Walter Cronkite, 1916 – 2009

By Phil Plait | July 17, 2009 8:23 pm

I’m very saddened to write that Walter Cronkite, a great journalist and wonderful reporter, has died.

I’m sure lots of people can say many things about him, but to me he was the heart of the Apollo missions. The classic moment in his lengthy career was when he was stunned speechless when the Lunar Module touched down on the Moon, and had to literally take a moment to take off his glasses and compose himself.

He was all of us, watching that moment. I hope he lived long enough to see the images of the Apollo sites returned by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter this morning.

I was too young to remember his Apollo coverage, though I’ve seen it many times on TV, but I did have one tangential encounter with him. In 2002 I got an email from Cronkite’s assistant at CBS. She told me that he had recently been in Japan and was "taken off guard" when people asked him if the landings had been faked. He hadn’t heard the Apollo deniers’ conspiracy theory! She wanted to get a copy of the awful Fox TV show about it. I had a copy, given to me by another journalist as part of a press kit. I gladly sent it to her along with a copy of my first book, which has a chapter in it debunking the hoax nonsense.

Better yet, a young girl wrote to Cronkite about the hoax, telling him her teacher at school was teaching kids the landings were faked. His assistant forwarded her letter to me, so that I could reply as well. Cronkite’s assistant also told me that he was delighted that she had directed the young girl to my website! So I guess that means he had read what I wrote, and that makes me very proud indeed.

Cronkite had a gift for making the news relevant to everyone, and he made that profound moment in 1969 more human.


Comments (43)

  1. Yes, farewell Walter Cronkite! I never had the pleasure of meeting him when I worked in TV news, I was too small town for that.

    It’s just too bad CBS had infamous anti-NASA nitwit Katie Couric announcing his passing.
    I know, I know, she sits in his old chair at CBS, but she would have us shut down NASA and spend the space budget here on Earth instead of throwing money into orbit (or some such nonsense). Phil had a link a couple years ago to a clip of her denouncing the space program.

    Makes me wanna puke that she came from UVa!

    I had her late sister Va. State Senator Emily Couric here once to shoot some video for a local non-profit. She came into the house to fix her makeup before going on camera in my chroma key set. She was wearing a red business “power suit” and my 2 daughters remembered her for years as “The lady in red.” ūüėÜ She was a class act. I hope she had some stern words about the space program’s importance for her younger sister before she passed away. Pancreatic cancer took her from us. She’s missed dearly.

  2. I am (just) old enough to remember watching the moonwalks on a small black-and-white TV propped up on a cabinet, so that everyone gathered around it could see. I was 8, and stayed up way past my bedtime. I can’t say that I remember Walter Cronkite in particular. I do remember waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and wondering why they have to spend all those hours before stepping outside.

    Too bad this means no first-hand accounts from him on the 40th anniversary. (I assume/hope he did something on previous “special” anniversaries?)

    On the lighter side, I was reading an account of the Apollo 11 mission, and it says that the LM designers forgot to include a handle on the outside of the hatch, meaning Armstrong and Aldrin had to be careful to leave to door open.

  3. Rift

    It’s sad he didn’t live to see the 40th anniversary and I also hoped he got to see the LRO pictures.

    Paused when I heard that Ed McMahan died, knew Farrah Faucet’s death was coming, wish Michael Jackson hysteria would just go away. But I actually had tears in my eyes today when I heard Walter died, I don’t do that often for celebrities. He was one of those celebrities that helped me define who i was. He really was the most trusted man in America.

