Accolades, skepticism and science marked Science News coverage of Apollo
To cover humankinds first steps on the moon, Science News needed a backup plan.
“We didnt know what kind of pictures wed get, when we would get them, who we would get them from,” says Kendrick Frazier, who joined Science News as a writer just two months before Apollo 11 touched down on lunar soil. So the staff took pictures of their home television screens during the July 20, 1969 broadcast of the moon landing. “It didnt work out very well,” he says.
Fortunately, images from NASA sufficed. On the cover of the July 26, 1969 issue — just 25 cents! — the words “At last the moon” ran atop a raw, black-and-white image of two blurry forms standing on desolate terrain, with the spidery outline of the lunar lander in the background. A description of the photo — Fraziers one contribution to the coverage — captured the scene: “Ghostly they were, those two figures gliding over the surface of the moon. But, with all the world watching, it was certain. The dream of the ages had been fulfilled: Man was on the moon.”
Throughout the Apollo program, <em>Science News</em> kept a watchful eye, reporting on the successes, setbacks and skepticism. From 1967 to 1973, the magazine published more than 100 stories about the United States quest to reach the moon, from the <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/archive/we-knew-someday" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">Apollo 1 launchpad fire</a> that killed three astronauts (<em>SN: 2/4/67, p. 112</em>) to the <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/archive/perfect-ending-final-apollo" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">splashdown of the final mission</a>, Apollo 17 (<em>SN: 12/23/72, p. 404</em>), plus later findings of moon-based experiments.
“Apollo was an epic achievement. We all were super excited,” Frazier says. Yet the magazine never went overboard, he adds. “We managed to cover all the other things going on in science.” The July 26 issue devoted just five of its 24 pages to the Apollo 11 landing. Other stories included advances in predicting the sex of an unborn child and urban influences on precipitation.
The job of covering Apollo 11 fell to staff writer Jonathan Eberhart. He most likely traveled to Cape Kennedy (now called Cape Canaveral) in Florida for the launch and then to Houston for the rest of the mission, Frazier suspects, filing stories by phone or telegram. In describing the mission, Eberharts prose soared: “Now the moon is mans. The incredible accomplishments of Apollo 11 have changed it irretrievably in the eyes of humankind.” Then he quickly got to work recounting the well-rehearsed descent, the harrowing landing, the hesitant first steps — before spending much of his time, of course, on the science.
Eberhart, who covered space exploration for Science News for three decades, painstakingly described three experiments installed by the Apollo 11 astronauts: a metal foil for snagging solar particles, a seismometer for tracking moonquakes and a mirror array for reflecting lasers back to Earth.
Some geologists, he noted, were miffed about the sample collection: The astronauts didnt know precisely where they landed and were snatching soil from areas where they had already trod, thus collecting samples from potentially disturbed terrain (SN: 7/26/69, p. 72).
Special Report: Moonstruck[hhmc]
50 years after Apollo 11, lunar science still surprises and delights
This story is part of a special report celebrating humans enduring fascination with the moon and exploring the many ways it affects life on Earth. See all the articles, plus our 1969 coverage of Apollo 11, here.
But Eberharts coverage wasnt just about timelines and equipment. In a sidebar tucked in the corner of a page of Apollo 11 coverage, Eberhart asked: “What has happened to awe?” He expresses the challenges of a writer conveying the enormity of the moment while pleading with readers to contemplate what humans had just accomplished.
“Try, briefly, to ignore the flashy rockets and the heroic astronauts. Try to feel the smallness of man and the vastness of what he is doing,” Eberhart wrote. “After two million years, man has stepped out of this world onto another. And, by incredible fortune, we are alive at the instant he did it.”
Eberhart cant explain what he was thinking; he died in 2003 (SN: 3/1/03, p. 134). But Frazier says that this sidebar captured “Jonathans sense of wonder and awe amidst all of his professionalism.”
Early on, magazine editor Warren Kornberg pondered the value of this adventure amid the heavy challenges of the time (SN: 7/26/69, p. 71). “Nothing can mar the glory earned by the astronauts,” Kornberg wrote in a special commentary. But “[t]he verdict of history may well be that, while the world erupted, we ignored the real challenge and chased a rocket trail to the moon.” Its a sobering note. But Apollos achievements overlapped with assassinations, race riots and the unpopular Vietnam War, a truth that Science News had to acknowledge.
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