The Worst of Times

The early 1960s were not the best of times for an America on the verge of losing a President. The country’s baby boomers were off to college to protest a spreading military conflict in Vietnam, and many of us national reporters were waist deep in Dr. Martin Luther King’s equal-rights campaigns.

Meanwhile, NASA was building the hardware to reach the moon. The agency had decided it needed a new Manned Spacecraft Center and a new Mission Control, and movers and shakers across the country were taking dead aim at the prize. Every politician wanted the great economic windfall for his or her constituents. But Vice President Lyndon Johnson had the inside track, and he rode “hell-bent-for-leather” through the political thickets to lock up a site south of Houston. The name of the horse he was riding was “Chairman of President Kennedy’s Space Advisory Committee.” He used this White House portfolio for a political cavalry charge that would have made Jeb Stuart proud.

But what confounded those in the know was a single question: Why?

NASA had everything it needed to monitor astronaut flight at Cape Canaveral. Mercury Control had worked perfectly for six manned missions, and besides, the agency had just purchased 88,000 acres next door on Merritt Island. The huge real-estate grab was more than enough land for NASA’s Apollo launch pads and moonport—a moonport with administrative and training buildings, big rocket hangars, and the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB. In this, the great Saturn V moon rockets would be assembled.

This was enough acreage, along with the waters of the Atlantic, to safely buffer the public from any rocket catastrophe, and if NASA needed more facilities, there was enough land left over for a second Pentagon and a medium-size city. And best of all, it was all linked to the nation’s Atlantic Missile Range—a multi-billion-dollar, five-thousand-mile string of natural tracking islands that would not have to be duplicated with more waste of taxpayer dollars.

It was said that after President Kennedy announced Project Apollo, all NASA had to do was grab buckets and head for Capitol Hill. There the buckets would be filled to overflowing with greenbacks. So despite more money than every sailor in the navy could spend on a Saturday-night bender, the question was still asked: Why in the world does NASA need to go elsewhere and build something twice?

The answer? The agency didn’t.

Everything they were proposing to build in Texas was already under construction at the new Merritt Island Moonport. Even if politicians built ten more Mission Controls, the same facility and flight-monitoring hardware had to be up and running at the launch site for the spacecraft and rockets to fly.

So, again, why was NASA going to Texas?

Because Lyndon Johnson had promised his Lone Star state the lion’s share of the Earth to the Moon Project, and when it came to gobbling up pork, Johnson had no equal. He had the glad hand and the political clout to make it happen.

Seven hundred engineers and their families loaded their cars and trucks for the long trip, and NBC thought I should tag along. When we arrived on the flat Texas wastelands, no one could believe this deserted, unproductive place would be the epicenter of the country’s effort to send astronauts to the moon.

There not only was a Mission Control and a Manned Spacecraft Center to be built, but homes, shopping centers, hotels, hospitals, everything had to be constructed—a community had to be raised from piss-poor pasture land where only a few underfed cows grazed. When I said this in my NBC reports, Johnson’s friends grinned and said, “Don’t y’all worry about that. We’ll build all that stuff for you and at a fair price.”

While workmen in Texas were trying to make silk out of a pig’s ear, NASA was pleased its image had been boosted by stretching the last Mercury flight to its limit. Gordon Cooper had ridden around the planet for more than thirty-four hours. But no amount of praise for Cooper’s great performance could persuade the public that America was catching up. The numbers spoke for themselves. While NASA was busy building, the Russians were slinging their hammers in space.

On June 14, 1963, four weeks after Cooper emerged from his dead-stick reentry, Vostok V, with cosmonaut Valery F. Bykovsky, headed for Earth orbit, where he would stay only minutes shy of five days, a staggering amount of time.

But even Bykovsky’s flight was pushed off the headlines. Two days into his marathon mission, Vostok VISea Gull—was launched. Bykovsky watched from orbit as the first woman cosmonaut roared away from the Baikonur launch pad. Her name was Valentina V. Tereshkova, and she joined Bykovsky in orbit, where she remained an hour under three days.

With men and women cosmonauts speeding about the heavens, the cry in Washington was heard all the way to President Kennedy’s desk: “For God’s sake, do something!”

November 16, 1963, JFK flew to Cape Canaveral. He wanted a first-hand look at the launch center and the growing moonport. Dr. Wernher von Braun took the President all over his new Saturn I rocket. The big booster was being readied for its first all-up test flight, and the famed rocket scientist told Kennedy, “With 1.3 million pounds of thrust, Mr. President, Saturn I will level the playing field with the Russians.”

Kennedy left Dr. von Braun and climbed into a helicopter with Gordon Cooper and Gus Grissom. With unabashed excitement and pride, the two astronauts pointed out the key features of the growing moonport. They showed him where one day a monster called Saturn V would stand on its launch pad. Here, the name Apollo was gaining substance with every passing day.

President John Kennedy is touring Project Apollo’s growing facilities at Cape Canaveral six days before an assassin would take his life in Dallas. (NASA).

