It was the late 1950s and the nation embraced a race to space fueled by the Cold War. Journalist Mark Bloom wasn’t yet 30 years-old. But he would chase the story long after Apollo 11 landed and men took their first steps on the moon.
“I was in the right place at the right time, actually throughout my career,” says Bloom. “Of course you have to know what you’re doing when you get there.”
The recently transplanted New Yorker recounts the space race from his shaded back porch in Charleston. It’s muggy: brow beading, shirt soaking, stiflingly muggy. A hum of downtown construction and buzzing insects accompany the conversation. Bloom starts from the beginning, breaking only briefly to take long sips of water.
He was a general assignment reporter for Reuters, covering everything from the invasion of the Beatles to President Lyndon Johnson’s gall bladder surgery, when Bloom got the assignment to cover NASA’s rapidly expanding space program. He knew nothing about space or science. But like any good reporter, he was about to learn, quickly.
It was early March 1965 and the two man Gemini missions were about to get underway. NASA’s second human spaceflight program flew low Earth orbit missions; developing space travel techniques; perfecting work outside the spacecraft; and pioneering orbital maneuvers to rendezvous and dock in space.
“The steps that we took to actually be able to land on the moon were being perfected,” says Bloom. “It showed we were back in the space race.”
That meant the news race was on as well. While Gemini prepared astronauts to land on the moon, Bloom landed a gig at the New York Daily News. The paper needed a second science writer if it was going to compete in covering the race to space.
“They were paying for me for all of this and I was having a wonderful time,” Bloom says.
But Bloom began to notice some of his fellow reporters covering NASA were quite cynical, peppering officials with curt questions. At first, he wasn’t sure why. Then three astronauts were killed in a countdown fire at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Apollo 1 was scheduled to launch February 21, 1967 as part of the first program to land men on the moon. But it never flew. A cabin fire during launch rehearsal claimed the lives of all three crew members; Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger Chaffee.
“NASA wanted us to be on their side,” says Bloom. “We were to be the cheerleaders.”
But Bloom says the press viewed their role differently.
“We the American tax payer are paying you NASA $24 billion to get us to the moon. So we’re looking not only for the things you do right, but the things you do wrong.”
Bloom covered the congressional hearings following the fire. Its cause was determined to be electrical, with the flames spreading rapidly because of combustible nylon material and a high pressure of pure oxygen in the cabin.
Bloom says NASA basically rebuilt a new spacecraft to get back on track after the fire, changing the oxygen levels and stripping anything flammable: including a product popular today that was used to tack items in place in zero gravity.
"At one point Velcro became the pacing item to get us to the moon," he says with a smile.
The life-long, 80 year-old journalist remembers most of the Apollo missions in great detail, as well as the names of his colleagues and competition in the news world. Bloom says hundreds of journalists packed the press room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for Apollo 11. 50 years later, he still gets chills talking about that day: the day men, or as his headline read “man”, landed on the moon. It was July 20th, 1969.
“I never in a million years thought we would succeed on the first try,” he says.
The once rookie space journalist had honed his cynical side. Bloom says he wrote thousands of words that day, and even more when the astronauts decided to take their first steps outside.
Back then, there was no social media, cell phones or laptops. Bloom was armed only with portable typewriter, a rotary dial phone and western union.
He remembers debating his managing editor when writing an article about what it all meant. Bloom’s boss thought for the first time we were no longer earth centric. Bloom’s take: less cosmic and more practical.
“What it meant to me was if we spent $24 billion on a technicalogic achievement we can succeed.”
Bloom continued to cover the Apollo program but there just wasn’t the same interest. He says NASA blamed the media. He believes the real mission had already been accomplished.
“We went to the moon to beat the Russians.”
By the time he was 30 years-old, Bloom had covered arguably the biggest story of life. Now what?
“It really wasn’t because the greatest story of your life, the best story of your life, is the one you’re working on right now.” In other words, you’re only as good as your last story: spoken like a true journalist.
Following his days covering aerospace, Bloom turned to medical writing and editing. He reports for such publications as Medical World News and Physicians Weekly.
Bloom also can be heard in the upcoming three part American Experience documentary “Chasing the Moon” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. It airs on SCETV July 8, July 9 and July 10 at 9 p.m.