The Early Days

There are some fishing villages that are cocooned in time, content to let progress pass them by. In the late 1950s one such community was Cocoa, Florida. It was like many other coastal towns of its vintage, moving with the effortless politeness that was its major contribution to its citizens—citizens who spent most of their days on the water, the docks, and the fishing piers.

“Salt Water Trout Capital of the World” was what Cocoa called itself, while progress lay barely ten miles to the northeast on a palmetto and scrub-brush sand spit jutting into the Atlantic that had been named Cape Canaveral by Spanish explorers five hundred years ago. A cutting-edge, high-tech laboratory sprouting missile and rocket gantries along the ocean’s shore, it served as the anchor of a five-thousand-mile-long missile range of natural island tracking stations reaching to Ascension, a British island in the south Atlantic.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Cocoa and its seaside sister community of Cocoa Beach suddenly became boomtowns—men and women with an average age of twenty-seven were arriving in airliners, in automobiles, and by train, some even by Greyhound. They were the engineers, the technicians, the scientists, and the hucksters coming to build America’s spaceport, seeking membership in the newest and most elite fraternity that would carry the Western world into the second half of the twentieth century.

The easygoing town of Cocoa, Florida, hosted only a small, two-lane causeway to Cape Canaveral during the birth of America’s spaceport. Irate missile and rocket workers demanded the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers keep the drawbridge closed to boat traffic during rush hour. (Florida Historical Society).

I was one of them, shouting into a microphone a play-by-play broadcast as I chased runaway missiles and exploding rockets in the greatest show of technology the world had ever seen. I would tell our listeners that ballistic missiles did not simply blow up. They did not yield their life energy without a struggle. The flame began in spurts, from the arteries of fuel lines and the reservoir of tanks, and then in long, fiery streamers. Shards of the doomed rockets fell blazing toward an indifferent ocean.

This was Cape Canaveral in the early days, a world of missiles and rockets and of nights exploding violently as launch crews huddled within the protection of thick steel-and-concrete blockhouses, peering through periscopes, each shouting liftoff as more satellites followed Explorer 1 and Sputnik into orbit, the successes making things happen. The defense budget was increased significantly, and military rocket programs were given more or less a blank check. Most forms of government-subsidized research began to grow. The nation’s education system was overhauled, and federal dollars poured into the schools to help produce an unmatched generation of scientists and engineers who would become the heart of the American space reply to the Russians.

In the early days, the security gate to Cape Canaveral appeared to be out of The Grapes of Wrath.

The Pentagon formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to guard against further U.S. technological slippage.

And the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was born.

America was on the move, and someone had to manage the new space effort. Who would lead? The army, navy, and air force all sought the assignment, as did the Pentagon’s ARPA and the Atomic Energy Commission. But the White House focused on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), an inconspicuous group of scientists who oversaw federal flight-technology laboratories.

NACA possessed some of the best engineering talent in the country. Under civilian control, it was too obscure to have been caught up in partisan politics, and most pleasing to all, it was a stranger to the red tape of government bureaucracy. This small but talented agency got the job of challenging Russia’s lead in space.

Reborn as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the agency gathered under its umbrella NACA’s five laboratories and eight thousand technicians; the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; the navy’s Vanguard project; and the army’s four-thousand-strong rocket team headed by Dr. von Braun. But Congress insisted the Pentagon also maintain a separate space effort.

I had gone to work for NBC News on July 21, 1958 and was soon introduced to the network’s executive producer in charge of space coverage. He was a tall, stout, grinning New Yorker named Jim Kitchell with a reputation for getting things done. First out of his mouth he told me to never work in New York or Washington and to build myself a small empire as the man who knew the answers to all questions about space flight. He added, “Never be a threat to any of your coworkers.” I bought a Shetland pony, rode low, and stayed under everyone’s radar, and I was soon known as the man with the space answers that did not want any New York or Washington job. Kitchell’s suggestion proved to be the best advice I was to receive in my life.

The man from the city had personally gotten the media on the Cape’s highly secret air force launch installation, and now he was getting ready for television’s first-ever live coverage of a breaking news event. To make it work, Kitchell worked out an agreement with the air force, as well as one with our affiliate WFGA, Channel 12, in Jacksonville.

There was another young go-getter at WFGA named Herb Gold, and he and Jim became close friends. Herb had no clue what he was in for, and he was soon coaxed into dragging a live studio setup, cameras and all, 170 miles south through the rain.

