This is the first of two episodes focusing on the collaboration between NASA scientist Rick Chappell and broadcast journalist Jim Hartz at Vanderbilt University. In this episode Rick and Jim discuss their careers and connections to the US space program, which eventually led them to co-author a book, entitled “Worlds Apart,” detailing their recommendations for improving how scientists and journalists communicate science to the public.
TRANSCRIPT (partially edited)
[00:00] [background music] Eight, seven, ignition sequence started, all engines are started, we have ignition, two one zero, we have a lift off, we have a liftoff and it’s lighting up the area, it’s just like daylight here at Kennedy Space Center. The Saturn Five is moving off the pad, it has now cleared the tower.
[00:10] JOHN CHANCELLOR: We’ll break into the Tonight Show later this evening to show you Cernan and Schmidt climbing back into the lunar module. They very well may be the last men to walk on the moon this century and we want to see their final actions.
JULES BERGMAN: It was just after two p.m. eastern time when the Apollo 17 command module descended out of the clouds suspended perfectly on all three main parachutes.
JOHN CHANCELLOR: And on that note the program to put Americans on the moon came to an end. Three and a half years ago the first Americans landed, and there have been five landings since that. Twelve men have walked on the moon in a program which cost twenty five billion dollars. A lot of people will say that history will feel it was worth it
RUSS MASON: Hi, I’m Russ Mason, and as we just heard, courtesy of those sound bites from the Vanderbilt Television News Archive’s collection, in December of 1972 the astronauts of Apollo 17 returned from the moon. Their splash down in the Pacific brought to an end that phase of the US space program which began with President John F Kennedy’s famous 1961 speech.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. RM: And in the next two News Knowledge episodes will be hearing from NASA scientist Rick Chapell and broadcast journalist Jim Hartz, whose lives and professional careers were significantly influenced by JFK’s call to embrace that new challenge.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY: WE choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
RM: Over the course of their lives, these two very good friends, Rick and Jim, have accomplished a great deal in their chosen fields, including co-authoring a book during their time working together here at Vanderbilt University for two years back in the nineties. Their book is entitled “Worlds Apart,” and they’ll be talking with me about it in the second of these two episodes. But at the outset of our conversation I asked them to introduce themselves, and to discuss their interest in science and involvement in the US space program. First, here’s Rick Chapell.
RICK CHAPPELL: When I was fourteen in middle school, it was when Sputnik was launched, and I became interested in science and math. And then a week before I graduated from high school was when President Kennedy made his speech about going to the moon, which for me determined basically the rest of my life. So I think one takeaway was respect to American leadership is concerned is that if you pick out challenging and exciting things for the country to do, you will attract people into the areas of work where they’re sorely needed. After I graduated from Vanderbilt in ‘65, I went to Rice University, got my PHD in space science, and then went to work for Lockheed in their research laboratory in Palo Alto. And I started doing research based on data that were coming from automated satellites. I did that for six years and was enjoying it. It was not human spaceflight, although that was the time period in the late sixties, when we were on the way to the moon and so it was a thrilling time period, and it felt great to me because I was is able to continue the journey that I had started with President Kennedy’s challenge to our country.
RM: And now here’s Jim Hartz, describing how, at the age of twenty four, he came to be the youngest reporter that NBC News had hired up to that time.
JIM HARTZ: Well, I grew up in oklahoma and started my career in radio and television out there, and we went to University of Tulsa. And then, NBC was looking for new faces and invited me to come to New York and talk, and within a very short period of time they just said they wanted to hire me. So I came into that, and immediately, luckiest thing in the world ever happened to me, I think, was I got assigned to work with Frank Mcgee, who as people are old enough will remember, he preceded me on the Today Show as host, and also was in Oklahoma guy, and in those days all the correspondents also had local station a jobs when they weren’t traveling. Mine was in New York and…a name you will know everybody, Tom Brokaw, who is one day younger than I am, was hired about six months after I was hired. He was sent to Los Angeles to the NBC station there.
RM: Now at some point you became one of the reporters that NBC would turn to for their coverage of the space program. Do you have a recollection of how that happened?
