August 20, 2011 | By Dan Beckmann
2:34 p.m. May 5, 1961. Alan Shepherd makes history. Blasting off atop his Mercury Redstone rocket, he's the first American to make a suborbital flight.
On the ground, watching as NASA answered the Soviets' call to join in the space race, were thousands of journalists. One of them, a 27-year-old cub reporter for NBC News, Jay Barbree. Unbeknownst to Jay, and the rest of the world, it was the start of another historic event. One less visible, but still remarkable.
There are records of all kinds in the history books of American culture. In sports, there's Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, and Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors in golf. Records are meant to be broken. But Jay holds one that can't be touched. Ever. It's a physical impossibility.
After Shepherd's flight, Jay watched the launches of Grissom, Glenn and the rest of the Mercury astronauts. He was there for the Gemini flights. All of them. Then came Apollo. He covered every one of those, too. He reported on the launch of the first space shuttle, carrying John Young and Bob Crippen into space. And he saw the last orbiter clear the tower this past July. In all, Jay watched 135 shuttles take to the sky — 166 manned launches total. When all was said and done, Jay could rightfully say he was the only journalist to have covered every manned space mission.
This year, with the shuttle fleet retired, and after little more than half a century in front of the camera, Jay thought of turning the studio lights off for good. Retiring from NBC News. Then he came to his senses, deciding to "stick around," he says, for future launches.
Fifty years has allowed for plenty of memories — the books he wrote, the friends he made, and the dinner we once shared with Neil Armstrong. There are moments he won't forget: his many "scoops" like Project Score, and the fact he was one of 40 finalists selected as the first journalist in space. Then, there are the moments he can't forget: Columbia, Challenger, and the Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts, one of them his good friend Gus Grissom.
I had the privilege of being Jay's cameraman, working with him and his producer, Dan Shepherd, for nearly 10 years.
"How're my Dans today?" Jay would say, bounding into the bureau with a thunderous, southern Georgia drawl. With a spring in his step like a 20-year old, he'd take command of our makeshift Launch Control Center. "How long is this assignment?" I'd ask Dan. "Long," he'd always say, slowly. The three of us would laugh, then get straight to work.
The brownies Jay's wife, Jo, made before each launch allowed Dan and me to secretly hope for a glitch in the countdown, causing a scrub, so more brownies could be made the following day.
Jay asked me to help research his last book. He gave me credit in the front, and put my picture in the back — correctly putting two N's in my name. Not even my mom does that.
I wasn't with Jay when the last shuttle took off, having left NBC a few years before. I tried catching a glimpse from the parking lot of my Orlando office, but the cloud cover made it impossible. I ran inside to watch Jay on TV, as he covered the mission from the desk I once helped light. I won't be with him for the next launch, either. Whenever that is. But if he's on television, we'll all be better informed because of it.
I think about my friend a lot these days. And I wonder. Will he really sit at his desk in that NBC bureau for the next one? Or will he change his mind, sleep in, and not even bother to watch that familiar plume rise into the sky he's stared up at for so long? No, he'll want to cover it live. Because that's what makes him come alive. He'll feel that news bureau shake again. The rumbling of the floors during liftoff, and the rattling of the plexiglass windows, as the rocket's engines soar toward the heavens. Once more, carrying astronauts into space.
I never got to see DiMaggio swing a bat, but I did get to see Jay Barbree. And now that he's "sticking around," more can enjoy watching a rare journalist documenting a fleeting human era, for our benefit and for the record.