Space suddenly takes center stage

Feb 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Just before 9 a.m. Eastern time on Feb. 1, when communications between Mission Control and the Columbia broke off mid-word, the routine suddenly was shattered for a small fraternity of television journalists who for years have immersed themselves in the exotically arcane world of NASA.
For more than a decade, news about the space program had taken a back seat, leaving these dedicated professionals to scrap for extremely limited airtime. Americans had grown complacent about the shuttle program, while space exploration suffered from budget cuts. Legislators and the public alike seemed to have moved on to other interests. Then tragedy struck and everything changed.
NBC correspondent Jay Barbree, 69, has covered the space beat for nearly 45 years. “I’m the only one who has covered every astronaut mission,” he said. It was Mr. Barbree who broke the story that an ice-brittled O-ring was the cause of the 1986 explosion in which seven astronauts lost their lives shortly after the Challenger left the launch pad in Florida.
Saturday morning he was just a couple of minutes ahead of the small press pack that was moving to be in high gear by 9:16 a.m., the moment the Columbia was scheduled to land in Florida.
But just before 9 a.m. Mr. Barbree was on the phone in Florida waiting to make a brief report for the top-of-the-hour headline block anchored by MSNBC’s Alex Witt. In Secaucus, N.J., Javier Morgado, national assignment editor for the network desk, was putting in his first weekend stint in a month on the “superdesk,” which services NBC News and MSNBC. He was monitoring the NASA Select TV Channel, listening to the “ambient communication” that tracked the de-orbit burn that had sounded so normal until Mr. Morgado heard the words he’ll never forget: “We have lost communication with Columbia.”
Mr. Morgado quietly tapped into Mr. Barbree’s line to ask, “Did you hear what I heard?” Mr. Barbree had. They both had the same sense of foreboding. Mr. Morgado yelled to the control room: “You’ve got to go with this. Do not go to commercial break.”
While Mr. Barbree was reporting a loss of radio contact on MSNBC, Mr. Morgado was going into full emergency mode. He squawked instantly to all appropriate NBC entities that NASA had lost communication. He activated the emergency bridge phone conference system. NBC executives were already on the call when off-duty correspondent and Southwest bureau chief Jim Cummins in Dallas phoned to report “a loud explosion” in the area. A call from Secaucus to NBC-owned KXAS-TV in Dallas produced a chilling echo. “Their words to me were, `Our phones lit up like a Christmas tree,”’ Mr. Morgado said.
Meanwhile, CBS News’ Bill Harwood, who was the Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press during the Challenger disaster and who in 1992 became a space analyst for CBS News, had heard the radio traffic going in and out-“That’s not unusual,“ he said-just before 9 a.m.
He got a query via his Internet message service: “Should I be nervous yet?” “I sent a message back saying, `I’m getting nervous,”’ Mr. Harwood said. He grew more apprehensive as he watched the body language at Mission Control. After he got an “Oh my God “ message with a lot of exclamation points, he called CBS News in New York.
At CNN headquarters in Atlanta, Saturday morning news anchor Miles O’Brien had been urging viewers in the re-entry path to go outside and watch the Columbia streak across the sky.
“I was thinking it was going to be a beauty shot,” he said. Then the NASA chatter about the loss of communication “got my attention. I suddenly wasn’t paying so much attention to the screaming producer in my other ear.”
“My pulse began to quicken,” said Mr. O’Brien, who would soon be particularly grateful that in addition to his producer of one year, Dave Santucci, he had space-savvy weekend manager Emily Atkinson nearby-“She has a Rolodex of space contacts that rivals mine.”
When Columbia’s path stopped suddenly on NASA’s big radar screen, “I knew in an instant it was catastrophic,” Mr. O’Brien said, “because there’s no in-between. It’s either there or it isn’t, and it wasn’t.”
“If it’s not there, they’re dead,” said Mr. Harwood.
By 9:30 a.m. “Today” weekend anchors David Bloom and Soledad O’Brien were back in their studio and Mr. Barbree was being debriefed on NBC’s air. Mr. Barbree said that when he saw early video of the disintegration from Waco Texas, he said,`That’s Challenger all over again.’
At MSNBC, Mr. Morgado and the two other assignment editors on duty in Secaucus were working furiously to get people in position for the story that had galvanized with horrifying speed.
“We moved well over 100 troops in the first hour,” said Mr. Morgado. One of them was Mike Tanaka, who is in charge of booking for MSNBC daytime. He got his page at 9 a.m. and was immediately on the way back to Secaucus from his home in Rhode Island. “It’s only about a 21/2-hour drive,” he said. He spent it alternately listening to news radio, calling in to listen to MSNBC’s coverage and talking to Mark Effron, the VP of MSNBC’s live news coverage, who also was making his way to Secaucus.
For Mr. O’Brien, Mr. Harwood and Mr. Barbree, whose jobs entail getting to know astronauts and the NASA executives responsible for their safety, there was barely a moment to take a few deep breaths and to let their adrenaline settle enough to dig in for what would be a long day.
“Yes, it’s a shock to the system,” said Mr. Harwood, who continued to report on-air and on the Web throughout the week.
Mr. O’Brien would be in Houston by late Saturday evening. “I saved my tears up until then.”
“If you don’t slow down, you can kind of put [personal feelings] on the back burner,” said Mr. Barbree, who broke the story Monday about a memo two days before the disaster in which NASA had figured that launch debris caused a long gash on the shuttle’s left wing. His services were in daily, sometimes hourly, demand on Don Imus’ radio show as well as by MSNBC and NBC News.
In Miami at NBC-owned WTVJ-TV, general manager Don Browne was proud of jobs well done by two people with whom he has professional connections. Mr. Morgado had been an assignment editor at WTVJ before accepting an offer to move up to MSNBC last year.
“He has that fire in his belly,” said Mr. Browne, who was NBC’s Miami bureau chief and Mr. Barbree’s Miami-based bureau Cape Canaveral-based producer when Mr. Barbree broke the Challenger O-ring story in 1986.
“The network wanted someone else to front it,” recalled Mr. Browne.” I said, `No [expletive] way.”
No one had to run that kind of interference last week.