JH: Yeah, yeah Russ, I sort of stumbled into that. One of my jobs turned out to be during the Gemini days…again lots of folks that need to be a certain age remember this…but this was really new for Americans to be in orbit. And being orbit for a long time…in Gemini that longest flight was two weeks…and so we did we had a contract with the Gulf Oil Company…doesn’t exist anymore I don’t think…to do little one minute bulletins about three times a night during prime time. And since I was in the Thirty Rock air offices there doing the evening news, I was a guy that got tagged to do those little one minute cut ins. And one night I’d finished doing one of those little bulletins and the producer came on in my ear and said, don’t move, don’t leave, we’ve got a problem. And that’s when their thrusters got stuck on one of the Gemini flights, they were trembling so bad they had to disconnect from…they were linked up with a new Gemini booster and disconnect from that, and because they had opened some thrusters that were used on the main spacecraft, they had to come home. And so we were going to stay on the air until they got down safely in the Pacific. Well, usually Chet Huntley and David Brinkley did that sort of thing at that level, but they’d both left. They’d been there for the launch, and both left the building for dinner someplace. And first they found Mcgee and he came in, and I stayed up on in the in the main chair there, one of the two main chairs. David came in, but they couldn’t find Chet. Chet had disappeared in someplace in New York, in a restaurant, and we didn’t know where he was. We didn’t have beepers in those days, didn’t have cell phones. If you walked out and didn’t tell somebody where you’re going nobody could find ya. Some people like that actually. And yeah, [laughs] it was up to me to be Chet Huntley until they found him. And, they never found him. So, I sat there with David Brinkley until about two o’clock in the morning. if my recollection is right, till they got him down safely and on the aircraft carrier, I think in the Pacific on that flight. So, at that point, they thought “Well, this guy maybe could do this. We need more bodies, more warm bodies, as we’re coming into Apollo.” So they brought me on board, sent me all around to California and out Long Island, where they built the lunar module and the that, California where they built main spacecraft and what about the boosters down where Rick was. We probably ran into each other sometime, in those days, if he was there….The Marshall Space Flight Center. And so, I gotta real early education on where everything was made, how it was made, what it was used for… that sort of stuff. And then a book about three inches thick, which was the NBC protocol and I was aboard.
[08:58] RUSS MASON: Having successfully concluded the Apollo Program, NASA launched Skylab in 1973 and sent three crews to man it for increasingly longer periods over the next year; testing the ability of astronauts to spend more than a couple of weeks in space. It remained in orbit for another six years and might have continued longer if the US Space Shuttle Program had been able to keep to its original schedule. But by the summer of 1979, it had become clear that its orbit was deteriorating, and the likelihood of Skylab falling back to earth became a major news story covered on the national news. Here’s a portion of Jim Hartz’s interview with Johnson Space Center Director Christopher Kraft, which aired July 10, 1979, the evening before Skylab fell back to earth, in hundreds of pieces.
[09:53] JIM HARTZ (archived interview): Dr. Kraft, I guess what everybody wants to know from you, or from someone who knows, is assurance that it’s not going to fall on them tomorrow. What can you, what can you tell people who are genuinely concerned about that tonight?
[10: 03] CHRISTOPHER KRAFT (archived interview): Well…I think that the probabilities are, are very low. From the very beginning, they’ve been very low. And from the track that the vehicle is on at the moment, that is the reentry path that is going to follow, the probability is very high that it’s gonna come down in the water.
[10:19] JIM HARTZ (archived interview): You seem to have, at least from my way of looking at it, and I think we’ve been saying this on the air, what would be an almost ideal path. It takes you over the United States land mass, that would be more desirable; it seemed to me in a foreign country, but mostly it’s over water. Has this been planned for a long time to achieve this kind of orbit for the reentry?
[10: 35] CHRISTOPHER KRAFT (archived interview): [laughs] I wish I could say, “yes.” If we had planned at ten months ago, we would have picked this particular riff, to make it come down on. As a matter of fact, if we could control its reentry, uh and make it come down at a given point, this is a riff I believe we would’ve chosen.
