Jay Barbree: “He began covering U.S. rocket launches before there was a NASA”

From an obit in the Orlando Sentinel by Roger Simmons headlined “Jay Barbree, veteran NBC space reporter, dies at 87”:

Jay Barbree, a longtime space reporter for NBC who began covering U.S. rocket launches before there even was a NASA, has died.

Barbree covered his first launch from what’s now known as the Kennedy Space Center in 1957; NASA wasn’t created until 1958. NBC said that Barbree covered more than 166 human spaceflight missions, from the Mercury program to the space shuttle’s days….

He’s the only journalist who covered every U.S. manned space mission. His space career began in 1957, when he was working for an Albany, Ga., radio station and paid his way to Cape Canaveral to cover the launch of the Vanguard rocket.

It exploded on the pad, but Barbree was hooked on space.

“I wanted to go to Cape Canaveral,” he said.

Barbree moved down a year later and never left. He retired in 2017 at age 83, but he’s been busy as ever lately working for Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and the American Spaceflights website….

Barbree even predates NASA, which didn’t officially arrive until Oct. 1, 1958. America’s entry into the Space Race against the Soviet Union coincided with the arrival of television sets in millions of homes across America.

Those events combined to produce the greatest reality TV show ever. Astronauts were the stars, though the coverage also propelled the careers of journalists like Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and Jules Bergman.

Barbree was a shoe-leather reporter, not a glamour boy anchor. He was the guy NBC’s stars turned to when they needed to know what was really going on.

Nobody worked the beat quite like Barbree. He’d go astronaut hangouts like Ramon’s restaurant and the Ramada Inn cocktail lounge and get to know his subjects. He also gained their trust.

A private eye once told Barbree he had an audio tape of an astronaut embroiled an extramarital affair. He wanted to know if NBC might be interested in it.

Barbree got the tape, erased it and said the network would take a pass. The move would make today’s media cringe, but Barbree knew breaking a cheating scandal would damage his ability to cover his real mission – the race to the moon.

Fate and tragedy also helped. Barbree and his wife, Jo, had a son who died of a respiratory ailment shortly after birth in 1964.

Barbree went to the Howard Johnson’s motel for breakfast the next day. Astronaut Wally Schirra was sitting at the counter and noticed Barbree seemed glum.

“Jay, sit down,” he said. “What’s the matter?”

After a few minutes, a new astronaut in town walked in. Schirra introduced him to Barbree and then had to leave. The new guy sat next to Barbree and quietly confided something.

“I don’t talk about this much, but we lost a little girl,” he said. “We called her Muffie.”

That’s how Barbree began a lifelong bond with Neil Armstrong.

“It kind of grew from there,” Barbree said.

Reporters usually pride themselves on their objectivity. But five years later, it would have been hard to find a detached observer at Cape Kennedy.

“Go baby, go!” Cronkite shouted as Apollo 11 rumbled into the sky.

The Space Race wasn’t just between the U.S. and the Soviets. It was between CBS, NBC and ABC to see which network could best cover arguably the biggest story in TV history.

“Greatest Show Off Earth,” was the headline in Variety.

CBS and NBC each spent about $5 million on sets and simulations. After liftoff, all attention shifted to Mission Control Center in Houston….

The networks were going live from 11 a.m. July 20 to 6 p.m. July 21. They had to simulate the actual landing with animation and models.

CBS’s fake spaceship landed prematurely after Armstrong took manual control of the Lunar Module in order to find a safe landing spot. ABC realized what was happening and held up its model, hoping the flames shooting out would not catch the set on fire.

Six hours after landing, Armstrong stepped on the moon as about 650 million Earthlings tuned in. The drama lasted until Apollo 11 splashed down three days later.

An exhausted press corps threw a splashdown party at the Nassau Bay Hotel, where a female singer was playing a piano by the pool.

Barbree said a TV anchor (alas, not Cronkite) got tired of the woman’s act and pushed her and the piano into the pool.

“He was the nicest guy in the world,” Barbree said of the anchor, “until you gave him two drinks.”

There was reason for media to celebrate. The moonwalk had a combined 93 share, meaning 93 out of 100 TV sets in the U.S. tuned in. Almost as astounding is the fact 7 percent of Americans watched something else.

CBS drew 45 percent of the viewers. NBC had a 33 share and ABC had 15.

Uncle Walter won the TV Space Race, but NBC’s Space Unit and Barbree won an Emmy for their coverage.

When NBC threw a party to celebrate Barbree’s 50th anniversary with the network in 2008, his old friend gave the keynote speech.

“Jay Barbree has covered every one of these flights,” Armstrong said. “He makes an extra attempt to get it right, and he does.”

Roger Simmons is the Orlando Sentinel’s Managing Editor.

Also see the NBC News obit by Tom Costello and Phil Heisel—from their story:

Barbree began covering NASA in 1957 when the space agency was struggling with a series of humiliating rocket explosions.

In 1958, Barbree joined NBC News and began a storied career that would span 61 years.

He went on to cover every human space mission to leave U.S. soil, beginning with Alan Shepherd’s Freedom 7 flight in 1961, until the last space shuttle mission in 2011.

In all, Barbree reported on 166 human spaceflight missions.

Along the way, he authored several books focusing on NASA and the space race, including “Moon Shot” and “Live from Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space Race from Sputnik to Today.”

Barbree was working at Georgia, Albany, TV station WALB when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, ushering in the Space Age.

Barbree was fascinated. He went to Florida, and on May 5, 1961, watched Shepard take off in the first manned space flight by an American.

“That was a day that you’ll never forget. We saw that rocket climb above the tree lines — everybody everywhere stopped,” he said in an interview in 2007. “They stopped their cars, they fell on their knees, they fell in prayer watching this go. Everybody was pulling for Alan Shepard, and that was the very first for this country..

Barbree was friends with some of the nation’s most recognizable astronauts.

When Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, died in 2012, Barbree recalled succinctly: “You could not use the word ‘good’ too much. He was a good man.”

“He would be most pleased if what he accomplished here on Earth during his 82 years was remembered by those who will come again, and that they will continue the progress into space,” Barbree said.

Barbree would go on to write “Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight,” which came out in 2014. He collaborated with Shepard and fellow Mercury Seven astronaut Deke Slayton in the earlier book “Moon Shot.”

In 2012, Barbree reflected on the International Space Station and how it was teaching people to live in space — and he raised the possibility of one day being able to travel to Mars.

“How the Armstrongs, the Aldrins, the Glenns — all of us who were here for Mercury, Gemini and Apollo — would like to be around for the 21st century’s greatest adventure!” he wrote.

“Our mortality says we can’t, but our spirits won’t be far away.”

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