At the ripe old age of 22, James Schefter got bored with his job covering the real estate beat for the Houston Chronicle. Not only was he bored, but he complained about his boredom to his bosses. Soon he was called into the executive editor's office. Was he going to be fired?
"Hey, they're starting this NASA thing down south of town," Schefter's editor said to him. "Wanna open up a Clear Lake bureau?" Boredom would plague young James no more. It was 1963, and NASA was "nothing more than two holes in the ground." But the Russians had put America to shame with the launch of Sputnik six years earlier, and the space race was on.
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Schefter watched the scientists and astronauts move into town and became "as much of an expert as there was" in the news media. In 1965 Time and Life magazines made him their NASA correspondent, and Schefter was granted exclusive access to the astronauts' families and their traumatic training sessions, such as the Jungle Survival School.
But just because Schefter saw a lot doesn't mean he was able to print a lot. The space program's defeats, infighting, political maneuvering and astronaut escapades were voluntarily ignored by the media of the day. "There was an unwritten rule," says Schefter. "If an astronaut didn't get booked into jail, we didn't run the story." And despite his blood-alcohol content, an astronaut never got booked into jail.
Of course, these days there are no such unwritten rules. Schefter's new book commemorating the 30th anniversary of the lunar landing is called "The Race: The Uncensored Story of How America Beat Russia to the Moon," and he happily reveals the debauchery of death-defying astronauts (with the notable exception of Boy Scout John Glenn). But Schefter is most proud that his book reveals the behind-the-scenes poker game be-tween mysterious Soviet "Chief Designer" Sergei Korolev and Bob Gilruth, father of NASA's man-in-space program.
Without Bob Gilruth, I don't know when we would have gotten to the moon," Schefter says. "And nobody knows his name."