As the Century Turned

One of NASA’s oldest dreams was to build a permanent space station. It would, in some minds, be the beginning of an orbiting space city, a gravity-free outpost where earthlings could multiply, raise families, live longer, and produce the stuff and foods needed for self-sufficiency in orbit.

NASA had a small taste of operating its own space station in 1973. That’s when it used rockets and spaceships left over from canceled Apollo missions. The agency launched three separate crews of three astronauts each to spend up to nine months aboard the station named Skylab. The astronauts proved humans could live and work in space for periods up to eighty-four days with few ill effects.

The Russians, after losing the moon race, used their workable rockets to build their own versions. They launched a series of Salyut laboratories with two and three cosmonaut crews staying in space for months at a time. It was from this experience that Russia sent a larger and, to many space engineers’ way of thinking, the first real space station into orbit. It was called Mir, and cosmonauts stayed aboard their home in the sky for up to a year.

Spurred by Russia’s success, the United States signed an agreement with Japan, Canada, and the member nations of the European Space Agency to jointly develop an international orbiting complex. The United States would maintain the leadership role and provide the major elements of the future space city, with the Europeans and Japanese building research modules and Canada developing a mobile service center, a maintenance depot, and a large robotic arm.

By having to compete with the financial weight of America’s Strategic Defense Initiative (called “Star Wars” by some), the Soviet Union broke apart and ceased to exist. Officials of the cash-strapped Russian Republic began vigorous international marketing of the still-to-be-built larger station called Mir 2. The most interested party was the United States. Meanwhile the International Space Station survived by only one vote in Congress. This spurred NASA to negotiate a deal making the former Soviet Union the newest partner in the international dream.

With Russia adding its Mir 2 sections and rockets and Soyuz spacecraft to the program, the International Space Station grew by a fourth; its crew would now increase from four to six. The addition of the Russians reduced America’s overall costs, and both houses of Congress smiled as the first of a series of international cooperative missions got underway. Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev boarded a Space Shuttle and became the first of many cosmonauts who would ride into orbit on America’s Space Transportation System.

Cosmonaut Vladimir Titov was aboard the shuttle Discovery when it flew to within thirty-seven feet of Russia’s Mir and began “station keeping,” a technique where each spacecraft orbits side by side with another, separated by a small distance. It was the first meeting of American and Russian spaceships in orbit since the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in July 1975, and it was a rehearsal for a series of Space Shuttle and Mir dockings.

From February 1994 to June 1998, NASA racked up eleven flights to the large orbiting complex. Seven American astronauts spent a total of 977 days, 2.7 years, in residence aboard Russia’s Mir. It was on-the-job-training for the time when the International Space Station would become reality—not only for Russia and America but for thirteen other partners in the international project as well.

Between March 22 and August 26, 1996, Dr. Shannon Lucid began America’s continuous presence on Mir. The veteran astronaut set an American single spaceflight record with her 188-day stay, and those who followed enjoyed uneventful visits until astronaut Jerry Linenger arrived for his residency. The good doctor became the first American to take a spacewalk outside of the Russian outpost, but he also became the first astronaut to fight fire in orbit. At 10:35 P.M. Moscow time, February 23, 1997, cosmonaut Sasha Lazutkin activated a backup oxygen canister. It was needed because the station was supporting an overlapping six-person crew. Soon after the canister was activated, the master alarm erupted, and Linenger’s eyes went wide. A four-foot flame shot across the Kvant 1 research module.

Astronaut Alan Shepard (left), America’s first man in space, and astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson (center), the commander of the hundredth American mission, recognize NBC correspondent Jay Barbree as the only journalist to have covered all one hundred American flights. (NASA).

Warm air doesn’t rise in a weightless environment. Fire cannot spread as it does on Earth. But this one had a built-in oxygen supply. The blowtorch-like flame rendered the Mir’s water-based extinguishers useless, and the flames blocked access to one of the two Soyuz emergency escape vehicles. This meant only three of the six people on the station could leave.