Herb bought an old truck built for delivering pies, filled it with the equipment needed to transmit through microwave or coaxial cable to the network, and loaded it with three-hundred-pound television cameras. He hauled the cameras to the Cape, and by jerry-rigging ropes and tackles and employing the biggest muscles around, Herb and crew then hauled them up the backside of an abandoned radar building overlooking the launch pads. A live television signal was fed through the “pie truck” to the network, and when a Thor-Able rocket headed for the vicinity of the moon on November 8, 1958, Jim Kitchell and Herb Gold and their scavengers had legendary broadcaster Roy Neal reporting live on the NBC television network. For the first time, a breaking news event arrived live on your home television set.

NBC had its live television breaking news report, and NASA was now a fact, but the “spook” boys around the Pentagon weren’t happy. The Russians hurled large payloads in orbit, and our puny satellites could only watch. The Advanced Research Projects Agency decided something had to be done, and they came up with a propaganda doozey. They decided to put a whole damn Atlas into orbit. The entire missile would be the satellite. Let’s see the Russians top that!

The Atlas was, at the time, the country’s intercontinental ballistic missile, and for it to hurl a warhead more than five thousand miles, the stage-and-a-half rocket had to achieve a speed just under orbital velocity. Engineers figured if they stripped an Atlas down to its socks, to what they called a “hot rod” rocket, it would go into orbit with the assist of Earth’s easterly rotation. This meant Atlas had to be launched due east, out of the range of safety guidelines, but Major General Donald Yates, commander of the Air Force Eastern Test Range, told the White House he could handle that.

Only eighty-eight people were brought in on the plan. They had to strip Atlas 10B of everything not needed to fly, and they had to place a tape playback unit and a broadcast transmitter inside the missile. The tape was what we in the business call a closed loop. It would continually repeat a message recorded by President Eisenhower wishing all peoples peace on Earth from the world’s largest satellite.

The scheme was given the name “Project Score,” and Atlas 10B was ready to fly on December 18, 1958. The mission was the most secret American launch ever, and the “spooks” were off and grinning.

The newly created remote television truck is seen here at the Cape. Inside is executive producer Jim Kitchell (second from center). Correspondent Roy Neal (third from center) is seen talking to unit manager Dick Auerbach. The November 8, 1958, launch of the Thor-Able rocket to the vicinity of the moon is seen captured by NBC’s cameras—the first live television of a breaking news event. (Gold Collection).

Four days before the launch, I was in a stall in the men’s room down the hall from General Yates’s office when I heard a familiar voice. It was the general himself, talking to an ARPA man.

“Check the place out,” Yates ordered.

The ARPA man scanned the men’s room before bending over and looking under each stall’s door. By then my feet were up around my ears.

“We’re clear.”

“Okay,” the general said, adding, “My biggest concern is some damn reporter will find out about the launch.”

“So what?” The spook sounded gleeful. “If he tells the world, and we fail, we’ll simply deny it. He’ll be left out on the proverbial limb.”

“Right,” Yates agreed, “but if we get Ike’s message in orbit, then the President can announce it himself from the White House.”

The two men finished and left. Now I was the one feeling smug. It was dumb luck for sure, but just what in hell were they talking about?

The next launch was Atlas 10B. That I knew. But they were talking about Ike’s message from orbit. 10B wasn’t going to orbit anything! Or was it? I had been told how Atlas rockets almost achieve orbit each time they are launched on intercontinental ranges. Could that be it? Well, why in hell not? They could be orbiting something with 10B. That was it! They could be orbiting a message from the President.

I rushed back to my office. A message from Jim Kitchell in New York waited. I returned his call and learned Jim was already on the story. We compared notes on what each of us knew, and I was quickly on my way to see a few solid sources. I had no idea only eighty-eight people nationwide were officially in the know, and I was greeted with blank faces. Then, good old RCA, NBC’s parent company came through. The playback unit and transmitter were being put together by RCA, and my source played me the tape. I had it all. But as the “spook” had said, there was little I could do. We could film, record, and stand by. Nothing more.

I phoned Kitchell and he flew cameraman Bruce Powell down from Chicago. Atlas 10B roared from a freshly darkened Earth at 6:02 P.M. Eastern time, December 18, 1958.

And God! What a launch!

