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 send a word where iwas we didn’t have beepers in those days and have cell phones if you walked out on bin tell somebody where you’re going nobody could find you some people like that actually and yeah it was estimated to be chet huntley until they found him and it found them so i sat there with david brink rate until about two o’clock in the morning. What if my recollection was late ? Julie 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 is we’re coming into a follow so they brought me on board sent me all around too california and out long island where they built a ah 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 ah the marshall space flight center and s o i gotta riel early education on where everything was made how it was made what it was used for that sort of stuff then look about three inches thick which was the nbc protocol and i was aboard having successfully concluded the apollo program nasa launched skylab in nineteen seventy three 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 at the u s space shuttle program had been able to keep to its original schedule. But by the summer of nineteen seventy nine it had become clear that its orbit was deteriorating and the likelihood of skylab falling backto earth became a major news story covered on the national news. Here’s a portion of jim hart’s. His interview was johnson space center director christopher craft, which aired on july tenth, nineteen seventy nine the evening before skylab fell back to earth and hundreds of pieces. Dr kraft, i guess what everybody wants to know from you, or from someone who knows his 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 ? Well, i think that the probabilities air 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 re entry path that is going to follow. The probability is very high that it’s gonna come down in the water you seem to have leased 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 be 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 re entry ? 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 it’s a matter of fact, if we could control its reentry, uh and make it come down given point, this is a rabbi believe you would’ve chosen. Were you under any kind of pressure from the white house, the state department, from any other branch of government to try to go for something like this ? A no. On the contrary, they’ve been very cooperative with us. They recognized the limitations of what we can do, and i have been very understanding of what the situation is. A 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 re entered and ultimately came down. Much of the debris fell on an area of southwestern australia and one small town and sky labs path subsequently sent nasa a bill for littering to the tune of four hundred dollars and of course in the weeks leading up to this event many t shirts with large bulls eyes 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 in an abc news report that aired a few days before sky labs demise son manufacturing company of montgomery alabama is proud to announce the development as of last fighting of a skylab repellent what but doesn’t have a guarantee you’re probably asking what would happen if somebody did get hit by seventy nine tons of satellite may we get his money back ? 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 us space shuttle program got underway 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 backto 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 move back there in seventy four 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 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 i had to figure out how to set up so that the scientist could interact with the crew really 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 think of those things out and especially of one flew in nineteen eighty three and then it was going to re fly and i was because i had been the the chief’s artist for the mission on the ground i knew a lot about all of the science and all of the instruments and 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 nineteen, eighty five a month later of the challenger accident happened 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 ? I knew some of them not not nearly as well as those who were that i was training with but i was when 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 i will happen and and inevitably i think it causes us because at that time i’ve been selected toe two trying 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 tryingto 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 base your birds for on 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 was worse all of the danger that would have been involved and jim what do you recall about that event um the journalistic community in this country had put up a big cry to say let let’s um journalist fly you guys are scientists and you’re not trained tio right and observe and report things like we are i’m saying we i mean i’m saying we for all everybody newspapers television everything and it took nasa long time tio say okay all right that we’re going to do that i get it 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 s o i get public television to sponsor may and get was all weapon is same a finalist you know and actually the journalist was going to be the first one to fly first civilian if i and then a change was made i think by people pretty high up in the reagan administration that they needed teacher support and so is 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 that metropolitan museum asked told the taxi driver stop okay get out i need to find out what had happened and i walked inside the music and i’m really looking for a telephone i think and what i didn’t know if and telephone but i found a bunch of beautiful carvings from the egyptian and greek and roman periods and it looks so solid i thought you know i’m still like rick i’m not sure that i want to do that on and because i like the good solid rocks here on earth on the other hand i have to say that my time had come around they cancel the programs if my time had come around to fly i would have done it mike my feeling is they solved all the problems they just hadn’t had the anticipation and the other one that came along that i brought another one down i mean there’s so many there’s so many rick and 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 ninety nine point nine nine purse stand each one of those space shuttles and you had tiny little things brought him there it’s 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 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. The mission that i ended up training for ultimately flew in nineteen ninety two so it was almost 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 i know 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 i 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 centre and talk to the crew basically while they were doing the experiment 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 you want to start i have been at nasa for that more than twenty years and i had become progressively mohr concerned that because i gave a lot of public talks interacted with the public a lot just because i enjoyed doing that but became concerned that people i had no idea what nasa was doing that that is that the media coverage in a general sense and i’m certainly not talking about my best friend jim hart’s but in a and rosa wants the media doesn’t do a good job of science and technology and so i thought, youknow that we could do something about that and i was up this thing advantage bill i was given a talking a friend’s class up there and went by investing with gentle wide who was the chance or att that time so who for wide was lamenting the fact that the media in a general sense was so ah unschooled about things that were going on something 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 ah a fellowship and work at the first amendment center where john singing dollar 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 tell the gym was and how interested jim was in science and space and things like that so he he convinced him 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 so jim how is it that you came to be invited to partner with rick ah at vanderbilt oh that’s wonderful hey hey told most of it but they hey had gotten a chance to write it’s commitment on this thing and john siegenthaler now i never met right but i had made siggins holler for many years you know, he was a hot dog he public publisher and editor the nashville tennessee and it was a great friend of the kennedys and it was in washington a lot and i got to see him and get to know him over the years well they he had talked another astronaut into becoming part of his first amendment center down there and ah he remember who that wass either of you it is not on sheppard wasn’t yeah and he asked alan he said he was a good reporter you know something about spaceflight mass and that sort of stuff that we could team up with rick and shepherd says hearts you know he knows at home so i uh picked up the phone call me excellent it’s nice to have friends in high places i’ve always said you know it’s really it’slet me stop for a second covering covering nasa was was very interesting for from a reporter’s dan standpoint part of nasa’s charter is that everything is open to them is open to the public ah and there very few if any secrets in nasa there’s some things that air are they sometimes in national security but not very often the only thing that oftentimes not over times but occasionally that will be taken away or radios turned offers on would be a health problem with one of the astronauts in space for example ah are something of a extremely personal nature that wouldn’t be known until a long time afterwards otherwise everything is public so we had 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 shepherd and pete conrad who flew the second trip to the moon music because a flight camp commander both are now did and so i could tell some of the stories that the x warming its secrets and talk about separates nice compliment to me they got me involved with vanderbilt which considered one of the nice things that has happened to be in my life terrific for lots of reasons for rick chapel being on it 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 inside the jew ham 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 and as well as our just personal friendship together for so many absolutely angry, thank you, thank you. I turned a compliment. You learn more about my business, i think i learned about yours. I’m no fitters and stop you, and with that warm note, will conclude this first two episodes featuring broadcast journalist jim hearts and nasa scientist rick chapel. 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 archive, we thank you for listening.