Unable to put out the fire, the cosmonauts and astronauts had only one choice: They had to let the fire burn out. Station commander Valeri Korzun aimed his extinguisher at the far wall to keep it from melting. The extinguisher acted like a rocket thruster, and Linenger had to hold the cosmonaut steady. Others brought in new extinguishers when the old ones ran out. The rest of the crew shut down equipment and powered up the accessible Soyuz. Fourteen minutes later, the canister had no fuel left to burn. The fire disappeared as quickly as it had ignited.

A second emergency happened on June 25, 1997, during astronaut Mike Foale’s stay. A manual docking system could have cost him and his crewmates their lives. A Russian Progress supply ship ran into the station, knocking a hole in the Mir’s Spektr module. The result was rapid depressurization, and the crew closed the hatch to Spektr. The station’s air pressure stabilized, and after a few flight adjustments, Mir was back in operation.

My colleague covering spaceflight in those days was Robert Hager. Called the “rabbit” by those of us who admired him, Hager would hop from one story to another, and just to fire up our competitive juices, he covered them all superbly.

Robert Hager is a decent, warm, and most likable fellow, and he convinced Tim Russert, another decent, warm, and most likable fellow who is NBC’s Washington bureau chief, that we needed a detailed model of Mir. We needed it if we were to continue covering fires and wrecks and such on the Russian space station. But the main reason was Hager’s belief in models. He used them on most of his stories, including on his wedding night. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words, and he told Tim Russert it shouldn’t cost more than a couple of hundred dollars.

Russert, being the supportive manager he is, said, “Fine. Do it,” and Hager was off to model factories seeking the best at the craft.

To cut to the chase, he had this detailed Mir model built at a cost of thousands of dollars. Mir never suffered another accident, and we never got to use the model. I’m told Russert moved it to the center of the bureau to use as a coat rack. Hager retired quietly to a farm in Vermont, where the senior country squire dresses smartly Saturdays and drives his tractor to the better square dances. His wife, Honoré, standing on the back between the two large tires, seems just a bit unseemly.

Back on Earth, trips into space were running like a well-oiled clock, and another senior was getting restless. John Glenn, the first American to orbit our planet, decided he’d had enough of Washington politics, and he retired from the United States Senate with the hope of returning to the pursuits of his youth. John had a hankering to prove a seventy-seven-year-old senior could handle modern spaceflight.

Most agreed it would be difficult for the average septuagenarian. Disregarding any ills, the slow movement of bodily joints, and the reduced strength of bodily functions alone would be enough to keep the average senior citizen out of orbit. But John Glenn was anything but average, and NASA was quick to recognize the public-relations value of welcoming back the senator.

But there was another problem. Lingering like a houseguest who refused to leave was a NASA promise. After the Challenger disaster, the agency announced that when it was ready to fly citizens again, the first person would be teacher, Barbara Morgan, who had been Christa McAuliffe’s backup. But a fast-thinking NASA moved quickly to nullify its promise. The agency decided to make Morgan an astronaut instead. She would attend the same astronaut-training program as the others. She would be trained to fly and to pull regular astronaut duties; then Senator Glenn could go fly again, and everyone would be happy.

Happy, my Aunt Hilda’s petunias! What the hell about the Journalist in Space Project? NASA had promised a journalist would follow the teacher. When I asked, NASA decided, in the tradition of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, it would think about that another day…

It was clear that no matter how well I had recovered from my health setbacks, I could never be more than an “earthbound” astronaut. There would never be a “Journalist in Space”! Instead, there would be those going for political value. The Russians would soon be flying tourists at $20 million a pop!

There are many times in life one must accept the inevitable. I filed the dream away in the “what could have been” drawer and refocused on my job.

I was pleased for my friend John. With a wink and a nod here and there, Glenn, national hero, passed all of NASA’s physical and mental requirements, and the agency loaded up the septuagenarian former astronaut and test pilot with a series of assignments. He was to go into orbit and do research on aged bodies. Well, John Glenn sure had one of those, and he slipped his aged body into his bright orange spaceflight suit and helmet and marched off to join the STS–95 crew.

Curt Brown and Steve Lindsey were the aviators for the mission, and they welcomed the old marine fighter pilot with open arms. The question of what citizen flew first in space was quickly forgotten, and all other critics and whiners and complainers were herded off into the nearby Florida swamps, where they were lost for days.

Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, who had been John Glenn’s backup for his first launch on February 20, 1962, flew down to the Cape to join Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, David Bloom, Robert Hager, and me for NBC’s launch coverage. Scott Carpenter was there to re-create his famous good-luck good-bye. At the precise same moment, Carpenter was to say “God speed, John Glenn” as he had before, and Tom and Brian wanted me around for a little aged experience.

White House correspondent David Bloom (left) is seen here with field producer Dan Shepherd (right) covering John Glenn’s return to space for the Today Show. (Shepherd Collection).

Seventy-seven-year-old John Glenn relaxes among his experiments on his second space flight. (NASA).

The event had grown into a massive homecoming week at the Cape. The spaceport swelled with gray-haired folks falling off buildings and out of trees, and we seniors were all just tickled to our toes to see John Glenn climb aboard another spaceship. We prayed and wished him luck, and on October 29, 1998, at 2:19 P.M. Eastern time, the space Shuttle Discovery headed into a blue and happy sky. Those of us who had admired Glenn and appreciated his friendship for forty years were never more proud, and we spent nine days watching this seventy-seven-year-old never miss a step. He proved to be the champ we all knew he was by taking care of his assignments, having fun in orbit, and doing a little rocking and singing.

On Saturday, November 7, 1998, at 12:04 P.M. Eastern time, Discovery touched down on its Florida landing strip.

An hour or so later, after all the housekeeping chores on board the shuttle were over, John Glenn strolled off Discovery seemly without a care in the world.

Now you may say, “Why not?”

The why not is that the lack of gravity in space weakens the arms and legs, and it takes some thirty-something astronauts hours, sometimes even days, to get their land legs under them again. Most doctors felt Glenn would need a wheelchair—possibly for days.

Well, forget about it! John walked by me and winked, and I hit a smart salute and hid a couple of tears. The hope he’d just brought all us gray-haired “keep on going-ers” was the tonic we needed to keep dreaming and planning, to keep goals out there, marching through life with purpose to the end.

We celebrated John Glenn’s second flight with some pretty hard partying, and my friends Bill Harwood from CBS, Hugh Harris from NASA, Bill Larson from ABC, Colonel Bill Coleman from Fighter Pilots ‘R Lonely, Michael Cabbage from the Orlando Sentinel, Diana Boles from Cats Unlimited, Eddie Harrison from Sailors ‘R Us, and many other spaceflight vets wanted to keep the party spirit going. New Year’s Eve 2000 was approaching and such a special New Year deserved to be celebrated in a special place, so we rounded up all the old folks from the Mercury days we could find and pounded on the air force’s door. We wanted to welcome 2000 with a New Year’s Eve party on John Glenn’s historic Mercury launch pad. All the little naysayer lieutenant colonels trying to make bird colonels threw up their hands in total disbelief. (“These drunks will kill themselves on air force property. They’ll drive into the ditches, into buildings, it’ll just be awful, and I will not have this on my record.”) But a sharp and bright and fun-loving commanding brigadier general by the name of Randy Starbuck said, “Let them have Glenn’s pad,” and picked up his cap, walked through his office door, and with a knowing grin quickly left town.

The little naysayer lieutenant colonels were forgetting that our generation had always been responsible. As Americans, we didn’t take a backseat to anyone. We sent the first astronauts into orbit and to the moon, and we sure as hell weren’t about to destroy something as sacred as John Glenn’s launch pad.

Our buddy Ken Warren of the Cape’s public affairs office put on his cleanest and brightest Dallas Cowboys jersey and ran interference. Ken kicked and stomped and shoved the traffic-cop mentality aside. Five hundred old Mercury and Gemini and Apollo vets showed up along with a 1950s big band from Disney World, and we danced to the oldies, saying our good-byes to the 1900s and throwing our arms around the 2000s without dropping a single soiled napkin on historic ground.

When it was over, and the year 2000 was firmly in place, we drove off the military site without driving into a single ditch, singing, “We’ll always love you, General Starbuck.”

