Remembering ‘The Voice of Mission Control’ on the Apollo 11 Anniversary

It’s a pretty exciting time to be in Washington D.C. The whole town is amped up over the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The Saturn V rocket is being projected onto the Washington Monument, Neil Armstrong’s space suit is back on display at the National Air and Space Museum and the National Symphony Orchestra is putting on a special tribute concert at the Kennedy Center. (See even more ways to celebrate here).

I mean, how cool is that? Image via @johnkrausephoto on Twitter

But all I can think about is my first boss, Paul Haney.

Paul Haney was the “voice of mission control,” providing live commentary on some of NASA’s earliest space flights. He worked at NASA in its early days, becoming director of public affairs at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1963.

Paul Haney at mission control via Popular Science

As a former newspaper reporter, he often butted heads with NASA bureaucrats in Washington on the need to have full agency transparency and provide the media and public with full access to information on NASA’s programs and astronaut training.

Without Paul’s input, it’s likely the American public would never have seen the moon landing televised in their own homes, the Houston Chronicle posited (although, they quoted Paul’s boss, Julian Scheer, where most other news articles I read, including his New York Times obituary in 2009 credit Paul for NASA’s transparency).

That insistence on full openness is also what got him fired 10 weeks before the Apollo 11 moon landing. Otherwise, we all would have heard Paul’s voice counting down the Saturn launch. Instead, it was Jack King. It must have been an especially bitter pill for Paul since the moon walk occurred on his birthday, July 20.

Paul on the right hanging out with Barbara Edin and Bob Hope. (image from NASA/CollectSpace.com

After further stints in reporting and corporate public affairs, Paul and his wife Jan “retired” to Horizon City, right outside El Paso and took over a small community newspaper called the Homestead News. In the 1980s, Paul wrote, edited and published the Homestead News. The staff was basically Paul, Jan, her son and his wife. Plus me.

I can’t remember when I first stepped into the Homesteader offices. It must have been the summer after my sophomore year, maybe? My mom drove me over and waited while I went inside and asked if they were hiring. Paul and Jan looked at each other incredulously and said no, they were already fully staffed. I went to the car dejected and my mom said, “So, you’re just going to take no for an answer?” With the prospect of a long, hot, boring summer at home stretched out in front of me, I went back into the office and offered to work for free. “I just want the experience,” I said.

That’s how I became the Homestead News “intern.”

I can’t remember how long I worked there. It was pretty sporadic, mostly in the summer, but a little bit during the school year, too. The Haney’s did eventually start paying me, mostly out of guilt, I suspect. It was something like $50 a month, I think. But it was an experience you could not put a price tag on. I learned all about the newspaper business, everything from ad sales, clerical work, writing, pasting and layout, and even accompanying Paul when he physically took the mounting boards to the printer (these were pre-e-mail days, kids).

Every day at around 5:30, Paul would make himself a screwdriver, grab a small cup of dry roasted peanuts and retire to the hot tub on the patio (they moved the office to their home shortly after I started.) While letting the day’s stresses float away, he would regale me and poor Jan (who had already heard it all) with stories of his reporter days in Ohio, Washington D.C. and later in Galveston and South Carolina, as well as his time at NASA. I remember I used to stare in awe at this plaque he had on the wall that was given to him by his former NASA colleagues. It said “happy birthday” and had the date of the moon landing, and a small moon rock mounted on it. Pretty incredible. I wish I had a picture of it.

Paul with turtle cue card. Picture and story behind it can be found at ApolloArtifacts.com

Being a know-it-all teenager, Paul and I used to get into some heated debates sometimes (refereed by Jan, of course) because—and here’s that age-old generational thing at play—while his generation had fought wars (he was in the Korean War) and put a man on the moon, subsequent generations hadn’t done very much worth admiring (in his words). This was when I was like, 17, so, of course I had no real comeback! Jan always stepped in and told him to stop being an old grump.  