Gus Grissom thanked him for his vision, unaware that he and JFK would not live to see Americans sail across the void between Earth and its moon. Six days after he viewed the launch areas for his Project Apollo, the President of the United States was murdered by an assassin’s bullet during a Dallas motorcade.

Shocked and stunned, America slowed to a stop. With the nation wracked by emotional loss, workers at Cape Canaveral joined in mourning for the passing of a man who had meant so much to America’s space effort. My family sought the solace of our home and watched the unending drama unfold on television. Our two-year-old, Alicia, walked our floors babbling the name Kennedy. There had never been and most likely never will be another such time. In the coming weeks, a shroud of uncertainty draped itself over Apollo. Its key supporter was dead, and a strange lassitude infected us all.

Lyndon Johnson was now President, and that old saying about a man growing into the job had never before rung so true. In the Congress, and as Vice President, Johnson may have been the top huckster on Capitol Hill, but when he took the presidential oath of office aboard Air Force One in Dallas, Lyndon Baines Johnson became a President as serious as a heart attack. He turned out to be the space program’s new best friend, but the new chief executive had much more on his plate.

In the summer of 1964, the battle for equal rights, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was coming to a head. Surprisingly, one of the major battles would not be in the heart of the old Confederacy. Rather, it would be in the country’s oldest city: St. Augustine, a Florida tourist town 110 miles north of Cape Canaveral.

My New York desk called and said, “You’re it! Go!”

I left eagerly. Most reporters fought for story variety, and when it came to Dr. King, this was one Southerner who wanted to be there. I admired the man, thought what he was doing was long overdue, but still did my best to perform my journalistic duties ethically. I had been in St. Augustine for three weeks when the night of the showdown arrived.

Andrew Young was executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was, in reality, Dr. King’s “right arm.” He was the same Andrew Young who would later become ambassador to the United Nations for President Jimmy Carter. He had been leading marches from a black church to the “Old Slave Market,” a downtown tourist attraction. There had been scuffles between whites and blacks, but nothing compared with what was about to take place.

The gathering storm had built to its full force in the evening darkness. Andrew Young led two columns of protestors out of the church. They moved down the street, becoming a surging sea of motion in the bright lights of television news crews.

I walked quickly along the marchers’ side, occasionally running to the front, then falling to the rear to make sure I didn’t miss a single thing. Our crew kept in step as we listened to the voices, ragged but swelling, singing through the dirt-street community: “I ain’t gonna’ let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around,” a turntable of repetition, a sound of resolution, of commitment.

They marched down the street in front of a bar whose customers deserted the jukebox and crowded into the doorway to gape at Young and his followers.

“Freedom, freedom…,” their voices growing stronger in the night air.

They shuffled their out-of-cadence feet by the pool room, where the familiar snap of cue balls ceased, where the arguments inside stopped abruptly while some stared and some ran outside to join the marchers’ ranks.

Before I’ll be a slave,

I’ll be buried in my grave,

And go home to my Lord,

And be free…

They sang and they marched, and Andy Young led them by the red-hot smell of sizzling ribs in the Bar-B-Q and on past teeming shotgun houses where blacks stood in astonished awe.

Oh, deep in my heart,

I do believe,

We shall overcome,


We watched the marchers turn right at the main street to the downtown park and head for the “Old Slave Market.” Cameraman Bill Cavanaugh and soundman Red Davis kept up. We kept filming because we knew tonight would not be the same. Too many new faces were in town; there were too many civil rights activists, and too many segregationists had been alerted in six or seven states. Each television crew began loading fresh film for their entrance into the “whites only” world.

Ain’t gonna let nobody,

Turn me around,

Turn me around,

Turn me around…

They marched into the park in a small tidal wave, carrying in the audacity of its forward motion the seeds of its own destruction; for whites had gathered in the park, another group at the “Old Slave Market,” and still another across from the park at the foot of the bridge. Others just sat in their cars and stared.

Andrew Young and his band were hurling the gauntlet, throwing it at the feet of the segregationists. They moved into the “Old Slave Market,” in a tighter band now, ranks close together, feet shuffling, pounding together beneath linked arms and hands. Still singing as Young held up a hand, marking time, standing fast while his feet tramped. Up and down, a dull thudding boom of hundreds of feet. From the back others shoved and pushed, eager to see what was happening. Young brought his hand down, and with a crash of silence the thudding boom of feet ended. The youthful black leader surveyed the whites before him, his head turning slowly.

Suddenly, Young went to his knees in prayer. On the spot where blacks were sold into slavery more than one hundred years before, he began to pray as white faces moved toward him, cursing. Other whites stood gaping, disbelieving. A man in prayer was being beaten. The scene would be shown again and again on television screens across America.

The response? Outrage! Four little girls had lost their lives to a bomb beneath their church in Birmingham. Marchers had been beaten. Cattle prods and dogs had been used on black children. America’s future was located on Cape Canaveral’s launch pads just 110 miles away. It was time! It was finally time to get rid of the Jim Crow injustices, and President Johnson and the Congress moved. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed it into law. Segregation in LBJ’s native South had finally been ended.

And the overwhelming majority of Americans, black and white, felt good.

