Howard Benedict, AP Aerospace Writer Who Coined 'Orbit,' Dies at 77

By: (AP) Howard Benedict, who chronicled the triumphs and tragedies of America's journey into space in three decades as the award-winning aerospace writer for The Associated Press, has died. He was 77.

In his 37-year career with the AP, Benedict covered more than 2,000 missile and rocket launches, including 65 human flights from Alan Shepard's historic "Light this candle!" ride in 1961 to the 34th shuttle mission in 1990.

Benedict, who turned 77 on Saturday, died at his home in nearby Cocoa of natural causes. His body was found in bed Monday. Survivors include his wife, Joy, and two sisters. Funeral plans were incomplete.

Benedict had been ill in recent years, but that did not prevent him from continuing to work for the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which he headed for more than a decade, and writing the chapter on aviation and space exploration for an upcoming book on the history of the AP.

"Always fair and objective, his coverage became the standard for America and indeed for the world," John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, said Tuesday.

Gemini and Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, the foundation's chairman emeritus, said astronauts "have not only lost a friend, but we have lost a true champion."

"Howard's unwavering devotion and support of the foundation is a tribute to a man that will live on for years," Lovell said. "ASF is what it is today in great part to Howard and his steadfast dedication to the astronauts, their legacy, and the scientists of the future who benefited from his many years of work."

Benedict, a native of Sioux City, Iowa, joined the AP in 1953 in Salt Lake City and became head of the news cooperative's office in Cape Canaveral in 1959. Two years later, the same year Shepard became the first American in space, Benedict became the first AP reporter to be given the title "aerospace writer."

As the dean of space writing, Benedict developed terminology to explain the complex field of space travel to Americans in everyday English. For instance, he used "orbits" instead of the official "revs" or "revolutions" for circling the Earth, and introduced to the general public such early space terms as "retrofire," "multistage rockets," and "rendezvous," which referred to two spacecraft meeting in space.

All the while, colleagues recalled, he maintained a high degree of precision that made his writing accurate and readable.

It sometimes seemed that Benedict was never off duty. During a mission, he slept with a squawk box by his bed, and if Mission Control woke up the astronauts to a cowboy ballad, Benedict would show up for work whistling the tune.

With the lengthy hiatus between the Apollo and shuttle programs, Benedict transferred to Washington in 1974 and was White House correspondent for two years during Gerald Ford's presidency. He also worked as an aviation and transportation writer.

With space shuttle flights picking up, Benedict returned to Cape Canaveral in 1984 and reopened the AP's bureau at Kennedy Space Center.

Retired AP science writer Paul Recer, who covered the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and early shuttle missions with Benedict, said many of the techniques now used by space journalists came from his colleague.

"He recognized early on that if something serious happened, it was going to happen very, very swiftly and we had to know in advance what was important and to be able to respond," Recer said. "That reached the apex when Challenger blew up."

Benedict saw the accident on NASA video, and while others struggled to understand what had happened, his bulletin series provided a smooth, accurate account, careful to avoid speculation about such things as whether the astronauts could have survived.

The Challenger story earned Benedict the Associated Press Managing Editors award for AP deadline reporting in 1986, an honor he also had won in 1969 for his coverage of the Apollo moon-flight program.

Benedict wrote four books on space history, including "Moon Shot" in 1994, which he co-authored with Shepard and Deke Slayton, both Mercury astronauts now deceased, and fellow journalist Jay Barbree.

Benedict retired from the AP in 1990 to become executive director of the Mercury 7 Foundation, now the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Under his leadership, more than $2 million in college scholarships was awarded to engineering and science students.

He retired from the foundation in 1994 but continued to serve on its board of directors and committees. In fact, he helped organize an induction ceremony planned for this weekend of three more shuttle fliers into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Before joining the AP, Benedict wrote for the military newspaper Pacific Stars & Stripes in both Tokyo and Seoul in 1951, following his recall to active Army duty for the Korean War. He returned from Asia, completed his journalism education at Northwestern University in December 1952 and began working for the AP six weeks later.

In a personal account written upon his retirement from the AP in 1990, Benedict remembered how manned rockets had been a dominant part of his life.

"It started with the first one -- Alan Shepard's in 1961 -- and continued through all 64 others, as Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the space shuttle streaked across the pages of history. I have been fortunate to report on a whole new era of mankind, the Space Age, from its very onset to the present," he wrote.

He recalled that when Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon, "it didn't hit me at first. I was too busy writing. But hours later, as I stepped outside the AP office, I looked up at the moon, felt a lump and said, 'By gosh, we did it.'"

Benedict's foundation office was, appropriately, at the Astronaut Hall of Fame, right next door to Kennedy Space Center. A street at the space center news site bears his name: Howard Benedict Lane.

"It's been a fascinating ride," he concluded in his final story for the AP.


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