[10:51] JIM HARTZ (archived interview): Were you under any kind of pressure from the White House, The State Department, [or] from any other branch of government to try to go for something like this?
[10: 58] CHRISTOPHER KRAFT (archived interview): No. On the contrary, they’ve been very cooperative with us. They recognized the limitations of what we can do, and have been very understanding of what the situation is.
[11:10] RUSS MASON: As Skylab fell the next day, it remained intact significantly longer than had been predicted, before finally breaking apart, which affected where the pieces that didn’t burn up in the atmosphere reentered and ultimately came down. Much of the debris fell on an area of southwestern Australia, and one small town and Skylab’s path subsequently sent NASA a bill for littering to the tune of $400.00. And of course, in the weeks leading up to this event, many t-shirts with large bullseyes printed on the back were sold along with several other products conjured up by folks who saw an opportunity to make a quick buck. Here’s just one example, from an ABC News report that aired a few days before Skylab’s demise.
[11:57] REPORTER: Son Manufacturing Company of Montgomery, Alabama, is proud to announce the development, as of last Friday, of a Skylab repellent, which includes…[clapping]. But does it have a guarantee? You’re probably asking what would happen if somebody did get hit by 79 tons of satellite may we get his money back?
[12:22] RUSS MASON: [music] Meanwhile, about five years earlier Rick Chapel left Lockheed and joined NASA, where he became increasingly involved in helping to develop scientific instruments for experiments to be conducted in space, once the U.S. Space Shuttle program got underway.
[12:42] RICK CHAPPELL: NASA called and asked if I would come back to Alabama and work at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and become involved, not only in the satellite research I was doing, but to help identify…NASA calls it a payload, a group of instruments that would fly on the space shuttle and that could do signs. And so, coming back to Huntsville sounded very attractive and actually getting to become a NASA space explorer was an extremely attractive thing to do. And so, I moved there, moved back there, in ‘74 and began to work on defining what things could fly on the shuttle. We began to define a payload called, Space Lab One. The space lab was a thing built by the Europeans together with NASA. It was a soul of a cylindrical shaped laboratory that fit inside the payload bay of the shuttle, and people could connect…the crew could live in the forward part of the orbiter, flowed through a tunnel into the space lamb and do a lot of different types of the experiments. And I was the chief scientist or that was called the mission scientist on the ground for the first baseline mission, which was an exciting thing to do because we not only had to figure out how to set up, so that the scientist could interact with the crew real-time, direct one on one interaction with the flight crew but, also to figure out how to select some scientists who would go as crew members. And so, all of that, and that was done by the US together with the European Space Agency because they both were building the space lab in the space shuttle together. So, we figured those things out and Space Lab One flew in 1983. And then, it was going to refly and I was… because I had been the chief scientist for the mission on the ground, I knew a lot about all of the science and all of the instruments, I was selected as an ultimate payload specialist, for a flight that was initially going to be two years later. And surely after I was selected in December of 1985, a month later the Challenger accident happened.
[15:10] RUSS MASON: So of course, I want to ask you about that because it was such an unexpected traumatic event for the entire nation to witness. And I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for someone like you, who was actually involved with the program. Did you know any of the crew members who were on that shuttle flight?
[15:27] RICK CHAPPELL: I knew some of them, not nearly as well as those who were… that I was training with. But I was, I was at the Marshall Space Flight Center stopped my work to go in sit in the conference room and watch the launch; and then all of that sort of unfolded in front of us, and I don’t know it just sort of leaves you empty you’re not sure what’ll happen. And inevitably, I think it causes you… because at that time I ’d been selected to…. train to fly and it causes you to ask yourself, “you know am I doing the right thing?” After thing, the Challenger accident sort of withdrawing a little while and thinking about trying to basically assimilate the whole thing. My feeling was that I didn’t have any different feeling about wanting to fly and it was based on the fact that humankind has been on this spaceship Earth for hundreds of thousands of years, and we happened live in the small period of time in which humans can leave the planet of our birth. That’s a very significant occurrence and if I were fortunate enough to get to be one of those people, then it’s worth all of the danger that would have been involved to do.
[16:57] RUSS MASON: And Jim what do you recall about that event?
