It was the first day of March, 1965 and gray late winter gloom hung over the middle of America. It was easy to escape, however, because for just $3.00 yourself and a date could go to the movies and catch the season's smash hits, "Mary Poppins," or "Goldfinger." But, for space buffs there was no Hollywood substitute for a space flight. Most of the excitement over Gordon Cooper's FAITH 7 Mercury flight had melted away since his splashdown on May 16, 1963. In that 20 month period of time the United States had not launched another astronaut as NASA geared up for the Gemini program. To many Americans it appeared as if nothing was happening on our side of the space race as the Soviets had launched two Vostoks and one three-man Voskhod flight!
"What were "We" doing?" was the nagging question.
An answer came from one of America's most enthusiastic space buffs and a network that was also a supporter of our space program. CBS News' lead anchorman and leading space buff was Walter Cronkite and the network executives of the day knew that they could use his expertise and good name to try an experiment in broadcasting- and the best place to start that experiment was the nation's space program. They called their experiment, "the live documentary."
Folks... if you're a space buff and you don't recognize this guy... well... what more can I say?
Making a "live documentary" in 1965 was not nearly as simple as it sounds today when any school kid can go live on the internet with their smartphone and broadcast whatever they want... live. In the middle of the 1960s it involved synchronized long-distance telephone calls, video tape, huge TV cameras, announcers stationed around the country and big ol' jet airliners. It would all begin at exactly 3:00 pm Eastern time and every part of it would be shot within that hour. The scenes from around the nation would be cued by phone and would do their spot for an exactly defined period of time. When the three o'clock hour expired, all of the video tapes would be flown to CBS headquarters in New York and the segments would be quickly edited together so that the entire hour appeared as a seamless news broadcast when it was aired at 10:00 pm that same evening. Nothing like it had ever before been attempted on this scale. CBS would preempt the "Steve Lawrence Show" and the "live documentary," which actually wasn't "live" at all, would run the full hour without any commercials! It would be titled "T-Minus 4 Years, 9 Months, 30 Days." That was the exact amount of time left in order for the United States to fulfill President Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth before the decade was out.
This screen-grab is, like all of the others in this article, are taken from a Kinescope recording or the original broadcast. I obtained my copy from a private collector under the promise that I would not copy it and put the video on the internet or other places as a complete program. His collection has recently been donated in full to a major university. So the answer is "No- I won't burn you a copy."
In the December 21, 1964 issue of "Broadcasting" magazine CBS announced its plan to do the "live documentary" and then on February 18, 1965 they got everyone's attention by announcing that they had secured retired astronaut and American hero John Glenn to serve as Cronkite's co-host for the broadcast. That announcement alone guaranteed a huge audience who would tune in just to see Glenn. The base of operations for the broadcast would be the NASA Goddard Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Unlike many of the astronauts of that time, John Glenn had no fear of the TV camera and was not shy about speaking in public.
The program opened with Cronkite and "guest correspondent" Glenn explaining very clearly how a lunar orbit rendezvous mission would be accomplished. Using models of the Saturn V and a Mercury Atlas, which launched Glenn. Together in scale they gave a good example of the relative size difference between lunar hardware and project Mercury hardware.
the hosts with some really cool models.
Glenn explained that the figure he's heard was that a single Saturn V could put, "...between 80 and 90 of these Mercury spacecraft into orbit."
Can you imagine how much cash these models would fetch on e-bay today?
Next the show switched to Huntsville, Alabama where Dr. Wernher von Braun was waiting in the rain with CBS correspondent Nelson Benton to discuss the S-IC first stage of the Saturn V.
Dwarfed by the booster Benton and von Braun discussed the vehicle's size and power in a setting that didn't actually require anyone to talk about size. The stage was slowly hoisted into the west test stand. Looking into the records stage is the S-IC-T rather than a flight stage. By the way- the S-IC-T is the sate that is now on display at the Kennedy Space Center's Saturn V visitor complex.
Although, when asked by Benton. "What are the crews preparing to do with the booter here now Dr. von Braun?" Von Braun, always the P.R. manipulator, fibs just a bit when he answers that they are going to strap it down and fire the engines- as if it was ready to go right now. In fact, on the first day of March, 1965 none of the S-IC stages were ready to hot fire. There had been a welding issue that had delayed production and the very first thrust structure (which was for the S-IC-T.) The F-1 engines would be attached between March 27 and 30, nearly a full month after the video was shot. But the impression that everyone wanted to give at the moment was that the program, was on time and moving ahead to meet Kennedy's end of the decade deadline. So, as far as anyone outside of the program was concerned, the stage in the background was ready to be strapped down and fired nearly as fast and Benton and von Braun could get out of the way.
Next the broadcast switched to the east test stand at the Marshall Space Flight Center where the firing of a single F-1 engine would actually take place for the cameras. On camera and seated with a pair of headphones and a CBS microphone was a very uncomfortable Karl Heimburg, the head of the test lab. he explained that they were test firing a single engine and there would be a cluster of five such engines in the Saturn V's first stage.
Rocket pioneer Karl Heimburg
Mounted in the test stand in a "battleship" type of configuration was a LOX tank the size and shape of an S-IC's tank as well as an RP-1 tank that was also the size and shape of a flight tank.
The test firing went just fine with a 60 second burn. Oddly, sifting through the records I can find no test burn listed for this particular day, but watching the footage it sure as heck was an F-1 firing.
