by Jay Barbree

Smithsonian Books


321pp/$26.95/September 2007

"Live from Cape Canaveral"
Cover by Mumtaz Mustafa

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, a small satellite which became the first man-made object to orbit the Earth. The launch of Sputnik heralded the start of the Space Age and over the next fifty years, hundred of men and women, mostly from the United States and the Soviet Union, would fly into space.  Jay Barbree is unique in that as a reporter for NBC News, he is the only person who has attended every launch of the United States manned space program.  In "Live from Cape Canaveral": Covering the Space Race, from Sputnik to Today, Barbree looks back at the US space program from Mercury through the Space Shuttle.

In effect, "Live from Cape Canaveral" attempts to be three different books, and achieves varying degrees of success in each area.  It is most successful as a look at the space program.  While there are other books which cover various aspects of the space program in more depth, from autobiographies like Eugene Cernan's The Last Man on the Moon, to Andrew Chaikin's A Man on the Moon, covering the Apollo programs, Barbree's book takes a look at NASA's entire manned space program, more than one hundred flights.

Barbree's book is also an autobiography, although his focus here is on his work with NBC and NASA.  Details of his personal life are relatively few and far between, although he writes about his wife, children and grandkids.  Although Barbree struck up friendships with several astronauts in the course of his reporting (he co-wrote Alan Shepard & Deke Slayton's memoir Moon Shot), he doesn't really discuss those friendships or how they were cultivated.  The majority of the autobiographical part of the book comes in the chapter "Sudden Death," in which Barbree discusses his death on beach in Florida while jogging and the subsequent efforts to resuscitate him.  Even here, Barbree is reticent to discuss how his experience may have altered his perception of the world except to note that it put a final nail in his chances to be selected for the aborted Journalist in Space program.

Finally, Barbree's books is a look at the way the news agencies, particularly NBC, have interacted with NASA over the last fifty years.  This part of the book starts out promising, with a look at new technologies and techniques NBC had to develop.  This part of the book quickly goes by the wayside as Barbree turns his attention to the various launches, and often doesn't provide any personal insight into the launches beyond what is already available as part of the public record.  He returns to the news gathering aspect strongly during the most emotional chapters when discussing the Challenger explosion and the way he broke the story of the O-ring's culpability in the disaster.

 "Live from Cape Canaveral" provides an excellent overview of the US manned space program. Hitting on all of the high (and low) points, Barbree captures the changing mood of the astronauts from mavericks to more serious pilots, as well as the changing mores of the organization from the can-do spirit of the Mercury missions to the CYA attitude of the shuttle missions.  Looked at as simply an introduction to the space program, Barbree does an excellent job in a concise and very readable manner.

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