PUBLIC RELATIONS ENTERS THE SPACE AGE:
WALTER S. BONNEY AND THE EARLY DAYS OF NASA PR
Gaining public support was the Herculean task that the NASA's public affairs
office faced after its creation in 1958.
This paper examined the genesis of the NASA public affairs office in 1958 and
its operation for the next six years, predating existing articles on NASA public
relations by more than seven years. Using primary source documents from the NASA
archives and oral history interviews, this paper traced the development of
policy as America prepared to send a man into outer space.
PUBLIC RELATIONS ENTERS THE SPACE AGE:
WALTER S. BONNEY AND THE EARLY DAYS OF NASA PR
Ginger Rudeseal Carter
Department of English, Speech, and Journalism
Georgia College & State University
Milledgeville, Georgia, 31061
<[log in to unmask]>
Submitted to the History Division of AEJMC
For Presentation at the 1997 Chicago Convention
PUBLIC RELATIONS ENTERS THE SPACE AGE:
WALTER S. BONNEY AND THE EARLY DAYS OF NASA PR
When the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 was signed into public law
on July 29, 1958, it laid the way for the transformation of the National
Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), an archaic space commission, into the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a giant research and
technology organ on the same footing as the Pentagon or Federal Emergency
Management Agency. Billions of dollars were allocated to the NASA between
1958 and 1963. McDougall wrote that this action was "in response to Sputnik and
the national outcry that followed." He added that President Dwight D. Eisenhower
was "not wholly comfortable" with the decision. With this transformation
came the need for increased public relations and publicity. If America was
going to spend billions of dollars on the manned exploration of space over the
next two decades, Americans were going to have to pledge public support for the
initiative, at least implicitly. This was the Herculean task that the NASA's
public affairs office faced in 1959.
This paper examines the genesis of the NASA public affairs office in 1958 and
its operation for the next six years, predating existing articles on NASA public
relations by more than seven years. What did public relations mean in this newly
changed agency in the late 1950s and early 1960s? How did NASA's effort
compare with existing standards and practice? Specifically, what was the nature
of NASA's control of the information flow to journalists? Using primary source
documents from the NASA archives and oral history interviews with former NASA
public affairs officers, this paper will trace the development of policy as
America prepared to send a man into outer space.
What Is Public Relations in the 1950s?
The arena of governmental public relations following World War II is a period
marked by rapid growth of the public relations industry in general. Journalism
historian Frank Luther Mott wrote in 1952 that "there are twice as many
government press agents in Washington as there are newsmen employed by the
various newspapers, magazines, radio stations, and wire service." Mott cited two
examples from reporters who said they could not live without the news releases
of public relations counselors.
The rise of governmental public relations was also rapid within the United
States Government . Rivers, Peterson, and Jensen wrote in 1971 that Eisenhower
was inaugurated at a time of massive growth in the publicity industry, and as
the administration expanded, so did the role of public relations. They added
During Eisenhower's first four years, executive information
personnel nearly doubled: In 1957 the Civil Service Commission
listed 678 "Information and Editorial Employees." The increase
continued during the second term.
Eisenhower's chief public relation's officer, James Hagerty, was described as
"the best Republican President who was never elected." His influence was
undoubtedly felt throughout the federal government. In The Fourth Branch of
Government, Douglas Cater added that the business of "managing the news" had
cropped up frequently in relation to the executive branch of government. James
Reston had coined the phrase "news management" at a 1955 congressional hearing.
I think there was a conscious effort to give the news at the
Geneva Conference [of the heads of state in 1955] an optimistic
flavor. I think there was a conscious effort there, decided upon
even perhaps ahead of time for a spokesman to emphasize all the op
timistic facts coming out of that conference and to minimize all
of the quarrels at the conference with the results which we have
Reston encouraged the committee to "look into that a bit." He said he feared the
government would blanket newspapers with information that "might not be quite
true, but might be an instrument of their thought."
Combine the growth of public relations in government, Reston's concept of news
management, and the publication of Edward Bernays' The Engineering of Consent in
1955, and the picture of mid-1950s public relations is of a forceful effort
growing stronger each year. In terms of the prevalent press theories of the day,
espoused by Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm, public relations practice could be
viewed as authoritarian, protecting and advancing its client through careful
dissemination of selected news. In that same period, journalists espoused social
responsibility theory that stressed the public's "right to know." For that
reason, the relationship between governmental public relations agents and
journalists was tenuous at best.
