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He was there for every launch

Jay Barbree, who has covered all the manned flights out of Cape Canaveral, recounts his life among astronauts.

September 21, 2007|Marcia Dunn | Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Only one person on the planet has covered every manned launch out of Cape Canaveral, and now, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of spaceflight, he's written a book about it.

Veteran NBC space correspondent Jay Barbree's memoir, "Live From Cape Canaveral," was released this month by Smithsonian Books.

"There are an awful lot of guys . . . who were here for the early days and they're no longer here," Barbree, 73, said recently at the Kennedy Space Center, squeezing in an interview before hurrying off to cover a NASA news conference.

"So I just got to thinking, no one really knows their stories . . . I mean the seven original Mercury [astronauts], and the pranks and the fun times that they all went through.

"Today, it's pretty much all computers. But in those days, they went out, kicked the tires, flew it, checked it out themselves. So I thought, well, if that story is going to be told, I've got to do it."

His book opens, naturally enough, with the beginning of the Space Age on Oct. 4, 1957 -- the Soviet Union's launch of the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik.

Working at the time for WALB in Albany, Ga., Barbree caught a glimpse of Sputnik's spent booster rocket orbiting overhead, then filed radio and TV reports. The onetime farmboy and Air Force recruit was hooked.

Barbree talked his way to Cape Canaveral and covered America's humiliating Vanguard launch failure at the end of 1957 and the following success of the nation's first satellite, Explorer 1, on Jan. 31, 1958. He joined NBC News from the cape six months later.

What is remarkable is that Barbree has been present for all 150 of NASA's manned launches. No other journalist comes close. Many of those who competed with him over the years either quit, retired or died. And even a sudden-death experience in 1987 did not ruin Barbree's record. He dropped dead while running on the beach, was revived by medics and managed to recuperate in time for the first post-Challenger mission.

When asked to comment on the book, T.J. "Tom" O'Malley, 91, the Mercury-Atlas test conductor who pushed the launch button for John Glenn's flight, said, there were only three newsmen back then whom he trusted, and Barbree was one of them.

Barbree quickly learned which Mercury man would be first in space in 1961, despite NASA's efforts to keep it secret. But because Alan Shepard himself divulged the news off the record, Barbree couldn't go with it.

"Live From Cape Canaveral" is Barbree's eighth book. He cowrote 1994's "Moon Shot" with Shepard, Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton and former Associated Press aerospace writer Howard Benedict, all now gone.

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