10B climbed into the darkness, the Atlas’s thrust lighting the night as hundreds of launches had before. But then, a little more than a minute off the ground, the rocket instantly reappeared from the darkness. The line of shadow cast by Earth stretched far over our heads, and now Atlas 10B was rushing across a lit sky above our darkness. It was bathed in sunlight from a sun that had already disappeared beyond the Cape’s horizon.

We stood frozen by what we saw. Rocket flames growing blood-red followed by dazzling blues and greens and yellows, all creating a shimmering aurora in space. We were looking at a multicolored sky alive and dancing. It was as if the gods were welcoming Ike’s message with their own shimmering Christmas tree.

Atlas 10B lifts off with Project Score. (USAF).

No one had ever seen before or will ever see again this incredible sight. The temperature, the moisture in the air, and the light rays from a hidden sun were just right. The stunning colors and lights glimmered and lingered in the heavens, and official phones were ringing off their walls. Some thought the world was ending. Others thought the rocket had blown up.

Meanwhile, inside Range Control, those who were tracking the Atlas were watching the big rocket grab for all of Earth’s rotational push. 10B needed all the help it could get to make it into orbit. It was headed due east and off the safety charts. The range safety officer (RSO) was about to have a fit. He was reaching for the destruct button to blow the Atlas to harmless debris when he felt a hand grab his wrist. General Donald Yates stood over his shoulder with a firm grip. “Don’t push that button, Captain,” the general ordered. “I’ll take full responsibility.”

“But, Sir,” the air force captain protested, “if we have a failure the missile could hit Africa.”

“Big deal,” the general bellowed. “A lot of jungle out there.” Yates released his grip. “Don’t touch that damn button, Captain. That’s a direct order.”

The range safety officer leaned back in his chair and began to sweat. General Yates held his breath, and an anxious White House awaited word.

Five minutes after Atlas 10B’s magnificent liftoff, the rocket sailed into Earth orbit and became the planet’s largest and heaviest man-made satellite.

Other press members reported it as a routine launch. I didn’t report anything. I grinned as NBC cameraman Powell sped away for his chartered plane to our Jacksonville affiliate. If the whole damn scheme worked, we’d have an NBC network report.

The air force returned the news media to Headquarters Building 425 at Patrick Air Force Base, where we had left our cars. Immediately, everyone was off the bus and off to the bars, believing the story was over.

Major Ken Grine, our air force escort, decided to stay in his office, and I decided to stay with him. We both knew why we were waiting, and two hours after 10B’s launch, direct from the White House we had confirmation from the President himself.

“Tonight,” Ike began, “An Atlas satellite was launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral. On board is this recorded message by me.”

The President turned and pointed to the White House radio technician:

This is the President of the United States speaking. Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you from a satellite circling in outer space. My message is a simple one. Through this unique means I convey to you and all mankind America’s wish for peace on Earth and good will to men everywhere.

NBC News was the only agency with film, and we enjoyed our little exclusive.

In 1958, launches at Cape Canaveral had become the hottest news in the country. NBC’s Chet Huntley, America’s number-one broadcaster, was often at the Cape. From left to right: author Jay Barbree, Major Ken Grine, Chet Huntley. (Barbree Collection).

Project Score reached orbit five months into my employ by NBC News, and by now I knew my way around the Cape and the military.

As a farm boy of sixteen without a home, I lied about my age and talked myself into the air force, where I spent four years in search of an education. After basic training in Texas, I was assigned to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. There, I spent my off-duty time studying for my general equivalency diploma and watching the fighters and bombers climb into the sky from Scott Field. Sometimes I would walk to the end of the runway and stand, drinking in the energy of an F–80 jet thundering over my head, tucking up its gear and fleeing into puffy white clouds.

I was in awe of flying machines, and I began spending much of my spare time at a nearby private airport. I had no money for flying lessons, but I would stand there and watch the pilots shout “Contact!” to the mechanics that would grab the wooden props and swing them down suddenly; each aircraft engine would fire with a stuttering cough. I loved to stand behind the ships when the pilots revved them up for a power check. The air blast whipped back, throwing up dust and flattening the grass, blowing strong in my face.

Soon, I was an airport fixture. I was the pilots’ “go-fer.” I gladly ran their errands and helped them with their planes, and they repaid me with local rides.

I’ll never forget my first hop. The airplane was old, its fabric faded, splotched yellow, and the engine dripped oil. It smelled of gasoline in the air; it shook my teeth, but I didn’t care. After a few weeks, the pilots let me handle the stick and rudder foot pedals in flight, adding instructions when possible.