By the late 1950s, the roles and functions for public relations practitioners
were also becoming more recognized. Bernays wrote that there were three roles
for the public relations counsel: publicizing the client, sizing up the various
publics, and helping the client make management decisions. Mott added the
dissemination of handouts to the function, adding that handouts are "valuable
aids in news-gathering. Washington newsmen, indeed, could not get along without
The press's view of the government public relations practitioner is summed up
by Bruce Catton, then the Washington Correspondent for The Cleveland Plain
He has to see his job right and act accordingly, which is to
say that he must realize that his sole excuse for existence is the
function of helping the press corps tell the people what is
happening in government. He is neither an advocate nor a special
pleader. He is simply a government servant in the good
old-fashioned meaning of the word. He is not there to cover up
bad news, or to make weak actions look good, to build up a
department of agency, or to make a cabinet member look like a
statesman. Unless he can see himself as a public servant, paid to
help the people know exactly what their government is up to, and
unless he can steadfastly operate in that capacity he had better
get into some other line of work and get there promptly.
In the Beginning...NASA Public Affairs
Walter T. Bonney was named head of public affairs for NACA in 1951 under the
title assistant to executive secretary, and it was natural that he would head
the office when NASA was created in 1958. A former newspaper reporter and
editorial executive from Springfield, Illinois, Bonney was named director of
Public Information by T. Keith Glennan, the administrator of the new agency.
NASA historian Eugene Emme wrote of Bonney's early years at NACA:
With a modest staff, Bonney met the full thrust of the
enormous pressure of the news media during the hectic early years
of the space race, although the term was not used officially by
the Eisenhower administration. The launch of every sounding rocket
is front page news, and NASA's projects, inherited from the
International Geophysical Year and the military services plus its
Project Mercury, found Bonney at his NASA desk from dawn to dusk
every day. Every NASA news conference in the Headquarters
auditorium (the converted stables of the Dolley Madison House) was
a full house with working press and television crews.
Bonney was familiar with the press and public relations work. He wrote in
It was not until 1949 that NACA enlisted professional public
relations assistance to obtain a broader awareness of the work of
NACA. In planning this activity, which the writer [Bonney] has
been privileged to lead, it quickly became apparent that for 34 y
ears NACA had been so successful in hiding its light under a
basket that it was virtually unknown, even by most of those in the
aircraft industry and the military services, the direct
beneficiaries of its technical information. Only the designers
who depended so heavily upon NACA data seemed to know much about
Bonney took the public affairs operation and established two goals -- one short
term, one long term -- for NACA public affairs. The short-term goal was to see
NACA accepted within the service industry as an equal partner. The long-term
goal was to achieve greater public recognition for NACA. Bonney sought to earn
a reputation "for accuracy, honesty, and knowledgibilty in our field." Bonney's
office was successful, and in 1956 the NACA Public Affairs Division received the
Aviation Writer's Association's first public relations trophy.
Bonney's planning for the NASA Public Affairs Office began within a few weeks
of the signing of the Space Act of 1958. Section 203 (a) (3) of the act stated
that NASA shall "provide for the widest practicable and appropriate
dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof."
Bonney wrote later that this was a mandate for the agency to "tell all," not
only about its accomplishments, but also about its future plans and even about
In September 1958, Bonney wrote administrator T. Keith Glennan that, "From the
outset, NASA must maintain a positive information program designed to provide
the people of the United States with maximum information about the agency's
accomplishment." He added that a simple policy should be adopted.
We should speak of our work modestly but with enough vigor to
be heard. (If we don't, others soon will clamor to take our space
assignment from us.) We should be frank about our failures as well
as our successes.
Whenever possible, we should talk about our projects after
they have been proved out, not before. But this will not always be
possible or even desirable.
We owe it to the American people to tell what we're up to.
They not only want, but can take, the truth.
According to This New Ocean, the definitive history of Project Mercury, Bonney
"foresaw the public and press attention [and] asked for an enlarged staff, and
laid the guidelines for public affairs policy in close accord with that of other
governmental agencies. This is evident in the remainder of the memorandum,
where Bonney outlines his requirements for the new NASA Public Affairs Office.
From the beginning, it is evident that Bonney wants more than NACA had -- and
more, in fact, than many similar government agencies had to work with
First, Bonney recommended that the new public affairs staff work as reporters,
"to keep current with the research, development, and operational programs of
NASA, and to prepare material about these program in such form and content as
will be useful to the general press, trade press, radio, television, magazines,
and writers of non-technical books about space." Bonney continued that "the
office should be prepared to answer questions so the reporters won't besiege the
administrator and other management." School programs and speech-making were
also part of this mission.
Bonney also suggested that the public information office assist in the
preparation of the annual and semi-annual reports required by Congress. Here,
Bonney suggested the documents be written for Congress as the audience, rather
than for NASA management. "In a very real sense," Bonney wrote, "these documents
must be considered as 'sell presentations.'"
Bonney suggested that the office engage in international communication to
counter "the Communist lie," and that an internal method of communication, in
the form of a "house organ that would be distributed bi-weekly." The most
striking request from Bonney, however, came in the form of "Field Information
Staff." Here, Bonney requested an expanded staff of specialists which would
include field specialists at Langley, Lewis, and Ames laboratories, Wallops
Island, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Space Technology Laboratories.
