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John Glenn makes a historic return trip to space

Space program launched news into new frontier

Web posted on:
Thursday, October 29, 1998 5:13:25 PM EST

From Correspondent Jim Moret

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- When 77-year-old John Glenn rocketed into space Thursday afternoon aboard space shuttle Discovery, he made a historic return to the space program he first entered some three decades ago.

With global interest in this latest mission at a fever pitch, the media race to cover the event was evident on every network. CNN even brought back from semi-retirement legendary newsman Walter Cronkite to help with their coverage. But the work done by news agencies certainly isn't unprecedented.

When Sputnik shot into orbit in 1957, it did more than simply launch the space race. Covering the space program became the newest frontier for the young television networks.

Glenn about two hours before Thursday's launch

'To be on the moon'

"Interest in the space program is probably a combination of television and our curiosities and fantasies about what it would be like to go into space ... to be on the moon," says Joe Flint, senior editor with Entertainment Weekly.

In 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth aboard the Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft.

Cronkite remembers it well.

"I was in the back of a station wagon out in that marsh that is Cape Canaveral," he recalls. "Mosquitos buzzing about my head, rattlesnakes rattling around my feet ... it wasn't exactly pleasant, nor very efficient. But it wasn't any more primitive than the missile and the spacecraft that took Glenn into flight."


'One giant leap'

Seven years later, Apollo 11 went to the moon and Neil Armstrong literally walked into history as he uttered the now famous, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

"It's one of the few things that can unite a country in terms of watching something and sharing an experience," says Flint.

The final lunar landing was in 1972. Perhaps the novelty began to fade; as space travel became almost predictable, viewers became complacent at the prospect of another routine launch.

'This cynical day and age'

"NASA's sort of suffered from its own success," says Cronkite. "The flights have been so successful over the last couple of decades that we don't pay any attention to them anymore."

"In this cynical day and age, we only care when it goes as unexpected," says Flint.

It went tragically awry in 1986, when the shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

NASA has had over 60 shuttle flights since then, including the latest carrying John Glenn.

"I think the flight is important," says Cronkite. "I think it's a refocusing of our attention, at least momentarily, on space flight, on the flights of the shuttles."

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