How I became a teenage space reporter

April 2, 2019

I was a child of the 1950s and have been interested in space exploration for as long as I can remember. My favourite television program as a child was Walt Disney’s Disneyland that featured segments on space travel, then just a dream. The first book I owned was the 1957 Space Pilots by Willy Ley about the future selection of astronauts. I enjoyed science fiction, especially the ‘juvenile’ novels by Robert Heinlein such as Have Space Suit—Will Travel, published in 1958.

Space exploration started to become a reality when the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, called Sputnik, in October 1957 when I was 7 years-old. The first seven US astronauts were named in April 1959 and gave human faces to the notion of people travelling in space.

I was captivated by the first human spaceflights. Russian Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth once on 12 April 1961 when I was 10 years-old.  Alan Shepard rode a Mercury-Redstone rocket for the US on a suborbital flight the next month. John Glenn piloted the first US orbital mission aboard a Mercury-Atlas rocket on February 1962.

I first started writing about space when I was one of the editors of my high school newspaper, The Torch. I sent questions to the NASA Public Affairs Office in Houston and received back tape-recorded answers from astronaut Bill Anders.

I enjoyed journalism so when I enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1968, I joined the staff of The Michigan Daily, the independent student-run newspaper founded in 1890 on the Ann Arbor campus. There I learned how to quickly write newspaper stories, edit them, and do layouts of newspaper pages.

After the first 3-man Apollo mission (Apollo 7), I was allowed to write an editorial A case for going to outer space that was published on 23 October 1968 in The Daily.I was only a freshman at the time, but I was perhaps the only staffer there who had an interest in space exploration.

I had turned 18 that year, and when I was back in my home state Illinois, my friend Marvin Rubenstein suggested we travel to Florida in the Summer of 1969 to view a Saturn V rocket launch. The Saturn V Moon rocket was the largest ever built; it had three stages, was 363 feet tall, and could put 261,000 pounds into Earth orbit.

When I returned to Ann Arbor after the Christmas holiday, I approached the Senior Editors about covering an Apollo launch for The Daily. The newspaper had a long tradition of sending reporters to national news events, usually political in nature. However, sending a sophomore to a rocket launch was not high on their priority list. They agreed I could represent The Daily but I would need to cover all of my own expenses.

Apollo missions were scheduled for May 1969 (Apollo 10, a dress rehearsal for the Moon landing) and for July (Apollo 11, the first attempt at a landing). The July date would fit best into our college summer vacations.

After the success of Apollo 10, which returned to Earth on 26 May 1969, I made a reservation by telephone at the Sea Missile Motel in Cocoa Beach for 5 nights around the 11 July target date to launch Apollo 11. On 2 June I purchased airline tickets from Chicago to Florida.

When I applied for NASA press credentials I ran into a roadblock. NASA had over 3,500 requests for accreditation for Apollo 11 and had virtually no open spots. More importantly, NASA considered college journalists as students and would not accredit them.

Never giving up hope, I prevailed on a Dailysenior editor, Jim Heck, who was going to be in Washington that summer, to go to bat with the NASA Public Affairs office for me and my friend Marv. Jim was the Summer Editor of the College Press Service Wire Network, a consortium of over 500 college newspapers that shared news stories in the days before the internet. He argued that I was not just representing The Michigan Daily, but all of the newspapers served by the College Press Service.  After his persistent efforts, I received a letter dated 17 June 1969 that NASA had agreed to accredit me for Apollo 11.

I checked the mailbox each day and soon after I was thrilled to receive an official NASA press pass for Apollo 11.  I also was sent press instructions as to the terms of the press pass.

On 13 July 1969, three days before the scheduled launch, Marv and I flew to Florida. In a coincidence, we met four NASA astronauts waiting for family members at the Melbourne, Florida, airport where we landed. Three of them (Alan Bean, Charlie Duke and Jim Irwin) would later walk on the Moon).

Marv and I had many other unique experiences covering the launch of Apollo 11, the first Moon landing mission, on 16 July 1969. Early that morning, we saw astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin walk out in their white spacesuits on their way to the launch pad. At 9:32 am Eastern Standard Time we watched them lift off on top of a Saturn V rocket on their way to the Moon.

It’s been 50 years since that momentous mission, but my memories and pictures have been sharp enough to form the basis for my new bookI Was a Teenage Space Reporter: From Apollo 11 to Our Future in Space (LID Publishing, 2019).  As a teenage reporter with a NASA press pass, I was lucky enough to be an eyewitness to history with a unique perspective.

About the Author

David Chudwin MD is the author of I Was a Teenage Space Reporter: From Apollo 11 to Our Future in Space to be released by LID Publishing 2 April in the US and a month later in the UK.

 

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