Benton asked von Braun after the firing if we'd make Kennedy's deadline and the ever savvy von Braun stated to the huge audience of U.S. tax payers that if the support of Congress and the tax paying public holds out, ..."I think we'll be there."
From the engine firing the scene switched back to Cronkite and Glenn. Using an easel and pen Glenn animated and explained the LOR concept of a lunar mission.
His explanation included the use of some CSM/LEM models that, as I pondered earlier, would fetch a huge price if they went on e-bay today.
Downey, California and the North American Aviation company was the next stop for the show and CBS reporter Bill Stout was poised next to a mock up of a very early Apollo Command Module with a "test astronaut" inside.
A large area of the mock-up had been constructed as a cut away so that it was easy to see the crewman and his instruments.
To us today this looks a bit laughable, but in early 1965 we thought we were seeing the future. Keep in mind that prior to this the most publicized view of a spacecraft interior was the cramped interior of the Mercury capsules. Thus, the Apollo mock-up looked quite roomy.
Additionally, the camera did a slow pan of the assembly floor where the Block I CMs were being constructed. That included images such as technicians working on the heat shield were zoomed in upon and it was said that as many as eight CMs were currently under construction.
As soon as the segment ended, the video tapes were gathered and hustled off to the airport... it was a four and a half hour flight to New York.
Walter Cronkite with the OSO, or Orbiting Solar Observatory, at the Goddard center.
From the assembly floor at North American the broadcast went back to the Goddard Center to have Cronkite and Glenn explaining a bit about satellites. During the introductory monologue Cronkite turned to Glenn and, speaking of the number of U.S. satellites then in orbit he said, "...John, I think we've got 115 of 'em up there now..."
My... how times have changed.
John Glenn with the telemetry demonstrator... note the salt shaker (yellow arrow)
In order to show how satellites can beam down information by way of telemetry, Glenn used a telemetry demonstrator and I instantly recognized it from my space-crazed childhood. When I was in the 6th grade our teacher took us on a field trip to the junior high school because they had a NASA education agent who was conducting a demonstration. While my classmates could care less, I was fascinated. He used the same type of micrometeorite counter that Glenn used in the show. In the broadcast, to show how micro meteorite counter turned impacts into data, Glenn opened the sensor and sprinkled some table salt on it. It buzzed and crackled and "counted every grain of salt that landed there."
Full sized LEM and a space-suited engineer in a 1/6 G harness.
Moving to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, CBS' Charles von Fremd had a space-suited engineer who was fastened into a harness designed to to take up 5/6 of his weight and thus simulate the lunar environment. Of course in order to attempt to fully simulate the situation there was a full-sized LEM, that looked nothing like the actual production LEM and a huge crater that was lined with sharp-edged stone blocks and boulders that also were nothing like the real lunar surface. And to add to the effect the astronaut was practicing with a walking stick, which the actual moon walkers would never use... it was to help keep him from falling down among the jagged rocks... that don't exist on the lunar surface.
Of course this was a year and a half before the first Surveyor spacecraft would soft land on the lunar surface and just six months after Ranger 7 got the first ever close up images as it impacted the Moon and just a week after Ranger 8 got the second series of images. So, no one, including NASA, had any real idea what the surface of the Moon was like. Besides that, NASA already had a about a hundred tons of rip-rap stone trucked in... so just stand back and squint... ya' see... kind of looks like the Moon.
Again, the tapes were hustled off to fly to New York.
Departing from Apollo, the "live documentary" switched gears to take a look at, what Cronkite called, "Man's next step into space..." and that next step in America's space program was Gemini!
Launch Complex 19 at Cape Kennedy was where the cameras now focused. On the pad was Gemini 3 (yes... "3" NASA didn't begin using the Roman numerals until Gemini IV)
It was just 22 days before launch and the pad was an active and busy place. The camera zoomed in and saw technicians moving around on the erector (yellow arrow... in case you were wondering). Smile... yer' on almost "live" TV.
Switching views to inside the white room, the cameras found the hatches to MOLLY BROWN wide open and two technicians in the spacecraft running tests. After watching this a few times, it's my conclusion that neither of the men inside the spacecraft are Scherra or Stafford, the back-up crew for GT-3. And it is highly unlikely that at this point in the pre-launch Grissom and Young would have been wasting time in those seats running system checks.
From the white room the broadcast switched to the blockhouse at LC-19 and U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel John Albert who oversaw all of the Gemini activity on behalf of the USAF. Afterall, Cape Kennedy (as it was called in 1965) was a USAF base and the property as well as the booster were under their direction. In was, for it's time, an amazing look at the Cape and the launch crews at work. In the background you can see the TV monitors. As the camera zooms in you you get a view of the pad and launch vehicle under surveillance. If you were a space buff in 1965, this would have grabbed you by the brain. Apollo seemed far off into the future, but Gemini WAS the U.S. space program at that moment.
When the video taping ended and everything was sent to New York, CBS pulled the stunt off and broadcast the entire show that night as if it were actually "live."
Hey, it covered what was really going on in our space program on that same afternoon- so by 1965 TV standards it was close enough to call it a"live documentary."
If you liked this article, check out my book Growing up with Spaceflight Project Gemini for tons more cool stuff.
While you're at it check out the whole Growing up with Spaceflight six book series!