Bonney asked for staff specialists who could serve as project officers at the
Bonney's plan received the go-ahead, and by the beginning of December 1958 --
two months after NACA became NASA overnight -- Bonney began to assemble his
public affairs office. Herbert T. Rosen was deputy director under Bonney, and
Joe Stein was executive information officer. Peter T. Chew was chief press
officer, and James Ready and Harry Kolcum were press officers. Byron A. Morgan
was film producer, James Aswell was chief of reports. Many of these individuals
were with NACA and were transferred. Bonney, however, added seven new positions:
Paul Haney was assigned as press officer, and Dick Mittauer was named
Radio-Television Officer. Four field public information directors were
Paul Haney recalled the day when he was hired by NASA, beginning a long
affiliation with the agency's public affairs office. Haney, then an assistant
city editor with The Washington Star, said Bonney first asked Bill Hines, the
full-time science reporter at the Star, to come to work at NASA. Hines said,
"No thank you," but told his colleague about it. Haney said
Hines came in and sidled up to me one day and said, "Hey,
they are really scratching for people, they only have three or
four that know what they are doing at NASA, would you like to go
to work there?" I said, "Hell, yes". To me that was like Columbus
saying, "We need a cabin boy. Would you like to go? We don't know
where the hell we are going." There was no hesitation for me at
all. I went over and talked to Bonney, and he said "Well, that's
it, you're hired."
Haney said he filed papers with the Civil Service Commission and went to work at
the agency in early December. He added that one of his first jobs was writing
"an insert in one of Lyndon Johnson's speeches in which we coined the word
astronaut." Haney said:
I always thought that was kind of slick. It was sort of
presented to me as Lyndon had thought it up. I don't know who had.
But I was told simply to write an insert and try to keep it short,
and I did. I think it was two paragraphs, but I always thought tha
t was a momentous beginning.
Haney said the next few months in the public affairs office were quiet.
We had a few launches. I think, in 1959, of all the launches
only 80 percent of them worked past the first stage. In 1960, I
think roughly half of them worked and by '61, we were up to 80
percent of them working.
By late January, Bonney was beginning to assert his influence as director of
public information. On January 22, 1959, Bonney wrote NASA administrator T.
Keith Glennan and proposed regulations to cover the dissemination of news to the
press. Bonney's memo, based on a NACA directive, read
Activities of NASA are attracting attention of news media
reporting from all parts of the world. It is necessary that
dissemination of information to news media be properly coordinated
within our organization. The Office of Public Information has
been designated to coordinate these activities.
Effective immediately, members of the NASA headquarters stage
will refer all inquiries from news media to the Office of Public
Information. In additional written or oral information for release
to the media will not be made without prior review and approval by
that office. Further, written material must be sent to the Office
of Public Information at least one week in advance of the release.
Bonney defined media as newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and trade
conventions or meetings. Technical articles or presentations were not
On February 2, 1959, Glennan wrote the directors of NASA research centers and
field stations that they should also designate a Public Information Office at
each center. This individual would serve as a liaison with the Public Affairs
Officer. Two days later, Glennan approved Bonney's request. On February 4,
1959, Glennan sent out a directive requiring all centers and research facilities
to refer all inquiries to the office.
At the Space Task Group (STG) at Langley Field, rigorous physical,
psychological, and emotional testing was underway for the first astronaut class.
Robert Gilruth, director of the STG, knew that once these astronauts' names were
announced to the public, the press would begin to intrude on the daily
operations of his command. Taking Glennan's memorandum to heart, Gilruth had Lt.
Col. John A. Powers attached to the Space Task Group as the manager of public
information and press relations. Grimwood wrote that "throughout the Mercury
program, ["Shorty" Powers] stood before the news media and the people of the
world as the one living symbol of all the anonymous human effort behind the
astronaut of the moment." Powers, the former information officer for the
Ballistic Missile Division of the U.S. Air Force, was transferred April 6, 1959,
two days before the Mercury Astronauts were introduced to the public in
Washington. He was attached to Bonney's office, serving out of Langley. He
worked closely with Paul Haney, who met him just before the press conference.
Haney said Bonney explained that Powers had "a big mouth but is a pretty good
showman." Haney continued that Bonney explained
[Powers] is pretty good on stage, and because the pilots are
all military, he's got some time and grade, I think he would
probably work out with them down at Langley in these early months.
