The Late, Not So Great Peter Jennings and The First Space Shuttle Launch

By Stephanie Donald


As befits a media celebrity, the late Peter Jennings was given a tearful sendoff in 2005. His career, however, was as much a product of serendipity as connections and, naturally, what American media TV execs prize so high—the ability to be not so much a genuine news anchor as a television star.






Jennings—more glamour than substance?


It was April 10, 1981, the night before the very first launch of America’s new space shuttle, Columbia and the press was gathered at a local convention center in Cocoa Beach, Florida to toast NASA’s re-entry into the manned space program and give the journalists attending a big meal and our press packets.


I was seated at the table with Walter Cronkite, Eric Severeid, David Brinkley and Peter Jennings. Cronkite, Severeid and Brinkley were there as “Guest Expert Commentators” on the space program and Jennings, representing ABC, and myself representing the Australian Broadcast Corporation. I was thrilled to talk with Cronkite, Severeid and Brinkley but Jennings just sat there like a lump and gave that coy smile instead of participating in the conversation. Whenever he was asked a direct question he would say in a very low tone, “I really don’t know, let me get back to you on that”. Cronkite and the rest just shook their heads knowing that Jennings was trying not to look stupid among a crowd of expert journalists.


Just after dinner the press packets were passed out and after a short briefing on the next day’s launch given by NASA Chief Public Affairs Officer, Rocky “Rocket” Raab, he opened the floor to questions. Now keep in mind that all the legitimate journalists had been studying the shuttle and its operation for years prior to this briefing.


Jennings was one of the first to get called on by Rocky and in his deep baritone voice, trying to keep his broadcast inflections so he wouldn’t sound like the complete idiot he was, he asked, “Where will the shuttle splash down?”


After about two minutes of laughing in the room and Cronkite squeezing tears out, forcing him to take his glasses off and wipe his eyes, I looked at Jennings and said loud enough for the entire room to hear, “Sit down, Peter. The adults want to talk about the real shuttle now.”


Cronkite fell out the chair on his knees laughing and Brinkley kept yelling, “Good one!”


After the briefing was over and people were leaving, everyone at my table walked over to Raab and wanted to know what vending machine Jennings got his press credentials out of.






Stephanie Donald is a semi-retired journalist born and living in Florida. She graduated from University of Central Florida with an M.A. in Journalism and Broadcast Management in 1979. She worked for the Australian Broadcast Corporation from 1979 until 1988 as the Chief Space Science Correspondent until the coverage in the space program fell off following the Challenger disaster. Just before the Challenger disaster she was one of the 20 finalists for the Journalist in Space program which was cancelled following the death of teacher Christa McAuliffe in the space shuttle Challenger in January of 1986. She is presently slated to begin writing a monthly column for The Advocate beginning in February of 2007. She lives with her life partner in Gainesville, Florida whom she grew up with and met as teenagers in 1969.


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