Live from Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space Race from Sputnik to Today
Smithsonian, 2007, 336pp.
Jay Barbree, one of the first radio reporters to focus on space and a correspondent on that medium as well as TV for 50 years, had a front-row seat to much of the American program. It's a fun read, but I wanted to like it more than I did.
Despite the book's adequate length, it feels like the reader is on a rushed tour bus, hitting the highlights with some pauses for personal interludes. Barbree came to know almost everyone in the space program, and he offers interesting anecdotes involving the astronauts in particular. He humanizes these larger-then-life figures well, although almost nothing is said of their families. He offers some poignant moments preceding and surrounding the Apollo 1 and Challenger disasters.
Barbree comes across (it is, of course, his book) as a guy you'd like to sit down with and just talk, maybe for days. He clearly admires space exploration in general and the astronauts in particular. The reader can share his disappointment in fighting hard for the first "Journalist in Space" slot only to have the project canceled, and his account of his own heart attack and near-death is harrowing.
There are just too many inconsistencies and omissions in here to make the book a great one. Barbree messes up the the nomenclature of Soviet launch vehicles. He tells the Skylab program story in two paragraphs, never once mentioning the near-disaster and superb salvage efforts involved. (Granted, this book is not meant as an exhaustive history, but here was a great achievement Barbree helped cover, by men he thought of as heroes, and not a word gets in.)
Barbree condenses John F. Kennedy's decision to commit to Apollo into three lines of dialogue in one meeting, when it was an extensive process that involved non-space options like ocean desalination as national objectives as well as the two main space options (Moon or space station). Weirdly, he re-creates a conversation where he (Barbree) says, years before the decision was made, that Armstrong was "destined" to be the first astronaut on the Moon. He credits Reagan's SDI with ending the Cold War by bankrupting the USSR: I agree in part, but it was infinitely more complex than that, and no single cause dominates all the others. There are no footnotes or references: Barbree of course had his own material built up over decades, but as his version of events (like those leading up to Apollo 1) sometimes conflicts with other sources, I'd like to know which broadcasts of his own, which NASA documents, which interviews, etc. supported important points.
I grew up watching the Apollo launches from our home in Florida, and I was excited as any kid could be. Barbree, at that point a veteran with many years of reporting under his belt, clearly had, and kept, the same kind of fascination. His account of covering the space program is valuable, but it could have been better.