Cronkite ‘Told the Story of Space’ to a Generation
A fan of the future, Walter Cronkite relished the adventure of space exploration, say astronauts, scientists and historians, marking his passing just three days before the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.
One of the most famous moments in the storied career of Cronkite, 92, who died Friday, came with the Apollo 11 landing on July 20, 1969.
"Wally, say something, I'm speechless," the CBS anchorman said to his landing co-host, astronaut Wally Schirra, dropping his glasses and famous composure, to rub his face after the tense final moments of the landing. ("If Cronkite doesn't know what to say, don't expect me to do any better," Vice President Spiro Agnew later told interviewers.)
"Poignant from my perspective, I wish he had lived to see the 40th anniversary," says space historian Roger Launius of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "Walter Cronkite certainly identified himself not just as an observer, but as something of an advocate for the moon landings."
"He had a passion for human space exploration, an enthusiasm that was contagious, and the trust of his audience. He will be missed," astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, said in a NASA statement.
"Walter Cronkite was not just the television voice of the U.S. space program during the 1960s. To those of us who lived through that time, he was as much a part of the space effort as the astronauts and the engineers," says longtime space analyst John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University.
"He told the story of space in ways that spoke directly to us; there was no hiding behind opaque technical jargon. When he was excited, we were excited, " Logsdon says. "When he asked a question, it was one that we had in mind. In many ways, he was the public's representative to America's space program,"
Cronkite's death marks the beginning of the passing of the "Apollo Generation," confident in the future and technology, Launius says.
From 1967 to 1970, Cronkite hosted The 21st Century, a half-hour Sunday night documentary, sponsored by chemical maker Union Carbide, that extolled computers and other coming wonders. For scientists, his enthusiasm was contagious.
"I can still hear Cronkite's voice saying 'oh boy, oh boy' as the lander approached the surface. At that time, fresh out of graduate school, we didn't even own a TV but we rented one just to watch the landing," says retired astronomer Howard Bond of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
"His enthusiasm for space exploration certainly played a key role in the progress we made in those days. I'm not sure we would have a Hubble Space Telescope today if it weren't for the support of people like Cronkite over the decades," Bond says.
During the space race, Cronkite showed viewers the rigors of astronaut training by riding in NASA's infamous "vomit comet" airplane, which follows a parabolic dive that puts passengers into free fall, as well as inside a centrifuge to simulate the stresses of acceleration at liftoff.
In a 1996 CBS retrospective on his career, Cronkite called space exploration "one of the great stories of the 20th century."
"No doubt he was one of the voices of the Space Age, and an unabashed space buff," says William Burrows, author of The Infinite Journey: Eyewitness Accounts of NASA and the Age of Space, for which Cronkite wrote the introduction in 2000. "But he was smart enough to know it was a great drama and let the story tell itself."