[17:01] JIM HARTZ: The journalistic community in this country had put up a big cry to say, “Hey! Let’s some journalist fly. You guys are scientists and you’re not trained to write and observe and report things like we are.” I’m saying we, I mean I’m saying we for all everybody in newspapers, television, everything. And it took NASA long time to say, “Okay, all right that we’re going to do that.” I got involved in applying for it and it’s something like three or four thousand reporters applied. And so they started having very stringent qualifications. You had to represent a major news organization and you had to be able to pay your own way for a year, which they wanted you to spend down in Houston, and training. So I get public television to sponsor me and got all the way to a semifinalist. You know….and actually the journalist was going to be the first one to fly, first civilian to fly. And then, a change was made, I think by people pretty high up in the Reagan administration, that they needed teacher support. And so, Ms. McAuliffe was chosen as a teacher to fly and a journalist was going to be the second one to fly. When the Challenger blew up, I was in a taxi cab in New York City heading up to Connecticut for a shoot on something totally unrelated, and when I heard what had happened, I was just passing the Metropolitan Museum. And I told the taxi driver, “Stop. I got to get out.” I need to find out what had happened. And I walked inside the museum, I was really looking for a telephone, I think. And what I didn’t…..never found a telephone but I found a bunch of beautiful carvings from the Egyptian and Greek and Roman periods, and it looked so solid I thought (laughs), “you know, I’m like Rick, I’m not sure that I want to do that. Because I like the good solid rocks here on Earth.” On the other hand, I have to say that if my time had come around, they cancel the programs, if my time had come around to fly, I would have done it. My feeling is they solved all the problems, they just hadn’t had the anticipation and the other one that came along, it brought another one down. I mean there’s so many, there’s so many, Rick can talk about this more than I can, but there’s so many systems on a spacecraft that and many of them are one-time long pole in the tent they used to call it, one point failure will bring the whole thing down. And that’s what happened on both of those flights. There was nothing wrong with 99.99% of each one of those space shuttles. And you had tiny little things brought them down.It’s amazing what a dangerous business that really is. And that part of it hasn’t changed very much we’ve just gotten better putting it all together. And yeah, by and large, it’s pretty it’s been a pretty safe undertaking.
[20:28] RUSS MASON: So Rick, as you mentioned a bit ago, you’ve been selected as a backup payload specialist just a month before the Challenger disaster occurred. How much did that affect the timeline for the mission you were supposed to be involved with?
[20:40] RICK CHAPPELL: The mission that I ended up training for ultimately flew in 1992. So, it was almost a seven-year time between selection and the time of the flight. So the training and Charlie Bowman who was later the NASA administrator was my commander, he’s a wonderful, wonderful man the entire crew was great to be with. And Charlie wanted me to do absolutely everything up to the last minute. So, that I could have flown, if somebody, if one of them…I was backing up two of the other pilot specialist. And, and that involved you know, getting on the shuttle on the Launchpad, shortly before it launched and practicing all the escape things that you have to do and being very much in the middle of all of the things that those who fly do. So it made it an extremely special activity. And then I ‘ve…. So, I went to the launch and then flew back to Huntsville, where I was in the operation center and talk to the crew, basically while they were doing the experiment.
[21:55] RUSS MASON: So, it sounds as though the two of you had been progressing along more or less parallel paths in your careers. And I’d like for you to both tell the story of how you came to work together here at Vanderbilt. Rick do you want to start?
[22:08] RICK CHAPPELL: I had been at NASA for that more than twenty years, and I had become progressively more concerned that–because I gave a lot of public talks interacted with the public a lot, just because I enjoyed doing that, but I became concerned that people had no idea what NASA was doing. That is that the media coverage in a general sense, and I’m certainly not talking about my best friend Jim Heartz, but in a general sense the media doesn’t do a good job of science and technology. And so, I thought, you know that we could do something about that. And I was up visiting at Vanderbilt, I was giving a talk at a friend’s class up there, and went by visited with Joe Wyatt, who was the Chancellor at that time, So, Mr. Wyatt was lamenting in the fact that the media, in a general sense, was so…unschooled about things that were going on in science and technology; that they tended to pick the things that didn’t work and talk about those because they were broken and then it didn’t have to explain it, you know? So, he said, can we you know, is there something we could do? He said, would you be willing to come up to Vanderbilt for a year and do a fellowship and work at the First Amendment Center, where John Seigenthaler had created a wonderful organization related to things having to do with the media. And I told him that I would be interested in doing that, it would be basically on loan from NASA. And then, John had known Jim, and knew how talented Jim was; and how interested Jim was in science and space and things like that. So, he convinced Jim to come, for that time period, which ended up being a couple of years, and so we did things together and started looking at the challenges of communicating science through the media to the public.