What do you think? I said I would like to meet him. I went down an
d met him ... he was good particularly in that role. The pilots
related very strongly to Shorty --they all called him General
Powers. He had time in grade which in the military is very
The next day, April 7, 1959, reporters received a news release, written by Paul
Haney, that stated, "Seven volunteers will report to the Space Flight Activity
at the Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, in the early future for
Project Mercury orbital flight training, the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration said today." In a single space paragraph one sentence later, the
release noted that the "final selectees will be named at a press conference at 2
p.m. Thursday at the NASA auditorium, located at 1520 H Street, N.W. This
information is for planning purposes and not for publication." This initial
news release announcing the Mercury Seven Astronauts was three pages, while the
accompanying background packet -- handed out at the press conference -- was ten
pages long. Reporters at the announcement of the astronauts also received seven
one-page biographies of the Mercury 7.
NASA Public Information Officer Haney, who wrote the news releases and
background articles that accompanied the ten-page press kits distributed that
day, said little preparation was done the night before for the astronauts'
Walt Bonney took me aside and said, "You know, it would
probably be helpful if these guys had some idea of the kinds of
questions they are going to get. They aren't nervous at all but
why don't you just sit down and go through it with them."
Haney said he called Hines, an old friend from his own tenure at The Star, and
asked what type questions Hines might ask. He also asked Joe Mylar, then with
UPI. Haney added that Bonney brought in the astronauts, Haney, and Powers the
night before for a briefing.
He had them the night before and he had them in his office at
eight o'clock in the morning. The door was closed and I sat there
. We sent somebody out for sandwiches and within an hour, they
pretty much knew what was going to happen at this press conference.
Bonney said later of that press conference that
It was one in which something like 200 of the press -- by the
press I mean all media -- were on hand. It lasted over and hour
and a half, until the last of the questions had been answered.
Public information officer Walter Bonney approached the first year anniversary
of his office -- and the agency -- by examining the needs of the public affairs
office. In what could be called a public relations audit, Bonney set forth the
problem: development of "more understandable guidelines" for NASA's Public
Information program. This analysis was required because of the tug-of-war
between the Air Force and NASA officials over the Atlantic Missile Range in Cape
Canaveral, Florida. NASA needed to coordinate a media protocol that would allow
coverage of missile tests without jeopardizing national security. The fact that
the Atlantic Missile Range was under the direction of commanding general Donald
Yates, who ran the range by Air Force rules, muddied the water. By the time the
astronauts arrived at Cocoa Beach, Florida, twenty miles south of Cape
Canaveral, in May 1959, the first reporters were already firmly entrenched
there. The Associated Press assigned Howard S. Benedict, while United Press
International sent Al Webb. Fairchild Publications, publishers of Aviation Week,
assigned Mary Bubb, while Doug Dederer was there from the Cocoa Tribune. Jay
Barbree represented NBC News. These individuals were staples in the full-time
Canaveral Press corps, and within months they would be joined by hundreds
Benedict said the first few months were a "fireworks display" as NASA tested
rocket after rocket -- and many exploded. At this time, NASA was still using
Air Force press protocols, since although their personnel were in place, the
guidelines were still in the development stage. Benedict said this caused great
consternation on the part of the reporters trying to do their jobs. He said the
Air Force was uncomfortable with the media coverage:
Since no trust had been formed between the two groups. We'd
gather on a beach south of the Cape on high sandy knoll which we
named "Bird Watch Hill," with cameras aimed at the launch site.
When they (the Air Force) were launching a new missile, they
didn't like us taking pictures; a lot of time they'd come in with
a helicopter and swoop down on us and we'd scatter for the bushes.
By the time we'd collected our senses, the missile was out of
sight or had blown up. 
Benedict's observations are indicative of the problem Walt Bonney had to solve:
With firmly stated guidance from the Administrator, NASA's
PIO soon adopted the following policy: Once NASA has done
something, whether a success or failure, it becomes something to
be reporter accurately and promptly. "Futures" are something not
to talk about.
This policy of "do first, talk second" has worked
gratifyingly. By dint of patient, repeated explanation to the
press of what this policy means and even more important, by
consistent demonstrations that NASA promptly makes known the facts
about the "bad" as well as the "good," the press has in the main
respected this position.
But, Bonney added the fact that the NASA launches are
Made at the Atlantic Missile Range, where the Commanding
General regularly holds logistic briefings for the press,
outlining scheduled shots, both "special" and routine, for the
week or 10 day period to come. Similar logistic briefings are held
for NASA shots at AMR, both at the Cape and in Washington.
This, coupled with the disclosure of NASA's plans to Congress, and the open
announcement of the awarding of contracts, caused a problem in the "do first,
talk second policy," Bonney wrote. He also considered the fact that the first
manned space shot would be conducted "in a goldfish bowl from Cape Canaveral,"
conditions that needed to be factored into the public information office's
planning process. Bonney's solution: NASA would handle the inquiries and
releases, giving full credit to other agencies. To facilitate this, a full-time
NASA representative, Jack King, was assigned as public affairs director at the
Cape in early 1960. King handled the local launches unless Washington
designated otherwise. One thing did not change in this process--reporters
still had to wait for "fire in the tail." This policy exemplified the NASA "do,
then tell" policy.