Anyway, I distinctly remember when the Berlin Wall fell and communism was declared over. Paul grudgingly admitted that my generation might be on the right track after all. Which was pretty high praise coming from him.

I didn’t keep touch with the Haneys after high school and when I moved away. I heard that Jan’s son and daughter-in-law took over the Homesteader and the Haneys retired to a cherry orchard in New Mexico, before cancer (first melanoma, then brain) took Paul in 2009.

I, of course, wish I had stayed in touch. I think Paul would have gotten a real kick out of knowing I did pursue a career in journalism and so many of the journalistic ethics he taught me – treat your sources with respect and don’t betray their trust; check the facts not once, not twice, but three times; always be curious and follow up; be open and transparent; get both sides of an argument and be fair; don’t insert or share your own opinions in an interview and definitely not in a story – stayed with me forever.

So while I’ll be enjoying all the hoopla around the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I’ll be thinking of Paul and trusting that he’s got a good view of it all somewhere.

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Things That Aren’t Cool: Evil Elmos, NASA

What with some presidential candidates publicly taking aim at Big Bird, Sesame Street has been in the news a lot lately.

And never one to miss an opportunity, those media whores over at NASA are trying to elbow their way into the limelight. Again. (I’m looking at you, Mars Rover guy, with your Mohawk and your Tumblr page and scienceness and whatnot.)

I stumbled across this bit of “news” (incredibly clever lede though, I’ll give MSNBC a hat tip on that):

An impact basin spotted on Mercury with two smaller craters above it looks remarkably like the sweet treat-loving Cookie Monster muppet of “Sesame Street” fame — at least to the eyes of scientists working on NASA’s Messenger mission to the small planet.

The researchers posted a photo of the crater arrangement with the title “Anyone Else Think This Looks Like the Cookie Monster?” on the Flickr page of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., today (Oct. 12).

True Confession: I have a bit of a grudge against NASA. No, I wasn’t denied entry into space camp or something lame and nerdy like that (what’s that? My boyfriend for life, XFE went to space camp? Oh, well then. Space camp is the coolest!!).

I just feel like the whole space program is a colossal waste of federal tax dollars. I’m not the least bit curious about space, the moon, Mars, Milky Way, or any other Sesame Street-inspired celestial bodies that might be out there.

I categorically do not believe in alien life forms (a non-belief that truly goes against my superstitious redneck upbringing) and I don’t care if there’s other life out there, I really don’t. We should not be spending an average of $16 billion (with a B!) a year on that crap.

Not to be outdone, someone apparently called Evil Elmo is back in the news too (but I think the Interior Department might have put him up to this to get some attention on national parks funding).

“Earlier this summer, Adam Sandler (no relation to the comedian) was escorted out of New York’s Central Park after yelling profanities and anti-Semitic slurs while dressed in an Elmo suit.

And according to reports on parent blogs, Sandler (or an impostor) was up to his antics again at San Francisco’s Rossi Park on Saturday.

“Something was off about him from the start,” wrote one parent in a parent message board email published by the San Francisco Chronicle. “As he passed all of us to leave, he started yelling obscenities and anti-Semitic slurs. He just went nuts.”

“The cops showed up as this dude was undressing in the corner of the tennis courts, back into his street clothes,” the email continued.

Listen up puppets, I get it. It’s hard out there on the mean Streets of Sesame. Y’all got some stress.

The economy is in the garbage (no offense, Oscar) and you’ve got that snooty one-percenter The Count walking around bragging about all his ducats.

But you guys have got to pull yourselves together. Sure, it might mean cutting some corners – maybe you’ll have to get a roommate like Bert and Ernie. Maybe you’ll have to appear in some political ads to make a little birdseed. You might have to cut back on your cookie addiction or stop shopping in Mr. Hooper’s undoubtedly overpriced store (lack of competition means monopoly, Hooper).

But we’re all going to get through this. Even NASA will probably be fine at the end of the day. Despite my efforts to undermine them.

So let’s just all keep our clothes on while out in public, shall we?