it's about life - not "lifestyle
The blazing return to Earth of the Russian space station Mir was the big story on March 22, 2001. It was the end of a space mission which extended to three times its intended length due to the surprising hardiness of the hardware and the ingenuity of the men and women managing the program. It traveled some 86,000 orbits of the planet and played host to dozens of astronauts. At any given time in the past fifteen years there probably has been at least two people in space. It was the embodiment of the early dreams of spaceflight.

That is what made what ended up being the absolutely abysmal coverage of the re-entry all the more disappointing. Like many people, I followed the developments throughout the day and into the evening. A safe return to earth in this case meant the sky raining  debris from the total destruction of the space station without the loss of human life on the ground or high seas.

CNN seemed to be the one U.S. news entity that cared, and they had put together an excellent and educational "countdown" program. I channel surfed around to see if anybody else was carrying it, but apparently the Big Three broadcast networks felt their West Coast primetime schedules were of the highest priority. No doubt they had people standing by in case of cataclysm - the only surefire  trump card to the prime time gibberish.

I myself even skipped my favorite hour of walking, talking tank tops. I'll have to catch that episode of "Charmed" in reruns...

CNN had a screen on which we could track the Mir altitude and an animation setup which roughly showed where Mir was over the globe. As one of the background experts talked I watched the altitude zero out and basically knew that Mir was no more. The CNN reporter went to the graphic guy and asked him to verify, and he said something to the effect that Mir was history "as far as we're concerned".

The deed was done, a technological marvel finished off safely in what I think everyone would agree was a superb, complicated, technical undertaking... a spaceship basically crashing and burning back to earth over Russia, Japan, and South Pacific Islands like Fiji with no problems. It was truly a marvel, and
not one single television news outlet could get a live picture of it or any timely pictures at all!

I was almost speechless when I realized that the show was over. CNN either had a reporter in Fiji or one of their reporters had gone there to check it out on his own - I really don't know which - and he phoned in a breathless report of watching several pieces of Mir passing overhead and later the following sonic booms. This was absolutely the highlight of the coverage of the event, and I believe he also is the reporter who took the snippet of video which I saw on the morning after.

This brings me back to the moment, though. How could no television news outlet be able to offer live video coverage of the Mir fly/burnover? This is incomprehensible to me and it made me furious at the time. The Russians did exactly what they said they would, where they said they would, and when they said they would. This was all planned (if not known for sure it would work) days earlier. There were no surprises. Yet none of the big tv news groups could get one camera crew in the path in Japan, Okinawa, or Fiji with the needed equipment to put images up live or shortly thereafter? Certainly no mention was made on CNN about having such crews in place, and of course the others were committed to their lineups of laugh-your-ass-off comedies.

I'll give CNN full credit for being the only ones to cover it at all in any meaningful way, but past that for them and for all the rest of the so-called news organizations I have to say
this was at best a total failure of vision. It was "The Wrong Stuff" incarnate. With all the technology available today I will not accept the notion that it couldn't be done.

In either 1986 or 1987 I was writing a magazine cover story on surf spots around the world, and one of the places the editors wanted to feature was a famous surf camp located on a very small island off Nandi, Fiji. They had a phone number for me to call to get information, but beyond that I was on my own. I punched the numbers in, heard a couple of rings, and a woman answered in a pleasant voice with the name of the surf camp. For some reason I was thinking that maybe this was an office handling bookings or something, but to my surprise I was actually talking to someone right on this island. I had to ask how they could have phone service out there, and she said my call went to Viti Levu on the Fijiian mainland and was routed out there by radio (something to that effect). She sounded like she was calling from the next room. And that was 1987.

Now we are in 2001 and appear to be experiencing a real space oddity. A Big Three network has already broadcast live from the top of Mount Everest. War correspondents can do their thing live under missle attack. Companies can provide live streaming video of surf contests in Hawaii to the internet. I can even check the surf live at beaches all over the world at any time online...

But no news groups could put on live or semi-live pictures of the Mir debris zooming over Fiji in the middle of the Fijiian afternoon. How impressive.
I bet any nethead with a couple of years of experience could have put something online in real or nearly real time for $5000 total - including equipment, software, and all travel expenses.

Bad form.

Nels Norene

Copyright (C) 2001. All rights reserved.
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