In relation to the PIO's service to the press, Bonney wrote:
In servicing the press, the PIO seeks to function as a
precision-ground mirror, faithfully reflecting the activities of
NASA. In practice, PIO staff work as reporters within the agency,
seeking out newsworthy information from NASA technical personnel
and processing it into form useful to the press. The press uses
this product of the PIO -- the releases, the pictures --much as it
uses the product of the wire services, with this important
difference. It rewrites the product of the PIO and in the doing,
makes the product it own.
Bonney's suggestions for operation included a nine-point plan that included
maintaining high standards of news writing while preparing releases that
contained information that was timely or important. Bonney added, "Before any
information is released, this question must be answered affirmatively: Is it
news and will it be useful to Congress and/or the press and through them to the
public?" Also, NASA officials would be patient and courteous when answering
questions from the press, working to answer them quickly and informatively. The
first guideline, however, may have had a hidden meaning. Bonney wrote:
The distinction between publicity and public information must
be kept constantly in mind. Publicity to manipulate or "sell"
facts or images of a product, activity, viewpoint, or personality
to create a favorable public impression, has no place in the NASA
program. The essential aim of our information work is to furnish
Congress and the media with facts -- unvarnished facts -- about
the progress of NASA programs, and to furnish these facts as
promptly in such detail as circumstances dictate. Unfavorable news
must be released as fast and in as full detail as news of
Only a few weeks earlier, Bonney had seen to the completion a historic contract
between the Mercury 7 astronauts and Life magazine. The stories the astronauts
were able to tell Life were the personal stories of life outside the Astronaut
Corps. Bonney probably thought these feature stories to be more publicity than
public information, requiring more of a "sell." His comments in the memorandum
helped justify one of the savviest public relations moves of the decade.
Too Much, Too Soon
The first nine months of Project Mercury were a busy time for Walt Bonney and
the staff in Washington and in the field, and things were about to heat up. On
May 1, 1960, Eisenhower's press secretary James Hagarty referred all calls on a
downed U-2 in Soviet air space to Walt Bonney. The Francis Gary Powers affair
was rumored to have "taken the wind" out of Bonney's sails, but he handled the
situation with aplomb. He rolled with the punches.
By August 1960, Bonney was supervising 28 public relations officers in
Washington and at 11 field sites. This change was facilitated by a January
1960 memorandum assessing needed changes in the Office of Public Information,
Bonney wrote that, above all, his staff was overworked.
Overtime by OPI personnel totaled 2079 1/2 hours for the last
half of calendar 1959, an average of nearly 350 hours per month.
This compilation does not include overtime by either the director
of deputy director of OPI. The reasons for the sustained need for
overtime effort are several, principally: To provide information
services about NASA space experiments launched at odd hours, i.e.
3 a.m.; to supply essential service on Saturdays, and, most
basically, to catch up with work which otherwise would fall ho
Bonney added that in 1959 alone the office issued "759 releases, totaling 3,759
pages of pictures." Bonney concluded that his office was overburdened. As NASA
continued to grow, things would get worse, not better. He recommended that some
functions, like history, annual reports, and budget statements, should be
removed, and that two additional professional staff members be added. Once
again, within six month, Bonney's wish was granted as Keith Glennan limited the
work of the public information office to working with the media and NASA
contractors on public information matters.
In spite of the changes, the Public Information Office continued to work on
cranking out information about NASA's programs. Bonney told UPI editors that
September that in that first year the Mercury Astronauts were appointed
NASA held six press conferences, two press tours at Langley
Field's Space Task Group that included lunch with the astronauts,
and one interview session in Nevada following astronaut survival
training. The agency also disseminated two-hundred nineteen pages
of transcribed questions from these sessions, plus twenty-four
additional press releases, six hundred still pictures, and six
thousand feet of motion picture footage. Media visited the Space
Task Group fifty-six times.
Bonney said "in the nearly eighteen months since the Astronauts have been
assigned to Project Mercury headquarters [at Langley,] no media man has ever
been refused permission to visit, nor has cooperation been withheld."
