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Column: The period in American history when astronauts were rock stars
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

The year 1968 was a turbulent time in our country. There were race riots, as well as the Vietnam War.

In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. A few months later, Robert Kennedy, former U.S. senator, was shot in a hotel in Los Angeles. A few hours later, he was dead.

The Democratic National Convention in Chicago was the scene of much upheaval. That fall, Richard Nixon would defeat Hubert Humphrey for presidency.

In late December of 1968, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first astronauts to leave Earth’s orbit and circle the moon. On Christmas Eve, as they orbited the moon, the three astronauts read from the first few verses of Genesis, where it speaks of God’s creation of the earth.

Most people felt pretty good about it. Madelyn Murray O’Hair, a crusader for atheism, filed suit about the astronauts’ reading. She hit a brick wall in federal court.

Astronauts were rock stars in the years leading up to the moon landing on July 20, 1969. They were featured on TV, in newspapers and magazines. They were young and handsome and represented a new hope in the U.S.

In 1984, I was hired to engineer a series of radio broadcasts around the state with John Glenn, an astronaut who was serving in the U.S. Senate from Ohio and was the first man to orbit Earth. I was accompanied by Jim Wood, who published a newspaper south of Atlanta.

We found that Glenn could not shake the astronaut image and become a national political candidate. The radio programs were billed as call-in broadcasts, but most of the questions were submitted in advance. I found a handful of unused questions on notecards. They dealt with such weighty issues as whether or not he got dizzy in space, how he went to the restroom and if he really drank Tang.

As we moved into mid-1969, the attention was focused on Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who would be the first men to step onto the dusty surface of the moon.

Despite the lateness of the hour, my mama parked me and my brother in front of our black and white TV. Coverage lasted over 46 hours, and most sets in the U.S. were tuned to one of the three networks.

In those days, WSB-TV was the NBC affiliate. Its coverage was anchored by Frank McGee and David Brinkley. 

CBS had the authoritative Walter Cronkite. He was joined by former astronaut Walter “Wally” Schirra. ABC was hosted by Frank Reynolds and the network’s science editor, Jules Bergman.

Cronkite was the go-to guy. He had been named in polls as the most trusted man in America. He was a reporter’s reporter, having been on the ground in Europe during World War II. They had lots of models that they would hold up and show how the lunar module, Eagle, would separate from the command module, Columbia.

“Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed,” Armstrongsaid. 

Cronkite removed and sat down his big horn-rimmed glasses. 

“Say something Wally, I’m speechless,” he said. 

His removal of his glasses was much akin to his move when he announced that President Kennedy had died.

It was one of those things that everyone seemed to have watched, and it brought about a time of patriotic, good feelings.  We needed it.

It seems like it was yesterday. For those of you who came along after that time, it was a wonderful period in American history.


Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the weekend Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com.

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