    He was born here abouts. Britain has Queen’s English, we have Cronkite English. His effect on this country dwarfs Michael Jackson’s. I ‘don’t have an accent’ because of him. His mother is buried a few miles from where I’m setting right now and very curious where he will be buried…

  4. DenverAstro

    I am going to date myself here but I remember watching the news with Walter very vividly, he was the ONLY newsman my folks would watch. When I was in grade school they changed the format of his documentary series from The 20th Century to The 21st Century and he started reporting on what life would be like today from that distant 1960’s perspective. As a Science/SciFi buff, I was enthralled with that show and couldn’t wait to get older so I could go to work in a Jetsons-like flying car. Of course alot of the predictions have not come true, but alot have. And things have happened that no one then could have predicted; the Information Age, the Internet, home computers, etc.
    When I heard the news tonight about Walter, I started searching to see if that documentary series might be available on DVD. No luck so far. I would love to get it and compare their ideas with what has actually happened. What a fascinating lesson that would be for those of us that have a Roddenberry-like optimism for the future.

  5. Calli Arcale

    Acccording to JPL’s Space Calendar, Asteroid 6318 Cronkite makes its closest approach to Earth for the year tomorrow — distance of 2.372 AU, because it’s not anywhere near perihelion. Nothing to get excited about, unless you just like going “oh neat” when an asteroid with an interesting name pops up. It’s a Mars-crossing asteroid, and it is indeed named for Walter Cronkite.

    I read that this morning as I was just checking the calendar to see if anything exciting was going to happen in the next few days (apart from the big stuff like Endeavour and the Apollo 11 anniversary), and thought “oh that’s neat; he was the voice of the Moon landings in so many ways, so that’s appropriate”. And that was before the news of his passing broke.

  6. So sad. His work spanned the volatile and event filled portion of the 20th Century, from WW II to the Shuttle launches (although he retired about one month before the first Shuttle launch).

    I wasn’t a big Cronkite fan when it came to the space program. He was so over-the-top enthusiastic that space nerds like me wished he would shut up and let us listen to the NASA PR office feed. My man was Frank McGee on NBC. Where Cronkite was a chatterbox, McGee would express his enthusiasm in very reserved tones and let the experts he was interviewing explain what was happening. He would only interrupt if the expert wasn’t being clear. When the LM was about 5 minutes from touchdown, McGee said something like (I’m pulling this from 40 year old memory), “There is nothing that I can say that would add to the significance of his historic event. Let’s just listen to NASA until the landing.” By comparison, viewers on CBS didn’t even hear most of Armstrong’s words as he prepared to step off the LM onto the surface for the first time. Walter misinterpreted Neil’s hop from the ladder onto the footpad as his actually putting boots into the surface. He started repeating “Man standing on the surface of the moon!” over and over while a big white super was flashing “MAN ON THE MOON!” over and over. (I saw this on a replay while seeing how the other two networks covered it.) At least he composed himself before Armstrong actually made his first step and the famous proclamation.

    Please don’t think I’m dissing Cronkite. He was a spectacular journalist and communicator. I grew up on his “The 20th Century” broadcasts, and his science series called “The 21st Century.” No videotape then (at least not for civilians) but I have still have audiotapes of some of those shows that I made by holding the microphone up to the TV speaker! I hope they still play.

    He was of the generation of Huntley and Brinkley, of Edward R. Murrow, and others that had been tempered in war reporting and could tell what was significant and what was drivel. There’s a reason he was “the most trusted man in America.” He made sure he was right before saying anything.

    A little known piece of fallout from the Challenger disaster in ’86 was that NASA was planning to reward him for all that he had done to put a positive light on the space program over the years by making him the first member of the “Journalist in Space” program so that he could do the live-remote of his dreams. For many people, he *was* the space program. This was part of the whole PR effort that included the “Teacher in Space” program that put Christa McAuliffe aboard Challenger.

    I suppose it’s appropriate that he died in the middle of our tribute to Apollo 11. Almost like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both dying on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

    Ad Astra, Walter!

    – Jack

    PS – I hope this caps the recent spate of celebrity deaths. Concurrent with the famous people dying the past month, my extended circle of family and acquaintances have suffered no fewer than 10 people passing away since the third week of June.