But the winds of change were about to blow hard through NASA. With the
November election of Democrat John F. Kennedy, T. Keith Glennan, the NASA
administrator appointed by Eisenhower, was replaced by James Webb. Bonney was
the next to go. Haney said Bonney resigned and left "the day before Kennedy was
elected" and went to work in California for the Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo,
California. He retired in 1971 and died of a heart attack in 1975. Jack King,
who worked with Bonney as a reporter and a public affairs officer, remembered
him as "a very savvy, soft-spoken, soft-toned man. A very good public affairs
man. He was trying to make the change, if you will, into the space program. The
way the NACA operated was entirely different and on a much lower-keyed basis
than what happened with NASA because of the attention and everything else. But I
Life After Bonney: Haney and Powers Face Three Years of Flux
With the absence of Walt Bonney and the appointment of a new NASA
administrator, the leadership of the NASA Public Information Office changed, but
the staffing did not. The continuity brought by those hired and trained by
Bonney -- Haney, Dick Mittauer, Jack King, even Shorty Powers -- took the office
through the Soviet space shot in the Spring and Alan Shepard's suborbital flight
In the next three years, the office would see five directors -- Shelby
Thompson, O.B. Lloyd, Hiden T. Cox, O.B. Lloyd on an interim basis for a second
time, and George Simpson. Each one oversaw a structure that, according to NASA
documents, did not change. Paul Haney said he thought the changes came about
politically, but even for a government agency, "six directors in 28 months was a
Haney's Proudest Moment
Throughout the planning stages of Project Mercury, Paul Haney said he had been
working to change one thing within the NASA bureaucracy: reverse the "fire in
the tail" rule so the name of the astronaut could be announced in advance.
Haney said the issue was voted on at Glennan's final staff meeting but the issue
was tabled. When Jim Webb became administrator, Webb asked Haney, "How does the
White House feel about this?" Haney said he had already presented it to Pierre
Salinger that week and expected an answer soon. He got the answer he wanted
three months later while he was at the Cape setting up for Alan Shepard's
suborbital flight. He said he answered the phone and it was Evelyn Lincoln,
who said, "Hold on for a moment, the President would like a word."
I thought, aw hell, I could probably make time for him. Then
she said , "He is talking to the Prime Minister and he will be off
any second," and she filled the background with "How's the
weather in Florida" kind of thing. I was sitting there, really
hanging on. I knew I had given Salinger this big briefing, and he
had the press kit, the time lines and all this good stuff.
Haney said Kennedy got on the line and did not say very much, but then he said
"Pierre why don't you pick it up?" Haney said Salinger "kinda laughed" and
said, "Well Paul, what the President wants to know is how good is that escape
rocket?" Haney said he related that the escape rocket had worked 57 of 58
times, and Salinger passed that information to the president. Haney continued
I heard Kennedy start laughing again, and Salinger said, "the
man said that's pretty good." Then he said something about a
volunteer for a pilot.
Haney said Salinger's next words were, "Okay, he buys your new plan, and
everything is useable at T-4 days. That's when I threw the phone up in the air
and hit the ceiling. I have never done that before or since. But that was the
day we changed the whole name of information. Before long, it became a T-30 day
Memories of Shorty
As the Mercury astronauts gained notoriety, so did their public affairs
director, Lt. Col. Shorty Powers. Although much has been written in the popular
press about Powers, there was no question he held tight reins on the astronauts.
Called "the eighth astronaut" because he was always with the Mercury 7, Powers
was both liked and disliked by his colleagues and the media.
Jack King, who worked closely with Powers when the astronauts were at the Cape,
said Powers was a nice guy but he had one problem: He favored the broadcasters
at the Cape:
What bothered me was Shorty favoring the networks. I was an
old wire service guy and, with my loyalties, I felt we had to do
this straight. We can't play this favoritism. The networks needed
a lot more ... they had a lot more demands that had to be satisfi
ed for the networks and we did that. It always bothered me because
I felt that in the last analysis it was the writers [who] were
certainly much more sophisticated than television, with all due
respect to Walter Cronkite, who did a fantastic job. But at that
time, the writers were quite a bit ahead. A number of them had
covered the aviation business for many, many years.
Even Roy Neal, who was a close friend of Powers' said Powers favored the
broadcasters over the print journalists. He said:
There was no question he favored the television media.
Powers, looking at it, said, "Well I'm not going to ignore the
media, most certainly I will never ignore anybody but if emphasis
there be I think it has to be in the direction of getting good
But Walter Cronkite said he did not experience any favoritism on the part of
Powers. Cronkite added:
I don't know that that's particularly so. I certainly
wouldn't blame him for that. That's not a new trick, and I don't
think it was new when he was pulling it. Most news conferences
these days are held at a time when it's likely to get the best
news coverage, and that includes when you want to be on the
networks with it. I didn't notice any particular favoritism. The
print press always thinks there's favoritism. That's part of the
paranoia of the print press.
Yet Cronkite's memories of Powers are not especially fond. Cronkite said:
I'd say that my memories of him were mixed. Shorty became
something of a martinet with his power, what he assumed to be his
power, which was a power as the press spokesman, which was a
phrase they use now. He kind of had some idea that he was as
important as the astronauts. As a matter of fact, he started
calling himself the eighth astronaut. I think most of us will
agree that he was not the best choice for that job.
