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The case for a journalist in space (part 1)

Miles O'Brien with space tourist Dennis Tito at CNN's World Report conference on Wednesday, May 30  

(CNN) -- Two-and-a-half years ago, while a certain septuagenarian retired senator and former space hero strapped in for an "about-the-science" joyride on a NASA shuttle, I had the honor of sharing an anchor desk at the Cape with The Most-Trusted Man in America.

Walter Cronkite was my co-anchor. Let me write that once again (please): Walter Cronkite was my co-anchor. Kinda has a ring to it, doesn't it? I think I may be the only person on the planet who can list that distinction on my resume without embellishment (as if it were possible to fib about such a thing).

During commercial breaks on that marathon of coverage, I had the occasion to ask a lot of important questions of this broadcasting icon. Things like: "More cream and sugar, Mr. Cronkite?"

In any case, sometime after I picked up his dry cleaning -- and just before I spit-shined his shoes -- His Anchorness deigned to tell me a fascinating story about NASA's ill-fated Civilian-in-Space program of the mid-1980s.

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As it happened, when the space agency decided it was time to send civilians into orbit, there was a general consensus that the vanguard visitor would be a journalist. Of course, to be precise, a pair of politicians on some key NASA oversight committees got the first space junkets -- but that was an inside deal. Oh, and let's not forget the liberal "Payload Specialist" criteria of the era, which made it possible for a Saudi prince to scam a ride as well.

But any notion that a scribe would be the next to go evaporated during one speech by the commander in chief. President Ronald Reagan was in the midst of a reelection campaign and, trying to curry favor with the National Education Association, promised a teacher would be the first. End of report(er).

By that time, NASA had winnowed its list of astro-spondent wannabes to about 40 finalists. But it was widely believed at the time that the anchorman who filed reports on launches from Cape Canaveral before there was a NASA -- who shepherded viewers through the first manned ballistic blast downrange, and misted up (fittingly lost for words) as astronauts kicked up moon dust for the first time -- would be the first reporter in space. Take it to the bank.

But all that changed in an instant. When President Reagan spoke, NASA, of course, listened. A teacher would be the first civilian to fly on the shuttle. So, were it not for the politics of the moment, it is very likely that Walter Cronkite would have been a member of Challenger's last crew.

Think about that for a moment. Would that have changed public reaction to the tragedy? On one level, of course not. No matter who was aboard Challenger, it was a horrifying, haunting, shared, "never-forget-where-I-was" experience -- in same vein as the Kennedy assassination.

But what about the civilian member of the crew? Would the loss of everyone's trusted uncle have compounded the ire we all felt toward NASA, for ostensibly putting an innocent amateur into harm's way? It is a disquieting hypothetical, but I think most journalists would hope just the opposite would occur.

Unlike teaching, ours is a profession where risk goes with the territory. Reporters the world over are killed with startling frequency in pursuit of stories. During the 1990s, about a thousand journalists died in the line of duty. Just last year, two dozen more were added to the list. Everyone in this business knows the score, yet many of us are not cowed by the odds.

Indeed, before Walter Cronkite became much more than a reporter hot on the trail of a scoop, he was a reporter hot on the trail of a scoop. To that end, he took some big risks. During World War II, he and his colleagues appealed for months to be allowed to fly aboard B-17 "Flying Fortresses" on bombing runs over Europe.

After months of persistent pestering, the Air Force relented. But for the privilege, Cronkite and seven others endured weeks of training as gunners. Geneva Convention notwithstanding, these airborne reporters would have to earn their seat by aiming hot lead, as well as writing hot leads.

Walter lost some good colleagues and friends during those missions. He flew through some serious flak, yet lived to write another day. But he did it all knowing full well that he was putting everything on the line. Was it worth it? Well, read the lead paragraph of his United Press dispatch describing that first sortie on a "Flying Fort":

"I have just returned from an assignment to hell, a hell at 17,000 feet, a hell of bursting flak and screaming fighter planes, of burning Forts and hurtling bombs," he wrote.

Is a description like that worth the risk? Perhaps it would be best to ask some of those brave flyers, or their families, or historians, or anyone who is awed and inspired by their courage.

And then, ask yourself, could anyone other than a talented reporter, writer and communicator have evoked that moment in time in such vivid detail? Maybe. But maybe not. And that would be all our loss.

To be continued....

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