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Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

Never underestimate the power of nostalgia

The Earth rises over the Moon in a photo taken by the crew of Apollo 11  

August 12, 1999
Web posted at: 2:34 p.m. EDT (1834 GMT)

LAKEMONT, Georgia (CNN) -- Picture this: I am perched on the side of a mountain, watching the sunrise over a serpentine, clear mountain lake. The water is like glass and all I can hear are the crickets harmonizing and the coffee-maker burbling. I can practically feel my batteries recharging after a manic mid-summer.

As I predicted (and I have witnesses), the coverage demands for the Apollo 11 anniversary coverage rose exponentially as the date drew near. Many months ago, producer Linda Saether and I went to our bosses to gauge their appetite for moonwalk memories. We were told to prepare "three or four" taped pieces and call it a day.

But by the time we got to the Saturn V/Apollo Center at the Kennedy Space Center, we were in the eye of a full-fledged "NEWSCON-5" media tempest. They just couldn't get enough of us, or the gray-haired men who won the space race, or the experts who have written about them, or even the tourists who knew, without exception, precisely where they were when Neil Armstrong took that "one small step."

I have noticed this before. Anniversary coverage seldom gets the advance attention and planning it requires. I guess it is hard to predict how much interest there will be in marking a milestone. Which brings me to one of my basic rules of news: when planning coverage, never underestimate the power of nostalgia.

Of course the most notable example of this in my career is John Glenn's return to flight. While we certainly planned for a lot of interest in that event, we were still surprised at the saturation coverage it received. The old hands at the Cape say the scene at the media "mound" hearkened back to the launch of Apollo 11.

Why? Well, first and foremost, it is a tale of stunning triumph and tragedy. Hollywood would be hard pressed to deliver a plot with more twists. Think of it: the Sputnik panic ... the audacious goal of a young (soon-to-be martyred) president ... the early failures of U.S. rockets ... the central-casting fly-boys riding the rockets ... the slide-rule jockeys with the can-do credo in the trenches ... the launch-pad fire ... and, ultimately, The Landing -- only five months shy of the deadline. What a story.

We are anxious to relive it all because it takes us back to our greatest, collective moment of the Cold War. Think of the first moon landing as the antidote to the Cuban missile crisis. It inoculates us with a dose of warm, fuzziness -- buffering a very harsh, scary time. And, for some reason, having simply witnessed the space race unfold makes us feel as if we were participants.

We vividly -- and fondly -- remember those occasions when our teachers' stopped the 3 R's -- to let us watch Walter preside over a launch. We savor the memory as if we were instrumental in making those perilous missions succeed. And if you take a big-picture look at what the space race was all about, we can rightly claim some ownership of the accomplishments. With copious amounts of ticker-tape and tax-dollars, we all rose to the occasion to root, root, root for the home team. It seems there is nothing Americans like better than a little competition.

Which is why it is a unique moment in time. All those questions about why we didn't stay and why we didn't go farther and what's the matter with the space program are answered very simply: the game was over, we won, we cheered and then gathered our souvenirs, reached for our keys and bolted to the parking lot.

But we left something special behind. And remembering that time only makes me miss it more.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears weekly.

Downlinks archive

Apollo 11 astronauts honored for 'astonishing' mission
July 20, 1999
Armstrong, Apollo pioneers reflect on 'giant leap' 30 years later
July 16, 1999
Tranquillity base +30
July 16, 1999
Last man on the moon spins tale of guts, glory and loss
July 14, 1999

NASA Homepage
  • Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal : Mission Summary
  • Apollo 11 Mission Overview
  • Apollo 10 Mission Overview
  • On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini
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