[24:20] RUSS MASON: So…. Jim, how is it that you came to be invited to partner with Rick at Vanderbilt?
[24:29] JIM HARTZ: Oh! That’s a wonderful story. laughs. He told most of it, but he had gotten with Chancellor Wyatt’s commitment on this thing and John Seigenthaler. Now I never met Wyatt but I had met Seigenthaler. For many years, you know he [Seigenthaler] was a hot dog, the publisher, and editor for the Nashville Tennessean, and was a great friend of the Kennedys, and he was in Washington a lot and I got to see him and got to know him over the years. Well, he had talked to another astronaut into becoming part of this First Amendment Center down there and…
[25:12] RUSS MASON: He remembered who that was, either of you?
[25:15] JIM HARTZ: It was Alan Shepard.
[25:17] RUSS MASON: Oh, was it? Uh-huh.
[25:18] JIM HARTZ: He asked Alan. He said, “Who’s a good reporter, you know who knows something about spaceflight, NASA, and that sort of stuff that we could team up with Rick?” And Shepard says, “Hartz you know, he knows it all.” So, laughs.
[25:32] RUSS MASON: Uh-huh.
[25:33] JIM HARTZ: So, Alan picked up the phone and called me.
[25:36] RUSS MASON: Excellent.
[25:37] JIM HARTZ: It’s nice to have friends in high places, I ‘ve always said.
[25:40] RUSS MASON: Yeah. Laughs
[25:42] JIM HARTZ: You know it’s really funny, you know its let me stop for a second. Covering NASA was very interesting from a reporter’s standpoint. Part of NASA ‘s charter is that everything is open to the public. And there’s very few, if any, secrets in NASA. There’s some things that are….may dabble sometimes in national security, but not very often. The only thing that oftentimes, not oftentimes, but occasionally that will be taken away, or the radios turned off or so on, would be a health problem with one of the astronauts in space, for example; or something of an extremely personal nature, that wouldn’t be known until a long time afterwards. Otherwise, everything is public. So, we got to know a lot of the astronauts, I wouldn’t say intimately, but very well. And over the years, I maintained a good friendship with [Alan] Shepard and Pete Conrad, who flew the second trip to the moon as a flight commander. Both are now dead; and so, I can tell some of the stories that they swore me to secrecy on and talk about separates nice compliment to me, that got me involved with Vanderbilt, which I consider one of the nice things that has happened to be in my life…
[27:14] RUSS MASON: Terrific.
[27:15] JIM HARTZ: …for lots of reasons, Rick Chappell being one of them.
[27:18] RICK CHAPPELL: I feel the same way. What a wonderful privilege it was, it has been, still is too far to know you and work with you and share the insight that you have…in the so many things in life, certainly about the media and on how it works because I have always been on the outside looking in in terms of all of that and you brought so much of that, as well as our just personal friendship together for so many.
[27:50] JIM HARTZ: Absolutely. I agree. thank you, thank you. I return the compliment. You learned more about my business; I think than I learned about yours. I’m no physicist, I can tell you that.
[28:05] RUSS MASON: And with that warm note, we’ll conclude this first of two episodes featuring broadcast journalist, Jim Hartz, and NASA scientist, Rick Chappell–we’ll both be back in the next episode to share some of the details of their collaboration during their two years together here at Vanderbilt University. As well as their thoughts on the challenges of getting astronauts to Mars within the next two decades. I’m Russ Mason, and for all of us here at the Vanderbilt Television News Archives, we thank you for listening.