced by a few politicians, including House Speaker John McCormick of Massachusetts. The idea was that instead of waging a war with one another, the U.S. and U.S.S.R would stage a race which would produce true national heroes and moments of great pride. There would be deaths but they’d be heroic deaths and a far cry from the millions who would die in a nuclear war. Both sides would spend a lot of money on the contest but it would be spent on jobs and hardware and would foster technological advances.

It was fascinating work and brought me great pleasure as a writer.



  1. Wes Pippert says

    Wes Pippert, longtime UPI journalist, on Facebook:

    moon landing v kennedy-chappaquidic

    I think I’ve told this before. Back during my mizzou faculty days, I would use this as a quiz question or even a question during orals. I would point out that man walking on the moon occurred the same day as the news broke about ted kennedy and the chappaquidic affair. I’d ask, “you’re roger mudd and doing the CBS Evening News that night, what story would you lead with?” Of course, most students said, “Moon landing, of course.” I said, roger mudd led with kennedy-chappaquidic that night – and I think he was right.” My rationale: the world knew the moon landing was coming in a few hours, but chappaquidic was a shock and in many ways was the start of the demise of the kennedy mystic.i (years later I asked mudd if he remembered his thought process that night and he confessed he didn’t.

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