A Moment of Silence, Then a Lot of Fast Typing: Legendary Reporter Remembers the Moon Walk

4 min
David Perlman at his desk at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he spent 77 years in the news business. (Craig Miller/KQED)

It’s true David Perlman is 100 years old, an impressive age for any human being.

But that’s not the most distinguishing thing about the man.

I met him eight years ago in the media room at a science conference. Even among the accomplished wordsmiths of the international press corps, he was a legend.

During a recent visit to his San Francisco home, I renewed our acquaintance.

"What's all this about?" he asks me.

Well, 50 years ago, he was at Mission Control in Houston when men walked on the moon. What was it like?

Perlman was covering arguably the most momentous event in human history for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he retired as science editor two year ago. He’d worked for the paper since 1940, when he’d landed a job as copy boy. In 2014, Perlman told KQED’s Craig Miller he caught the journalism bug after seeing the 1931 film “The Front Page.” The film described newspaper reporters as “seedy, catatonic Paul Reveres, full of strange oaths and a touch of childhood,” Perlman said. “I wanted to be like that.”

Sponsored

Since then, he’s lived through the dawn of the atomic, space and computer ages. He still recalls details of stories he reported 40 years ago better than many of us can remember the events of last week.

Craig Miller described Perlman's corner cubicle at the Chronicle as resembling “an archaeological dig.” But his home is quite tidy, though he is still surrounded by books, magazines and newspapers. Perlman stays on top of the news cycle even though he no longer has a hand in shaping it.

Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. (NASA)

For some time, Perlman says, he was the only Chronicle reporter covering science. In the summer of 1969, he was reporting on a medical conference in New York when the police raided a gay bar in Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn, an incident that sparked the modern gay rights movement.

He switched gears and filed his story, then hopped on a plane to Houston. But he hadn’t booked a hotel, so the managing editor of The Washington Post let him stay in one of the rooms it had reserved for its own reporters.

"So at least I had a place to sleep," Perlman says.

In Houston, he worked alongside a hundred or so reporters from around the country. Normally an unimpressed bunch, the press corps were for those few days electrified.

"At that time it was one of the most thrilling episodes any reporter could have expected in his life," Perlman says.

Within the enormous press area, in a building across a highway from the control room, reporters watched the action on large screens.

Loading

"I remember there was a moment of silence when the two guys climbed out of the spacecraft and actually set foot on the moon," Perlman said. "And we typed our stories as fast as we could."

Larger media, such as the The New York Times and the Post, had sections of the room to themselves, set up like minibureaus. They also had the luxury of teletype machines, devices that could send text over a phone line.

"Reporters like me, all by ourselves, had a desk and that was all,” Perlman says. “But the desk had a typewriter."

Western Union clerks walked up and down the aisles. Perlman typed a few paragraphs at a time, put his newspaper's name at the top, and filed his story in sections by telegraph.

On July 21, 1969, the Chronicle ran Perlman’s front-page article on the scientific observations that were already pouring in. Perlman’s lead reads:

Two men and a spaceship began to re-write the science of the solar system last night. Within minutes of their landing on the moon, in an exploration televised for all the earth to watch, they found unexpected rocks, collected uncontaminated nuclear particles frim the sun and examined craters of curious shapes and sizes. The rocks may well prove the existence of volcanic activity. Perhaps eons ago, perhaps very recently.

Subsequent missions have confirmed the moon’s  history of volcanic activity.

How long did it take to file this story about such a momentous event?

"A hell of a short time. I dunno, 20 minutes? You know, deadlines are deadlines."

And what was it like to be part of a day humans will probably still pay homage to in a thousand years, assuming we're around? At the time, Perlman didn't think that way.

"I guess that's because there wasn't a lot of poetry in me,” he says. “I was covering a damn story! The important thing was to meet a deadline. Not to think about the implications in mankind’s quest for knowledge."

After the moon landing, he wrote about virtually every planetary mission and discovery humans have made.

"It’s only much later that I’ve had a chance to stop and think, golly I was really part of a period of exploration that isn’t going to happen again until we go beyond the solar system and look at what is out there beyond.

"It’s only when people like you ask me a question that I stop and think a little poetically maybe about being part of human exploration of the unknown."

Volume
KQED Live
Live Stream
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
Live Stream information currently unavailable.
Share
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
KQED Live

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.