Then there was the day the man with the red-and-white Stearman biplane landed at our field. I helped the pilot with the awesome ship, running behind the right wing and pushing on the struts. We got the machine refueled, and I answered all the pilot’s questions, bringing him coffee and a couple of fresh doughnuts. And while he downed the coffee, I stood on a box, cleaning the cockpit glass, polishing the gleaming red-and-white surface as the pilot watched in silence.

“Hey, buddy!” he shouted. “Would you like a ride?”

My grin was my answer and minutes later we were in the air, where, for the first time, I experienced aerobatics as earth and sky vanished and reappeared with startling rapidity. It began with me staring at a vertical horizon and realizing the edge of the world now stood on its end. But not for long, as the Stearman continued on over, rolling around the inside of an invisible barrel in the air, until the ground was up and the sky was down. I had just enough time to catch my breath when the nose went down and an invisible hand pushed me gently into my seat and glued me there as the nose came up, and up. The horizon disappeared again, and the engine screamed with the dive. Then the nose was coming up, higher and higher, and the engine began to protest. The sun flashed in my eyes, and I found myself on my back as the Stearman soared up and over in a beautiful loop.

As we flew on, my pleasure grew, and my eyes were glazed with delight by the time the biplane whispered onto the grass landing strip.

There could be no stopping me now. I lived and slept flying, and within a year I had my pilot’s license along with my high school diploma, and I earned two years of college credits in night aviation classes. I was transferred to the Scott AFB Link Trainer Section, where I was appointed an air force instrument flight simulator instructor at the age of eighteen.

The author as an eighteen-year-old pilot at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. (Barbree Collection).

A couple of the other pilots in the Link Section and I bought an Aeronica Champion, and in the months to come, logged endless hours in the single-engine land aircraft. At that time I only saw my future in aviation, but I soon learned the pay wasn’t promising, and I met a portly radio-station owner endowed with both a full bosom and a desire to possess my young body. Broadcast crept into my life, pushing flying aside, and once out of the air force, a living I had to make.

I kicked around a couple of radio stations before landing at WALB Radio & TV in Albany, Georgia, where, after three years, the “space bug” sunk its teeth in me and I was off to Cape Canaveral. I managed a little piece of bachelor’s heaven in a studio apartment on the beach, and when it came to making friends, I was lucky. Some of them were even famous, but I suppose the one I liked to hang out with the most was a wild New Yorker named Martin Caidin. Caidin stepped aside for no man, and he was arguably the greatest aviation and space writer ever. He lived in New York but when he finished writing a book, Caidin would be off to the Cape, where we would raise hell and get in some serious flying.

We were an odd couple: he a wise-ass New Yorker, I a Georgia plowboy. We just seemed to piss off the right people, which I reasoned was because Caidin was an orphan and we’d both grown up without. When two people who never had much meet, well, there’s instant trust.

Mostly, when Marty came down, we would go flying. He had bought a German World War II ME–108 fighter, and I remember one particular night when we were upstairs in calm air and the old Messerschmitt was rock steady, and we could see the Cape spread out before us; we could see where brilliant searchlights converged on an Atlas missile. It was too far away to make out details at first, but we could see the plume of escaping liquid-oxygen vapor flashing in the light.

America’s new spaceport was an enchanted land of lights and colors, and as we flew closer, we could see along the northeast beach the four massive gantry towers for Atlas, including the missile undergoing a fueling test on its pad, and the dark shapes where engineers and construction workers were rushing the completion of four complexes and their towers for the mighty Titan. And south of the Cape’s point, there were the gantries for the family of intermediate-range ballistic missiles; Thor, Jupiter, Redstone, and Jupiter-C; and the new launch pads for Polaris.

I smiled. Before the week was finished, I would be covering the Polaris launch, the solid-fueled missile that would soon go to sea aboard nuclear submarines.

There were other areas too dark to identify, but from the air, I realized I was seeing the Cape as I had never seen it before. This was not merely a site where buttons were pushed and missiles screamed into the sky. It was a vast assembly, the workshop of a laboratory that stretched more than five thousand miles across the Atlantic. It was vibrant, expensive, terribly complicated, and dangerous, but most of all, vital to all of us.

