By Tom Shales
NOVEMBER 9, 1998: Thank you, God. We needed that. We needed that moment when we could feel young again, good again, strong again, and full of hope and vision.
Not even network newscasters could spoil it when John Glenn and six other astronauts were blasted into space yesterday for one of the most-watched space shuttle launches. We barely saw Glenn, except in taped interviews or features, but we knew the 77-year-old senator was there, a bona fide hero for our times, inside all that tonnage rising into the air.
All the networks were there, too, for this blessedly scandal-free event, a reprise this time in color of Glenns historic 1962 mission, the one that made him the first American to orbit the Earth. Four minutes into the flight, Dan Rather on CBS said, So far, picture-perfect.
Actually, a scheduled pause at the nine-minute countdown point went on longer than expected. Then an unexpected one occurred about five minutes from launch when some idiot flew a private plane too close to the launch site at Cape Canaveral.
Another glitch occurred that viewers of the commercial broadcast networks didnt hear about until the evening newscasts. Cables CNN, which stayed on long after the networks signed off (NBC at 2:32 p.m., CBS a minute later, ABC at 2:40), revealed that a drag chute door was blown off the shuttle at liftoff.
It appeared, however, that the loss of the aluminum panel would not pose any threat to the safety of the men and woman in the spacecraft and their mission.
Their mission, particularly Glenns, was not to take a joy ride into space or to conduct scientific experiments about aging, but to give us all a much-needed infusion of heavenly reassurance. What a bad news year 1998 has been, with all media focused on White House sex scandals one long chorus of smutty gossip.
A key part of the missions unofficial purpose was to give us some good news for a change, to remind us that when our leaders fail to be heroes, theres still a John Glenn (or a Mark McGwire or a Sammy Sosa) to rally around and pin our hopes on.
For viewers old enough to remember, it was indeed a flashback to 36 years ago, when a space launch was a hugely and closely watched national event. In those days we sat before our television sets in wonder, awe, and fear as the first giant steps were taken a time, as Doris Kearns Goodwin said Wednesday night on PBS, when there were large goals and collective ideals abroad in the land.
Also on PBS, journalist Haynes Johnson recalled F. Scott Fitzgeralds remark that there are no second acts in American lives and said Glenn was proving it wrong: Hes getting a second act, and the whole country will participate in it with him.
NBCs Tom Brokaw and ABCs Peter Jennings joined Rather at the cape for the big show. They all seemed relieved to be covering a news story fit for the whole family for a change.
Which network had the best coverage? They sort of took turns being the best. Walter Cronkite, so dominant in his day that he became a de facto part of the space program, a kind of NASA ambassador, turned up on CNN to help out flyweight anchor Miles OBrien, who looked bored most of the time. And Cronkite himself sometimes seemed befuddled and uncertain of his role. He was too large a figure to be doing duty on CNN. On the other hand, CNN had its own lump-in-the-throat factor to add to the emotion of the day: It dedicated its coverage to the late John Holliman, a reporter who distinguished himself during coverage of the bombing of Baghdad and was later assigned to the space beat.
He died recently in a car accident, and should have been there at the cape with his colleagues to cover what could be called the relaunch of Americas space program. His photo was the last visual element CNN ran as its coverage ended.
Cronkite did get to interview President Clinton, who was with the first lady at the launch site. This is a triumph of American democracy, Clinton told Cronkite, artfully deflecting a question about next Tuesdays elections. CNN alone had live coverage of Clinton speaking to NASA personnel later, after the shuttle was in orbit.
America is very, very proud of you today, the president told the NASA-nauts. Thank you and God bless you. The lighting was terrible but Clinton looked, and sounded, splendid.
Naturally there were little glitches in the coverage as well as in the launch. Some of the guest experts hauled in were just gabby, not helpful. And that dreadful Grinchy party pooper Alex Roland, a disgruntled former employee of NASA, turned up everywhere trying to throw cold water on the mission and thus in Americas face.
We didnt want, or need, to hear any of that bilge. We have earned the right to be unimpeachably happy for a little while. Rather quoted writer Isaac Asimov as he signed off, saying we had reason again to believe there is a future ... and the future will be good if only we can get through the next few months. Most of the glory goes to Glenn, but theres some left over for those of us who only watched and wept.
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