  7. Kevin

    Most words fail me at this time. Of all the great news and celebrations going on (at least in our community of science/space geeks) – Apollo 11’s Anniversary, new images of the Moon from LRO showing the landing sites – the news of Walter’s death is truly a sad thing. To many of us, he and Jules Bergman were the biggest cheerleaders of the space program back in the heyday.

    RIP Walter.

  8. Oh, that is very sad! RIP Walter… that is so very sad news on the 40th Anniversary of the Moon landing he brought home and made real to so many! I don’t know the circumstances of his death, since I am just checking in for a moment, and then heading back out, but I do hope that he saw, or at least heard the news that LRO had imaged the Apollo landing sites!

  9. Molechaser

    I’m not old enough to remember any of the moon landings, but I will always remember Walter Cronkite fondly. When my family traveled to Dallas to see me married off to a good Texas girl, we decided to take an afternoon and go see the 6th Floor Museum. Riding the elevator from the entrance up to the 6th floor with us was Mr. Cronkite. As the man who broke the news of the Kennedy assassination to most of America, surely he could have seen the museum without having to mingle with the hoi polloi, but he was just another tourist, there to see the sights. Like most Americans, I appreciate actual humility in my public figures, and for all his ability, Walter Cronkite had this in spades. We are richer for having had him, poorer for having lost him.

  10. I almost feel like going to the radio station I was working at and getting the photos of my ‘news heroes’… Walter (of course), Edward R. Murrow, Lowell Thomas (whom I met a year or so before he died), and Howard K. Smith.

    There isn’t anything like having his ashes put into orbit?


  11. Grizzly

    Well, I was “almost” 11 and my parents let me stay up for most of the night to watch the fateful moments of the landing. Walter’s voice was the voice of space flight for me and had been since the first launches I remember seeing, a late Mercury flight and the Geminis.

    For a kid from Montreal watching on WCAX from Burlington VT, Walter was larger than life, but was never the news.

    I recall one day in November 1963 when I called my mother into the living room to ask why Walter Cronkite was crying. I also recall the “Go Baby Go!” at the launch of Apollo 11.

    And if I may wax political, I recall the words of your President, “If we’ve lost Walter…” with regards to the Vietnam War.

    I always wondered what one of his signature shows would have been like if they’d covered the moon landings. “Only this time, you are there…”
    Walter, I hope you went gently into that long night. Thanks for your integrity and your brilliance.

  12. Veritas

    And that’s the way it is, Friday, July 17th, 2009.

    Thank you, Mr. Cronkite. There could be no greater magnanimity than that which you possessed.

  13. yoyo

    I ran into Karl Kruszelnicki yesterday in Sydney and we spoke about your website which we both love, (apparently you have been on his show before which i’d missed) anyway he was working on the moonwalk footage at the moment like so many are. It brought back to me how big an event this was for everyone. Probably one of the very first media moments which were truly global for all humans rather than specific to one nation or culture.

    Thank you and Karl and Walter Cronkites for translating and promoting such glories of science. The enthusiasm and knowledge you bring sparks it for all of us.

  14. Watching the moon landing in Sweden, that was the voice we heard over there. I didn’t speak English at the time, but I recall that the images were fantastical, and the voice was mesmerizing.

  15. I'd_rather_be fishin'

    I remember the images of the Apollo XI and XIII missions, the communications between Capcom and the command module and the sound of Mr. Cronkite’s voice. Calm, steady and absolutely professional. An amazing, talented man.

  16. I can’t think of a better place than this site to remember Walter Cronkite, one of the greats. I was born a couple of weeks after the moon landings. (I was due on July 20, but I was a late sleeper, even then.) So my memories of Cronkite have to be from later. I saw his last nightly news broadcast in 1981. Later that year, he had a really cool science show called “Universe.” The highlight for me was watching him demonstrate how computers can transmit information. He called his West Coast office (or something) on the phone, saying, “Cronkite here… I’m ready to transmit…okay… ” Then he clunked the phone down on a little dock, and filed his story that way. Yep, the first time I ever saw an email, it was sent by one of the world’s great old school journalists.

