In 1963, the united States was still shivering from the shock of Sputnik in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight four years later. America feared it would never catch the Soviets in what was shaping up to be a race for the moon. John Glenn's orbital flight in 1962 raised our spirits. Five more Mercury flights followed.
Now, on May 15, 1963, it was Gordon Cooper's turn. He was set to blast off aboard Faith 7, the final Mercury flight before the two-man Gemini program began.
At that time, every scrap of news about the drama of countdowns, launches, and splashdown came through one man: Lt. Col. John "Shorty" Powers. His mellifluous voice was the voice of NASA, which had a news monopoly. It announced what it wanted to announce in its own good time, much to journalists' frustration.
Enter an NBC producer named Chet Hagan. Why couldn't we listen for ourselves to what was going on in space, he asked. Why wait for Shorty Powers?
I was NBC's bureau chief in Tokyo at the time. Soon a special radio and an even more special antenna arrived from Collins Radio. Collins was the NASA contractor who made the radios used in the space capsules. Mr. Hagan had purchased several of the radios and sent them to strategically placed NBC correspondents around the world, along with a list of NASA radio frequencies.
A Tokyo-based Collins engineer agreed to help. He, too, was fascinated by the chest-high, cylindrical antenna. It was shaped like a rocket. It promised wonders.
To avoid the electronic babel of Tokyo, we consulted with Japan International Telegraph and Telephone Company. They offered a telephone office being built in a small town 90 miles north of Tokyo.
OFF we went to find it, stopping at a tiny inn to dump our personal things on the tatami-mat floor. Launch time for Faith 7 was fast approaching, and we were out of touch with New York. This was years before faxes and cellular phones. We left someone at the inn by the telephone to relay messages.
The unlit four-story concrete building was set in the middle of a rice-paddy. It did not look promising. Frogs chorused raucously. To reach the top floor you had to clamber up wooden scaffolding. But the communication and electrical cables were in place and functioning. Someone found blankets to hang in the windows to muffle the noisy frogs and cut down on the mosquitoes. A chair and table completed the studio, and the impressive antenna was placed on the bare concrete floor.
We made voice contact with NBC New York and found that Cooper and Faith 7 were up and whirling around Earth. We had to take their word for it: Our fancy antenna was bringing in nothing but unintelligible chatter from various NASA surface stations, one of which was a US Navy ship south of Japan.
Cooper's flight was to be the longest to date: 22 orbits in 34 hours. But we spent two long, frustrating nights, literally and figuratively in the dark except for reports from NBC.
Our mission so far was a total failure. Then New York reported trouble aboard the capsule. A warning light had come on. NASA was concerned that the craft had lost its heat shield. Our frustration level redoubled. We had to hear what was going on in space!
Our Collins engineer swore, kicked the antenna, and mumbled, "I'm going to try some spaghetti!" He picked up a coil of thin wire, hooked it to the antenna, and tossed the rest of the coil out the window to the paddy below. Again he spun the dial on the radio. This time we heard something! A clear, businesslike voice was relaying emergency instructions to Cooper about manual re-entry. Even better, we could hear Cooper's cool, measured replies.
"We have the capsule!" I told New York.
"Great! Stand by," the controller said. "He's over Burma and will be over you in a few minutes." Then we heard a new voice on our radio: John Glenn, America's newest hero, was aboard the Navy ship off Japan. Glenn, who'd had a similar crisis on his space flight, repeated the instructions and prepared to give Cooper a countdown to firing his retro rockets for reentry into Earth's atmosphere.
"You've got it," the voice in New York said casually, and the entire NBC network was switched to us, live, in the paddy field. I was sitting under a single bare light bulb, one earphone tuned to NBC and the other to Glenn and Cooper. The countdown began.
Our audience could not hear Glenn, only my description of what was happening. I repeated the numbers as Glenn counted, "10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7...."
At "fire!" there was silence. A most dramatic silence. It seemed as if minutes passed before we heard Cooper's relieved voice reporting a successful firing. We lost him as he entered the atmosphere for the fiery ride down to the Pacific.
We heard Cooper again as he emerged from the electronic blackout of reentry and parachuted safely into the sea. The airwaves filled with chatter from the shipborne armada waiting to pick him up west of Hawaii. Newsmen aboard the ships picked up the story. But for those few tense moments, we and the croaking frogs had had the story to ourselves.
My New York colleagues later told me that a delegation from NASA visited NBC, politely but firmly protesting what some called the first scoop from outer space. NBC listeners had heard the dramatic news live and nine minutes ahead of NASA's Colonel Powers.
Was NBC planning more electronic expeditions into space, NASA wanted to know. With satisfied smiles, executives replied that NBC would, for a while at least, rest on its laurels.
Cooper's crisis in orbit
On May 15, 1963, L. Gordon Cooper Jr. in Faith 7 began a 22-orbit flight lasting 34 hours, 20 minutes. Extra equipment, fuel, oxygen, water, etc., for the longest Mercury mission had raised the in-orbit weight to 3,000 pounds. Cooper carried out experiments aimed at developing a guidance and navigational system for Apollo flights. On the 19th orbit a warning light suggested that the craft was decelerating and beginning re-entry. By the 21st, his automatic stabilization and control system had short-circuited and the carbon-dioxide level was rising in the craft. Cooper's dry comment was: "Things are beginning to stack up a little." He manually conducted his re-entry so efficiently that he splashed down only 4 miles from the recovery aircraft carrier.
Source: 'Jane's Spaceflight Directory' (1987)