WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

My Brush with Cronkite

Posted July 29, 2009 12:32 p.m. EDT

Walter Cronkite as part of a "Journalist in Space" panel at Penn State in the mid 1980s.

It was a much less connected brush than the one Bill Leslie described in his recent blog about traveling to the NC coast with the famous anchorman, but it was a big event for me nonetheless, as someone who grew up in the '60s and '70s seeing a lot of the world and world events through Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News. Like many others, I was especially mesmerized as a youngster by the space program. I was a little too young for strong memories of the Mercury launches, but remember Gemini well and "where I was" when the Eagle touched down on the moon, with the famous "speechless" moment from Cronkite.

Fast forward to the mid-80s, with Mr Cronkite having retired from the anchor desk a few years earlier, only to find that he didn't quite want to take it easy just yet. Some of you may recall that along about 1984-85, NASA began a couple of programs to connect the population at large a bit more closely to the space program, which by then focused on the Space Shuttle. There was the "Teacher in Space" project, which led to the selection of Christa McAuliffe to train and fly as an "ordinary American." Along the same lines, there was a "Journalist in Space" program in which a newspaper, magazine or broadcast reporter was to be selected for a flight as well.

I can only imagine how excited Walter Cronkite must have been when he heard about that program, but he made the rounds as a nominee, and had passed a couple of rounds to become a finalist in the project when he and three other entrants came for a panel discussion at Penn State University. At the time, I was an Air Force Captain in graduate school, and also indulging my photography hobby by volunteering for the staff of the Daily Collegian newspaper. When a news or sports event needed a photographer, an assignment form was posted to a bulletin board, and anyone who was interested in shooting it would jot their names on the form. You checked back later to see whose name was circled for the assignment, and I was lucky enough to get the call for the Journalist in Space panel. I didn't get to speak to Mr Cronkite, but I had the opportunity to hear him eloquently discuss the history of the space program and his wonder at it all, and present a good case for his selection as the "JIS," along with ABC reporter Lynn Sherr and a couple of other candidates. And, I was able to take a series of photos, most of which were left with the newspaper, but I did keep the one you see posted here, as it turned out to be an unused spare.

To connect all this just a bit to weather, at about this same time (1985) the Air Force was actually conducting a search of its own for a "Weather Officer in Space" to train for and fly on the shuttle to conduct operational or research missions relating to military meteorology. This was at a time when a west coast shuttle facility (Space Launch Complex 6, or "Slick Six," second photo) was being made ready at Vandenburg AFB for launching military and civilian shuttle missions into polar orbits, which is generally impractical from the Florida launch site. I thought it was a very exciting prospect, but I was a couple of years away from a point in my career where it would have been reasonable to apply. The honor of that selection ended up going to a Major named Fred Lewis, who later went on to become a brigadier general and the Director of Weather at HQ USAF. He retired from active duty in that position in 2000, and then returned as a civilian in the same position in 2007, and continues in that top spot in Air Force Weather today.

Unfortunately for Walter Cronkite, for then-Maj Lewis, and most of all for its crew (including Christa MCAuliffe) and their friends and family, the Challenger explosion would soon put an end to the Journalist in Space and Weather Officer in Space programs, and the Teacher in Space program would go on hiatus (of a sort, replaced by the Educator Astronaut Project) until 2007, when Barbara Morgan, selected as Christa McAuliffe's alternate back in the 80s, flew as a mission specialist on Endeavour. The Challenger accident also was one of many contributing factors that led to the abandonment of the west coast Shuttle Launch program, with SLC-6 at Vandenburg now used mainly to launch payloads aboard unmanned Delta IV rockets.