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The space race you never knew about: Stan Grossfeld’s NASA competition with Walter Cronkite

Before Bezos and Musk, there was stiff competition to get picked for NASA’s Journalist In Space program.

Stan Grossfeld (right), with help from a NASA photography expert, positions one of several cameras and lenses he brought into a mock space shuttle in Houston in 1986.Stan Grossfeld/Globe staff / File

In 1985, NASA inaugurated the Journalist In Space program. The trip was slated to follow the Teacher in Space Project, which aimed to increase public support for the space shuttle flights.

I applied, along with 1,702 other humans. I wanted to see the world without borders, to float in the air, and to show and tell viewers what the experience was like. Big names in journalism were applying, which meant it was a long shot for a young photojournalist such as myself.

Applicants had to write an essay and provide letters of recommendation. My ace in the hole was David Halberstam, author of “The Best and the Brightest,” who interrupted a Caribbean vacation to write mine.


But then the space shuttle Challenger exploded and killed the crew of seven, including New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe. Surprisingly, the selection process continued for us journalists and nobody backed out. I figured that after the Challenger accident, this would be the safest flight in NASA history. The New York Times noted that there was only one photographer on the list, which had been culled to 100.

The consensus was that Walter Cronkite, the CBS Evening News legend, had it in the bag. Cronkite was known as “the most trusted man in America” and a NASA cheerleader. But in 1969 when the Eagle finally touched down on the moon, his first words were hardly earth shaking: “Oh boy! Whew! Boy!”

When Uncle Walter and I met at a World Hunger Year awards banquet in New York City, the most distinguished TV commentator of our time and I had a conversation about space that could’ve been held by two bratty 9-year-olds.

“I’m going,” said Cronkite, then 70.

“No, I’m going,” said I.

“No, you are not,” said Cronkite. It almost got down to na-na-nah-nah-nah, but we both started laughing.


And that’s the way it was.

In some circles photojournalists are treated like second-class citizens. “Are you the reporter or do you JUST take the photos?” has always annoyed me. Actually, I do both. If there was only one seat, why not send me?

I called NASA’s photo department and begged for a space shuttle tour. They invited me to Houston, where I surveyed every inch of the capsule and developed a multimedia plan for remote cameras. Christa McAuliffe’s unbridled enthusiasm and passion, preserved in an interview I viewed on video, made me want to help finish her mission.

Regional interviews were held at Penn State University. The panel grilling me wondered if I’d done any research. “I was in the space shuttle yesterday looking for unique camera angles,” I answered nonchalantly.

“The space shuttle? In Houston?” asked one very surprised judge. They loved it. I could feel my earthly bonds slipping away. “If we let you do this, you won’t have anything left to shoot for,” they said.

“I’d still like to smack a ball off the Green Monster,” I said.

When the new list came out, there I was, in the remaining 40. I could almost taste the Tang. But then a letter arrived abruptly, stopping the process. The Journalist in Space program never happened.

I still believe in space exploration, but now it’s also become a billionaire’s joy ride and a celebrity perk. First Branson, then Bezos. Then Star Trek actor William Shatner broke through Earth’s atmosphere at 90. I hope Captain Kirk lives long and prospers, but that was just a publicity stunt.


Football star and television personality Michael Strahan hitched a ride on December 11. He tossed around a blue mini-football while weightless and later, when someone asked him if the Earth is round, said, “OK, Kyrie Irving.”

I no longer want to go into space. That money would be better spent saving our beloved Earth and trying to unite these Un-united States.

As the worst epidemic of the past century continues to divide us, I wish we all could just take a giant leap forward together, be kinder to each other, and spread some good karma around this beautiful planet we all share.

Stan Grossfeld is a two-time Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist and an associate editor at The Boston Globe. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at stanley.grossfeld@globe.com.