If Paul Haney epitomized the socially responsible public relations practitioner
-- one who felt the reporters had a right to know --, then Shorty Powers was the
authoritarian -- or need to know -- model. The result was news hunger meets news
management -- and reporters were not always happy with it. After the 1961 launch
of Shepard's Freedom 7, when more than 600 reporters were in the press corps,
reporters on the landing carrier were "within six feet of him -- yet they didn't
say hello, nod to him, and even try to congratulate him." The reason? Shorty
Powers told the reporters Shepard would be placed in a hospital isolation ward
if the reporters did not wait for the press conference. So "on our honor, we
left him alone," wrote AP space correspondent Alton Blakeslee.
NASA also blamed the press for unnecessary publicity before the first flight,
stating "if there's a buildup, the government will not have been
responsible." Yet both Shepard and President Kennedy noted that news
management (NASA) and news hunger (the press) had worked well together. Kennedy
Because great risks have been taken in that regard [to
conduct the mission under "the full glare of press coverage], it
seems to me that we have some right to claim that this open
society of our which risked much gained much.
For the record, the astronauts liked both Powers and Haney. As Scott Carpenter
Shorty was a good friend, a banty rooster, but he did a good
job. And he enjoyed being part of that unique team, too, because
you know, he went everywhere with us.
The face of the NASA Public Information Office changed significantly a
few days before the flight of Gordon Cooper in 1963. In the preceding year,
both the Space Task Group and the Manned Spacecraft Center had moved to Houston,
Texas. Haney and Powers moved with them, continuing to commute to Cape Canaveral
for the launches.
On February 3, 1963, James E. Webb appointed Julian Scheer, a reporter and
columnist for the Charlotte News, as deputy assistant administrator for public
affairs. Scheer said Webb approached him about the job and asked him to write a
one-page memo outlining what he would to do to change NASA's public affairs
image. Scheer said he would make it more accessible to all journalists and would
implement policies that were fair for both print and broadcasters alike.
Scheer said the new system was first tested on Gordon Cooper's mission on May
When I re-established the usual news room at the motel at the
Cape and all the reporters were there, I found out that the
television reporters all had copies of the flight plan. And so I
said to Shorty we had to get copies of the flight plan to the
print media. Now, he accused me of tilting toward the print media
because I was a former member of the print media. and I accused
him of tilting toward television because he loved television. And
he really saw this space program as a video, audio, sort of thing
and I saw it in a broader context.
So what followed was the couple of days of confrontation with
Bob Gilruth, who was the head of the Manned Space Flight Center,
Shorty and others. It finally came down to who was going to be in
charge. And during that period of time Shorty quit. There were
people who said we can't launch if we don't have Shorty's
commentary. And I thought, the public affairs people should be
powerful but should not be that powerful. It seemed kind of
ludicrous to me, so I was ready to put someone else in to take his
But it had to be done. I was sort glad it happened on that
first flight. After that incident, I had Shorty relieved. He came
to Washington and did not want to stay at NASA and retire from the
Air Force, so I gave him an assignment to put together the NASA
exhibit for the World's Fair in New York. He did a terrific job on
Powers and Haney did the "voice of mission control" on Cooper's flight, but it
was the last time. Jack King assumed the responsibility for the countdowns, and
voice communication with the astronauts went on "real time" from Gemini I until
the present. Scheer said:
The world was beginning to hear astronauts in real time. And
we had the same sort of progress in the recovery area. In the
early days, we would have 16 mm film and we would fly that film
into Hawaii and process it, then fly it into Houston and then
release it. While you heard the audio of splashdowns, you never
saw the pictures. Then we got a Western Union International
trailer on the deck of a carrier that could do the splashdown live
and send that picture back. Then even that progressed to the
point to where we could put cameras on the helicopter and you
could look down on the recovery. So it was evolutionary process of
openness which I think culminated when astronauts walked on the
moon. Here was the whole world could see one of the great events
of all time. Live and real time, unedited. And I think all of us
felt tremendous amount of pride in being able to do that. And it
was a product of a lot of hard work on the part of public affairs
and a lot of skill and the organization and from the support of th
e technical people who began to realize that this was what it was
From an authoritarian department of "do first, then talk" to an open, socially
responsible agency, the NASA Public Information Office became the successful
agency that it was because of the growth stimulated by Walter Bonney and his
news officers. Through Gemini and Apollo, the agency opened even more, to the
point that NASA cameras offered full view of mission control, and missions were
announced months, not days, in advance. As a representative public relations
agency of this era, the PIO at NASA was exemplary. The office was, after all,
representing the biggest story of the decade.
How did this public information policy affect the collective memory of Project
Mercury? Because of Bonney's orchestration of the Life contract, the NASA PIO
controlled both the publicity image and the public information image. In short,
both efforts were crucial to the establishment of a permanent record of the
astronauts in all the media.
As Walt Bonney once said, "Fair enough."