That November, Lyndon Johnson was elected President in his own right, and qualified and dedicated people raised his Manned Spacecraft Center near Houston. From what was once worthless wasteland grew a cutting-edge high-tech center that would see astronauts to the moon and back safely.

But before the lunar trips there had to be Project Gemini—a two-man spacecraft that would test and perfect all the key techniques needed to reach the moon, rendezvousing and docking with other vehicles, and walking in space. When they were ready, two unmanned Gemini spacecraft would ride their Titan II rockets into orbit, and Deke Slayton believed Gemini was now ready for his astronauts. Without hesitation, he selected Alan Shepard to lead the way again. Alan would command, and his pilot would be Tom Stafford.

For the first six weeks, preparations to fly the Gemini went without a hitch until one morning Alan awoke feeling nauseated. Well, just not nauseated. He was so dizzy, and the room was spinning so fast, he couldn’t focus, and he found himself on the floor. He got up clinging to the wall and did his best to get his face in the commode before he vomited.

The sickness left as quickly as it came, and he was off to Deke’s office to report what had happened. The two chalked it up to some bad hooch, and Alan went about his work without a problem until the fifth day. Just as suddenly as the nausea had appeared before, it came back.

Alan checked in with the flight surgeons. “You’ve got a serious problem with your left inner ear,” they told him. “You have what is called Ménière’s syndrome.”

“Never heard of it,” Alan shot back.

The doctors gathered around. “Certain people who are driven, motivated, will occasionally develop this problem,” they explained. “Fluid pressure builds up in your inner ear, and it makes the semicircular canals, the motion detectors, extremely sensitive. This results in disorientation, dizziness, and nausea. You also have glaucoma. That’s just another indication that as an individual you’re highly hyper.”

America’s first astronaut listened patiently to the diagnosis and said, “I have one question.”


“You going to pull my wings?”


A dispirited Alan Shepard sat down with Deke for a heart-to-heart. “Deke, we’ve got to beat this crap,” he said as a promise.

“Yep,” Deke nodded. “But until you do, I have a job for you.”

Deke was being moved up to a newly created post called chief of flight crew operations. He slid Alan into his old job as chief astronaut.

“Hang in there with me, buddy,” he winked. “We’ll figure out a way to get our asses back in space.”

Alan laughed. “You got it, partner.”

They shook hands and moved Shepard and Stafford’s backups, astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young, into the first Gemini’s seats.

Meanwhile the Russians were busy. A cosmonaut was about to shake the world again. Aleksei A. Leonov pushed himself gently through the hatch, and the first human satellite drifted away from the Russian ship. He was stunned by the sight of Earth below and he turned and tumbled and slowly rolled about, careful not to look directly into the blinding sun. A small camera attached to the top of the Voshkod spaceship’s airlock captured the smiling, laughing Leonov as he sprightly leapt and skipped.

The date was March 18, 1965, and for the ten minutes allotted, Leonov walked three thousand miles through orbit, flinging out his arms in rapturous joy as he floated, turned, and somersaulted. Below, Earth rolled by at 17,400 miles per hour.

He would later tell me he had no fear—no worry about falling. He knew he was a human satellite fixed in his own orbit around Earth. “There was only a sense of the infinite expanse and depth of the universe,” he said.

When it was time for him to return to the Voshkod, Leonov took a final look at the beautiful, blue planet rolling beneath him and slid into the airlock, feet first. Suddenly he could not move. He was jammed in the opening. Pavel Belyaev, his commander inside, informed him he was running low on oxygen. That got his attention. Leonov studied the situation. Outside in total vacuum, his spacesuit had expanded and he was caught like a cork in a bottle. Let out some pressure, he ordered himself. Slowly, he depressurized the suit, and using his athletic strength, he pulled himself back into the airlock.

The first EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) was history.

The day after the spacewalk, trouble revisited the Voshkod crew. When it came time to fire the retro-rockets for reentry, the automatic stabilization system failed. The cosmonauts went through the proper contingency maneuvers and Belyaev took over manually. This took time, and they delayed firing the retros in orbit. When Belyaev triggered the braking rockets, he did a magnificent flying job through the harrowing reentry, but the extra orbit pushed their new landing site nearly a thousand miles off target.

The Voshkod crashed in the thick forest near Perm in the Ural Mountains, coming down to wedge itself tightly between two large fir trees. Leonov and Belyaev remained inside their crippled ship, unable to open their hatch.

During the freezing night, a recovery helicopter arrived dropping warm clothes, but the clothes fell into the higher branches, out of reach. The next morning, a rescue crew entered the thick stand of firs on skis and wrestled the Voshkod free, releasing the freezing cosmonauts for hot food and warm clothes.

Leonov and Belyaev skied out of the forest to a waiting helicopter. And now that the two cosmonauts were okay and on their way to Moscow, Soviet officials began putting a positive spin on the flight. They emphasized the importance of the world’s first spacewalk and trumpeted the new Voshkod as a spaceship capable of carrying three men to the moon.

A Pravda headline read, “SORRY, APOLLO!”

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