As the century turned, construction was getting underway on the International Space Station. The orbiting outpost was to be as large as two football fields set side by side, with Russia’s Zarya control module launched first atop one of that country’s huge Proton rockets. The second part followed two weeks later aboard America’s Space Shuttle Endeavour. The crew captured Zarya with the Shuttle’s robotic arm and mated it with part two, called the Unity Node. Another Space Shuttle delivered and outfitted the infant station with logistics and supplies, and yet another crew readied it for the arrival of its main segment, Russia’s Zvezda service module.

On July 12, 2000, Zvezda launched atop a Russian Proton and docked with Zarya and the Unity Node. Two more service flights were flown before the first crew, to live and work aboard the International Space Station, arrived on October 31, 2000.

Within weeks, astronauts and cosmonauts were in the swing of things, and the construction flights were jumping off American and Russian launch pads without a hitch. Mission after mission was building the station that would, when finished, include eight large cylindrical sections called modules.

The modules were carried from Earth separately in the cargo bays of America’s Space Shuttle fleet and on the nose of Russia’s Proton rockets, and construction spacewalkers connected each section in orbit. Eight giant solar panels were needed to supply enough electricity to power a small city after being mounted on 360 feet of metal framework. The first of four sets of solar arrays, and the backbone truss to support them, were carried to the station November 30, 2000. The heart of America’s operation aboard the station, the Destiny Laboratory, was attached to the station in February 2001, and Canada’s big robotic arm that would be used as a construction crane arrived the following April. More truss and backbone sections for the huge orbiting platform were sent up in 2002, and construction spacewalkers—astronaut engineers and trained construction people were humming. The International Space Station was about half-built, and more and more people were spotting this strange object moving across the predawn and early-evening skies.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis is seen here streaking through orbit behind the International Space Station under a Texas moon. (Scott M. Lieberman).

My grandson Brian and his friends in Illinois spotted the station early one evening and freaked out. “Papa Jay,” Brian phoned me excitedly. “We just saw this thing that looked like the biggest and brightest star ever moving across the sky. It was way up there…It was…”

“Brian,” I interrupted, laughing, “You just saw the International Space Station. It travels 52 degrees above and below the equator, and you guys are about 42 degrees.”

“Man, Papa Jay,” he said out of breath, “that thing’s bright.”

“Yep, son, it sure is,” I said, enjoying his excitement. “Once it’s built, it will be the second brightest object in the early-evening and predawn sky.”

“Why’s that, Papa Jay?”

“Because in the early evening, and during a couple of hours before sunrise, the space station will be lit by the sun while it’s dark here on Earth.”


“Computers are your thing, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Just go to NASA’s home page, Brian, to the space-station section, and type in your city, and it’ll tell you when the space station will be passing over your location.”

“That’s great, Papa Jay,” Brian said with excitement. “We’ll keep a log up here, and we’ll let you know when we see it, okay?”

“Sure, buddy,” I smiled. “You guys will be my official space-station watchers in Illinois.”

As time passes, the more time one finds to spend with family. Between the Shuttle flights putting more sections of the International Space Station in orbit, the more I found myself on football fields with my oldest grandson, Bryce.

Bryce is the kind of young man most find likable. He is easygoing, with a grinning personality that gets him just about whatever he wants from his grandfather. Not really because of his grin, but because he was a pretty fair country football kicker, and his foot earned him a handful of college scholarships.

The first was from the University of South Carolina, but he decided to play at East Carolina and Shenandoah University in Virginia, where he was voted first-team all-conference two years in a row. He even won Most Valuable Player in Special Teams, and until you have experienced it, it’s hard to match the pride you have in chasing a family member around college football fields.

In a way Bryce and I found more humor in football than we did sincerity, and at the end of the 2002 football season an unusual Space Shuttle launch was calling. I was suddenly focusing on a break in the Shuttle launch team’s space-station construction flights. NASA was preparing the original Space Shuttle for a mission most wished would go away.

Columbia was the first Shuttle and therefore the oldest. It was lovingly called the fleet’s “Hangar Queen,” and most felt there it should stay. The launch team knew that like the senior citizen it was, Columbia was hard to get out of bed, but once it was on its feet, it was vintage dependability.

NASA had promised to fly an Israeli astronaut, and he and six others were going up for sixteen days of science. Columbia’s flight was set for January 16, 2003. The launch team smiled and said, “One more time.”

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