 NASA was created from the forty-three year old National Advisory Committee
for Aeronautics effective 1 October 1958; it was called "the mechanical
handmaiden of the Air Force." See National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958
(As Amended), NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office,
Washington, D.C., 1.
 Walter A. MacDougall, ...The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of
the Space Age (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1986), 175-176.
 Frank Luther Mott, The News in America. (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1952), 116.
 William L. Rivers, Theodore Peterson, and Jay W. Jensen, The Mass Media and
Modern Society, (San Francisco: Rinehart Press, 1971), 131.
 William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1982),
 Douglas Cater, The Fourth Branch of Government (Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Company, 1959), 159.
 Cater, 158.
 The four theories, which developed over time, are Authoritarian,
Libertarian, Social Responsibility, and Soviet Communist. The Authoritarian
model, representative of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and
stresses the support and advancement of the politics of the government in power;
Libertarian theory is based on the writings of Milton, Locke, and Mill. Its main
goal is the discovery of truth; The Soviet Communist model is a communist
authoritarian model, loyal to the party and supportive of government. See Fred
S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Schramm, Four Theories of the Press
(Chicago: University of Illinois Press Urbana, 1956), 4-5.
 John L. Hulteng and Roy Paul Nelson, The Fourth Estate, (New York: Harper &
Row, Publishers, 1971), 281-282.
 Mott, The News in America, 177.
 Walter T. Bonney, "Memorandum for the Administrator," 20 August 1959, 1-2.
 Eugene Emme, "Biography of Walter T. Bonney," Washington, D.C., 12 May
 Walter T. Bonney, "Memorandum for the Administrator, NASA," Washington,
D.C., 9 September 1958, 4.
 1959 Memorandum, 2.
 1958 Memorandum, 4.
 Loyd S. Swenson, James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, This New
Ocean: A History of Project Mercury (Washington, D.C.: The NASA Historical
Series, 1966), 160.
 1958 Memorandum, 5.
 1958 Memorandum, 7.
 Ibid., 8-9.
 Ibid., 9-10.
 NASA, Office Titles, Washington D.C., 11 December 1958, 1.
 William Hines Oral History Interview by author, 3.
 Paul Haney Oral History Interview, 7.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 8.
 Draft recommendation to NASA Headquarters Staff, "Dissemination of public
information to news media," Washington, D.C., 22 January 1959, 3.
 Ibid., 3.
 Memorandum from T. Keith Glennan, "Dissemination of public information to
news media," Washington, D.C., 2 February 1959.
 Walter T. Bonney, "Memorandum for the Administrator," 16 January 1959, 8.
 Grimwood, 163.
 Haney, Oral History Interview, 16.
 NASA Press Release, Seven to Enter Mercury Training Program, 7 April 1959,
 Ibid., 3.
 Haney, Oral History Interview, 12.
 Ibid., 14. The press conference is discussed at length in Chapter V.
 Walter T. Bonney, "Speech before United Press International Editors
Conference," 9 September 1960, 3.
 Memorandum for the Administrator, 1959, 1.
 These individuals are discussed in chapters 5 and 6.
 Howard Benedict, "Full-Court Press: Apollo Meets the Media," Air and Space
Magazine, June/July 1989, 82-84.
 1959 Memorandum, 3.
 This is consistent with the assignment of Powers as a Field Information
Officer at the STG. See NASA organizational chart, PIO, 29 July 1960, 1.
 Jack King, Oral History Interview, 5.
 Howard S. Benedict, interview by author, 14 February 1994, Titusville,
 1959 Memorandum, 6-7.
 Ibid., 8.
 See author, "The Life Contract and the Mercury 7 Astronauts: A Historic
Case of Media Control," pesented to the American Journlism Historians
Association, October, 1994, Roanoke, Virginia.
 Emme, 2.
 Organizational chart, 1.
 Walter T. Bonney, "Memorandum for the Administrator," 16 January 1960, 1.
 Ibid., 10.
 Richard E. Horner, "Memorandum on Reassignment of Certain Technical
Information Functions in Headquarters." 30 June 1960, 2-3.
 Speech by Walter T. Bonney, 10.
 Haney Oral History Interview, 1996, 20.
 Haney, Oral History Interview, 1992, 20-21.
 Haney, Oral History Interview, 1996, 20.
 King, Oral History Interview, 4.
 Cronkite, Oral History Interview, 3.
 Cronkite, Oral History Interview, 4.
 Alton Blakeslee, "Hurray for Capt. May, He Got the Stories Out," Editor &
Publisher 94 (May 1961): 34.
 Charles W. Corddry, "Press is the Patsy on a Challenging Job," Editor &
Publisher 94 (May 1961): 14.
 "It Isn't the Fall, It's the Quick Stop," Editor & Publisher 94 (May 1961):
 Carpenter, Oral History Interview, 3.
 Julian Scheer, interview by author, 10 August 1995, Washington, D.C.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 4.