Martin Caidin and Jay Barbree could often be seen flying this German World War II Messerschmitt ME–108 fighter over Florida. The German fighter with its original markings raised many eyebrows at local airports, and once Caidin had to make an emergency landing on U.S. 1, coming to a stop in front of a motel. He grinned and asked, “You have a room?” (Caidin Collection).

I rolled the Messerschmitt westward, cutting power and trimming the World War II fighter for a rapid descent. Three brilliant lights flashed and disappeared, first white, then green. They were the flasher beacons from Titusville’s executive airport. I made a long, straight-in approach to the runway and the aircraft settled easily on the concrete.

It was a beautiful Florida day for the first full-scale Polaris launch.

We reporters and photographers were taken to the roof of a vacated radar building overlooking the missile’s launch pad.

The Polaris was a white-and-black stubby thing. Both of its stages were packed full of solid fuel—something like candle wax instead of liquid. That was because the fifteen-hundred-mile-range missiles, with more destructive power than all the bombs dropped in World War II, were to ride inside silos on board nuclear submarines.

The safety people had placed a standard, liquid-fuel missile’s destruct package on board. The explosives were there to blow the Polaris to shreds if it acted up, but this was unknown to the experts; this destruct package couldn’t get the job done. It needed about four times the explosives to blow the solid-fuel Polaris into harmless debris.

The countdown moved through its final seconds, and Polaris leapt from its pad, racing skyward much faster than its liquid-fuel brethren. Cheering onlookers were hooting and hollering as Polaris, unlike the liquid-fuel rockets, climbed on a solid stack of white smoke. It was a joy to see until—you guessed it—Polaris decided to go its own way.

Instantly, the range safety officer sent a radio signal to destroy the missile, to stop it from threatening life or property, but instead of blowing it into harmless burning trash, the underpowered destruct package simply separated the Polaris’s two stages.

The first stage, the one that had been ignited at launch, continued to burn, and took a new course toward coastal towns.

Suddenly, a panicked voice began screaming over the Cape’s squawk box, “All personnel on the Cape take cover!”

No member of the press moved. We stood staring into the sky. The Polaris’s unlit second stage appeared like a huge white barrel tumbling over and over, heading directly toward us.

The squawk box kept screaming for us to take cover, and our escort, Major Ken Grine, kept yelling, “Get the hell off this roof!”

At that very moment, a naval commander was bringing a tray of sandwiches up the stairs, unaware of what was happening.

“Come on, you guys,” Grine yelled again. “It’s my ass if you don’t get off this roof.”

Again, no one moved, and the major stamped his foot and took off running down the stairs, sending tray and sandwiches and naval commander tumbling to the ground. I quickly refocused my attention skyward to see the Polaris’s second stage breaking apart. It was now in several pieces. A large chunk plunged into the roof of a car parked next to our building; it smashed the vehicle flat, including its tires. Other debris, most of it now burning, showered an area around us the size of a football field. One piece smacked into the roof in front of my feet.

The instant smell of burning tar got our attention, but we still didn’t move. Associated Press photographer Jimmy Kerlin had his legs and arms wrapped around his tripod, shooting pictures of everything in sight.

The Polaris’s first stage continued burning its way toward land. God, it could even hit Cocoa! Hundreds could soon be killed. Then, I moved. I ran down the stairs, demanding that Major Grine take us off the Cape so we could get to the impact site and report whatever happened.

Grine agreed. We quickly got on the bus and as we moved through the guarded gate, I jumped off to the safety of civilian soil. I ran for the same public phone booth where I had covered the Vanguard blowup. I was on the air within a minute, telling NBC network listeners what I knew; and when I completed my report I ran onto the highway, waving down the first car coming my way. The driver gave me a ride to the Hitching Post Trailer Park, where the crowd was still growing. The steaming first stage of the Polaris was in the Banana River, only a couple of hundred feet behind rows of house trailers.

“We get all the tornadoes, God,” someone yelled. “Why us? Why stray missiles too?”

“Anyone hurt?” I yelled back, and voices from among the crowd reported, “No!”

I stopped long enough to catch my breath before I started checking the place out, interviewing eyewitnesses.

There were no apparent injuries or damages, but what had the crowd buzzing, of more interest even than the wayward missile, was the woman who had been taking a shower in her trailer. When the Polaris thundered into the river, she ran out to see what was going on. Yep, she had forgotten one important item—her clothes. The Lady Godiva of Cape Canaveral’s Hitching Post Trailer Park received as much print in the local paper the next day as did the runaway Polaris. Go figure.

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