    God speed, Walter Cronkite.

  17. ggremlin

    For me, it was the coverage of Apollo 13 where Walter Cronkite really proved himself. It seemed he was three the entire time showing with models what was happening and how they were going to get back. From explosion to splashdown.

    And no one has mentioned how he brought down a President, not Johnson, Carter, by simplify numbering days as in Day 444 of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

    “And that’s the way is was” – Walter Cronkike

  18. Chip

    Walter Cronkite was the voice of reason and insight on the newscasts I grew up with. I’ll always remember his steady voice.

  19. Zyggy

    Rest in Peace, good Sir.

    I had just had my 2nd birthday when Neil took that “giant step”, but apparently it was still a real big deal to me, even at that young age. I’m sure I didn’t understand the true significance of what they had just accomplished, but I was pretty impressed nonetheless. My Mom wrote in her journal about my questions regarding the “Men on the Moon”. Apparently I wouldn’t stop talking about it for weeks, and I guess I never really have.

    My Mom has also shown me some home movies of me sitting about 6 inches in front of a wee 12″ B/W screen watching the landing on TV that Mr Cronkite was narrating. My Dad was a bit of a geek, I come by it naturally, and he insisted on filming the moon landing coverage from the TV, WAY before VCRs.

  20. Quiet Desperation

    Never really understood why I was supposed to trust him. Never understood *any* of the hooha over news media figures. He was “there” during some major historical events. Um, OK. He broke the news of the Kennedy assassination. OK… and? Someone had to. Go back in time, convince young Walter to be an accountant, and years later someone else would have been “there” and we’d be praising him or her. Nothing against the guy, but my klaxons start sounding when the hyperbole appears. It’s pretty much autonomous at this point. I blame society. Sorry. ūüėõ

    That being said, Cronkite was a guy I’d invite to dinner at my home, unlike, say, Dan “Kenneth” Rather or Katie “Bubbly” Couric. No, on second thought, I *would* invite them because of the endless amusement to be found hurling well buttered dinner rolls at their empty heads. :-)

    I had just had my 2nd birthday when Neil took that ‚Äúgiant step‚ÄĚ, but apparently it was still a real big deal to me, even at that young age.

    I was 4, and I can actually sort of remember my parents calling me in to watch. I even recall seeing Star Trek when it was first aired.

  21. Mchl

    Sad news.

    For me, on the other side of Atlantic, Walter Cronkite is as much part of Apollo as Astronauts or Flight Directors. I have not known him in any other context than lunar landings.

  22. Mike

    My father made sure that I watched every televised launch of Gemini and Apollo. He probably had me watching Mercury as well, but I dont’ remember any of them. What I do remember is Walter Cronkite. A huge part of my youth, not only his enthusiastic support of the space program, but his nightly reports as well. One of a kind, I consider myself lucky to have been on this big ball of dirt at the same as he was.

  23. Dwight

    Vale Walter Cronkite

  24. Knurl

    “And that’s the way it is.”
    Friday, July 17, 2009.

    Damn. Just. Damn.

    I really wish he passed away late next week.

  25. red

    I was blown away by his series “The 21st Century” during the late 60’s – I avidly awaited the show on Sunday nights.

  26. robinpa

    “What kind of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times. Only, you are there”

    Rest in Peace

  27. Gary Ansorge

    So long Walt.
    HAve a nice flight.
    The stars have been
    waiting for you,,,

    Gary 7

  28. I was in the same room with him once. He came into our ready room to discuss something with one of our floor corespondents at the 19980 Republican convention in Detroit.

    For a bunch of people who were on first name basis with his peers at our network, it was a remarkably quiet group.

  29. Daffy

    If I am not mistaken, the last of the “Murrow Boys.” Truly the end of an era…very sad indeed.

