The “06880” tagline is “Where Westport Meets the World.”
Today, Westport went beyond. We met outer space.
Let David Pogue — our Westport neighbor/tech guru (New York Times, Yahoo, Missing Manual books)/Scientific American writer, PBS “NOVA” science and tech correspondent, and (most importantly for this story) “CBS Sunday Morning” reporter — tell the tale.
Reporting for “CBS Sunday Morning” is the best gig in TV journalism, hands down. The stories are long enough (6 to 9 minutes) to really develop them. There’s enough budget to travel, and shoot multiple interviews for each story. And you can pitch your own segment ideas.
In my 19 years as a “Sunday” correspondent, I’ve been to some exciting places and met some fantastic people. But nothing was as thrilling as making the story that aired this morning.
The idea was to report on an important milestone for the International Space Station: 20 years of continuous occupation by astronauts and scientists. Would NASA help us tell the story?
Yes, they would. They offered to make a 35-minute guided video tour of the station, conducted by Colonel Mike Hopkins and Commander Victor “Ike” Glover. And they offered me an interview with Mike and Ike, in space. A video interview. From my living room in Westport.
When I was 6 years old, my parents shook me awake one night so I could run to the TV to watch the Apollo 11 moon landing. Shortly thereafter, President Nixon, in the White House, made a phone call to Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface. That technological, improbable feat left a powerful impression on my 6-year-old self. He made a phone call to the moon?!
And here I was, about to do the same thing — but over Skype! (Yes, NASA uses Skype. Not Zoom. I’m sure they have their reasons.)
There was a lot of prep. The audio would be 2-way, but not the video. I’d be able to see Mike and Ike on the station, but they would not see me. A couple of days in advance, my producer Alan Golds and I joined NASA for a practice call.
I was determined to make the most of my 20 minutes. I didn’t want to ask questions the astronauts had heard a thousand times. I didn’t want to waste time with queries whose answers anyone could find with a quick Google search. I asked my Twitter followers for suggestions (they came up with great ones). Not so much “Is it fun to float in zero gravity?”; more like “Is there any reason to wear shoes?” and “What do you miss most from Earth?”
I didn’t sleep much the night before the shoot. I really, really wanted to nail this interview. OK, sue me—I’m a space nerd.
On the day of the shoot, CBS sent a camera crew to the house, to film my end of the conversation from 3 different angles. On the Space Station, they’d have only one fixed camera.
NASA requested that we place the Skype call a full hour before the conversation was to begin—and to place a cellphone call simultaneously, on speaker, as a backup. The interview would be limited to 20 minutes — not because that was all the time Mike and Ike could spare, but because the Space Station orbits the earth once every 90 minutes. Beyond 20 minutes, they’d be out of range of the satellite that beamed their signal back to earth.
NASA had also sent me a script as a Word document, indicating how to begin the call. Every audio or video call to Station begins with this exchange. (Yes, NASA refers to it as “Station,” not “the Station.”) Following the script ensures maximum efficiency and clarity:
Capcom: Station, this is Houston. Are you ready for the event?
Astronauts: Houston, this is Station. We are ready.
Capcom: “CBS Sunday Morning,” this is Mission Control Houston. Please call Station for a voice check.
Pogue: Station, this is David Pogue with CBS “Sunday Morning.” How do you hear me?
Station: (reports voice quality. If acceptable…) We are ready to speak with you.
Finally, at 1:25 ET, Capcom said the magic words — “Please call Station for a voice check” — and that was it. Mike and Ike appeared on my computer screen, and they began the interview.
The delay was about one second; it reminded me of making phone calls to Europe back in the day. But jokes still worked, and the conversation flowed nicely. In what seemed like a couple of minutes, it was time to wind it up.
I had just placed what must be the world’s first Westport-to-space video call. I still feel high as a kite.