Leaps of faith

Lost in our stories on the 50th anniversary of the crash at Dyke Bridge on Chappaquiddick that killed Mary Jo Kopechne, and the 20th anniversary of the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn, and his sister-in-law, Lauren, was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

It didn’t happen here, of course, but the Island did have a special connection to that historic moment on July 20, 1969, and the subsequent “giant leap for mankind” by Neil Armstrong on July 21, 1969.

That is, many of us saw it through the lens of CBS News legend and Edgartown seasonal resident Walter Cronkite. We didn’t need the metaphorical “six degrees of separation”: Cronkite had by then come to be regarded as an Island institution, known for generously donating his time to nonprofits such as Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, SailMV, the Stone Soup Leadership Institute, the former Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society (now the museum), and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Each year he would donate an auction item for Martha’s Vineyard Community Service’s Possible Dreams event (this year’s event is on Sunday evening; see our coverage on page B24). At the first auction in 1979, a sailboat ride for Cronkite went to the evening’s highest bidder for $225. The price tag for the same dream 25 years later — with the addition of Carly Simon on board for the sail — had jumped to $85,000. 

As anyone who has watched the various documentaries about NASA and the U.S. space program can attest, Cronkite was there for every launch, and took a tremendous interest in the program, and particularly man’s journey to the moon.

This is what Cronkite said to astronaut Wally Schira who was with him as Americans were glued to their television sets, huddled in a way that doesn’t happen anymore: “Oh, boy!” Cronkite said as the Eagle landed. “Wally, say something, I’m speechless!”

The most trusted newsman in American, speechless and giddy.

For a generation of Americans, the space program was a captivating dream. Kids played with moon rovers, pretended to blast rockets, and planted their American flags into dusty patches of backyard soil to mimic the Sea of Tranquility. Those visuals brought into their living rooms on flickering black-and-white televisions with “Uncle Walter” at the anchor desk.

Cronkite was once considered for NASA’s “journalist in space program,” though that was scrapped after the Challenger disaster in 1986, and he received NASA’s Ambassador of Exploration Award.
“I can’t imagine any red-blooded person not wanting to get into space,” Cronkite told USA Today in 1998 after John Glenn returned to space at 77. “Shaking off that idea lacks a certain imagination, a spirit of adventure. I can’t think of anything better out there.”

The CBS News anchor is not the only Massachusetts tie to the space program. In Cambridge, Draper Labs scientists and engineers were at the forefront of designing the technology that would allow astronauts to land safely on the moon. Those scientists are part of an exhibit on display in the atrium of Draper’s Cambridge headquarters. (The display, called “Hack the Moon,” includes a simulator of the lunar module that gives you a chance to land on the moon. It’s not as easy as NASA made it look. The Draper display is open through Oct. 5, and it’s free.)

“You are walking around with more power and capability in the cell phone in your pocket than Apollo’s computer had,” the plaque on the display for that Apollo computer states.

Can you imagine? The display also reveals something else that will give you shivers. There was no redundant system in those Apollo rockets. So if it failed to work in space (where it couldn’t be tested ahead of time), there was no backup plan.

“We’re just going to make this computer reliable,” Richard Battin of Draper said as part of the Johnson Space Center oral history project. “Today … you’d be thrown out of the program if you [said] you’re going to build it so that it doesn’t fail. But that’s just what we did.”

Very little seems to amaze us in these days of technical innovation, but it is hard not to be starstruck by what NASA was doing in 1969, and the types of technological advances that were made by people at Draper Labs.

In his memoir, “A Reporter’s Life,” Cronkite put it best: “That first landing on the moon was, indeed, the most extraordinary story of our time, and almost as remarkable a feat for television as the space flight itself.”