  30. Stone Age Scientist

    Phil, for those unfamiliar with the broadcasts (such as I ):

  31. Jeff

    I dont mind dating myself, but I too watched Walter religiously in mainly high school. I remember all the big moments: JFK, RFK assassinations, Apollo, Nixon resigns, Vietnam. I don’t know what % of people on this blog remember this all, so maybe I’m just reminicing with a handful of people, but it was memorable stuff.

    Phil, it doesn’t seem quite fair that you weren’t old enough to remember Apollo 11.

  32. From my local paper, The New London Day:

    “”Walter Cronkite was ever the consummate newsman. More than 35 years ago, Heather Bailey, the nighttime newsroom secretary, picked up the phone and a man said, “Hello, this is Walter Cronkite.”

    Bailey, who often had to deal with prank or unusual calls, responded: “Yeah, and I’m Marilyn Monroe.”

    “No, this really is Walter Cronkite,” the voice said. “I’m out here off Fishers Island in my boat and there’s one helluva big fire on shore. I thought The Day would like to know.”

    It was Cronkite, and there was a big brush fire burning on the island.

    Several years later, reporter Garret Condon was covering an appearance by Cronkite at Mystic Seaport. Condon, dressed in Irish tweed, was asking the news anchor a question when Cronkite interrupted and said, “You’re awfully well dressed for a reporter, Garret.” “”

    I am far to young to have seen the Kennedy assassinations, or the moon landings, or Nixon, or even Vietnam live, but to me he was still one of the last of the great reporters.

  33. Paul A.

    I lived through the Cold War and always felt that if World War III started, I wanted hear about it from Cronkite.

  34. DLC

    Bah! you youngsters! I remember the whole apollo 11 mission. you couldn’t drag me away from the TV. I thought the whole thing was just so cool. It’s what got me started on reading science. We were on the blasted moon! The only thing cooler would have been if I’d been there myself.

  35. Grisha

    RIP Walter. I recently digitized some cassette tapes I made as a kid with one of those kid casette players. It was me doing my “Walter Cronkite” impression of the early space flights.

    Of course I also did my “Richard Nixon” impression.

    The space program will be for me (and many others) forever linked with Walter Cronkite, his voice, and Neil’s (and a little bit of Charlie Duke’s) were permanently etched in my 8-year old brain that summer night 40 years ago.

  36. Ted

    Am I the only one who’ll bring up the negative? He introduced a liberal bias that still infects the media today. His callous disregard for the American troops in Vietnam is simply unforgivable. How hard is it to report on the moon landing? “Apollo 11 has landed” cut to the tape. Possessing a kind, baritone voice and having the ability to both sit and read at once does not make him some amazing journalist.

  37. Lyr

    Walter Cronkite — the complete and utter opposite of anyone you’ll see on Fox News.

  38. Cronkite was truly one of the great news-men, and they are a dying breed. May he rest in peace.

  39. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    In my teens, I regretted never having the chance to meet Walt Disney in person. I also regret never having the chance to meet the last unbiased, honest reporter, Walter Cronkite.

  40. sketchy

    Yes DLC, it’s all about you. Not Mr Cronkite. Next time you land on the moon, announce it yourself.

  41. Ouch, Sketchy! That’s a little harsh! He was saying Bah! to all the youngsters who weren’t around back then, not to Uncle Walter! Heck we -ALL- think the only way it would have been cooler would have been if we ourselves were the ones on the Moon. Don’t take it so personally, eh?

  42. “Fox News had nothing to do with the Moon Hoax show. It aired on the Fox broadcast network, not on Fox News Channel. This would be like blaming MSNBC for My Mother, the Car! In fact, today the Moon Hoax show is airing yet again, this time on Tru TV–a channel owned by Turner Broadcasting, home of CNN! We reminded Mr Plait that FNC had no connection with the hoax show, but our tweet went unanswered.”
    Fox Haters Week in Review


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