White Collar Reset: Miles O'Brien, space cowboy

Miles O'Brien was having a bad day. On Monday, the laid-off CNN correspondent and former host of the network's morning show found himself in the anchor chair for the live broadcast of the space shuttle launch over on SpaceFlightNow.com, which wouldn't have been a problem necessarily, except that this was the fifth attempt by the aging spacecraft to get airborne and each time it was costing O'Brien more money. The launch, originally scheduled for June 13, had been postponed ("scrubbed" in space lingo) twice due to mechanical difficulties and then twice more last weekend by thunderstorms. Six hours before each new scheduled launch time, O'Brien and co-anchor David Waters and their production team would reconvene in their makeshift outdoor booth at the Kennedy Space Center and start their count-down show . . . and go another $4,000 to $5,000 into the hole because the sponsors they'd lined up had only staked them to enough of a budget for one broadcast, not five.

Now two more storm cells were approaching, one about 20 miles to the north of the launch pad and another about 10 miles to the south. O'Brien held the weather monitor (actually his laptop, logged onto the National Weather Service's website) on his knee, trying to hold it at such an angle that the show's lone cameraman could zoom in on what O'Brien was pointing at without the view being obscured by sun's glare bouncing off the screen. "Arggh . . . and we just went red. I'm getting word we just went red again," he informed his viewers, using the space jargon for another-five-grand-down-the-tubes.

Today, 40 years minus one day from the launch of the first manned mission to the moon, O'Brien will go for lucky number six. You should definitely check it out (the broadcast starts at 2:30 EDT). Will Miles O'Brien make it out of Central Florida without losing shirt? may not have quite the same historic heft as One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind, but it's at least as suspenseful as The Most Awesome Rednecks video that currently has 261,394 views on YouTube. And, besides, I happen to know O'Brien would appreciate the support.

"The irony is, the audience keeps building every time we get scrubbed," he says, with a laugh. "We had 70,000 viewers on Sunday. Next time, we just need to make sure to put in a scrub clause with our advertisers. I guess that's what you get for breaking in a new medium. School of hard knocks, as they say."

Before you feel too sorry for O'Brien, I should probably point out that when CNN eliminated his division and sent him packing, at age 49, last December, he was just one year into a three-year ironclad contract, effectively leaving him with two years of severance at full salary. While that salary wasn't quite in the same stratosphere as the one he'd earned as morning anchor, needless to say he's in a different situation than most of the mid-career white-collar workers usually featured in this column.

In some ways, though, that makes him all the more interesting. He's like one of those experiments they perform on the International Space Station to see how this or that organism or bodily function will behave in a zero gravity environment. How would a top-flight old-media talent with two children approaching college age choose to press his career reset button if he had no worries about money for the next two years? Would he try to scare up work in his previous industry to capitalize on the five to ten years of peak earning potential he has left? Would he trade in his journalistic credibility and contacts and join the corporate world? Would he grow a beard and float aimlessly in space?

Interestingly, aside from a passing interest in the beard thing, the main thing he's chosen to do, at least for now, is what you see on SpaceFlightNow.

"I've been looking at all the options," he says. "I've talked to Discovery about some projects. I just signed a deal to do a Frontline for PBS on aviation safety. I talked to a major corporation about being their director of communications, which probably would have been the smart thing because on the one hand I'm sure these two years will be up before I know it. But ultimately I decided I'm having too much fun doing all these independent projects and working on SpaceFlightNow. I'm certainly learning a lot and it sure feels like the direction broadcast is headed."

The website, founded by a Brit named Steven Young, makes most of its money off banner advertising and selling high-def NASA footage (space porn, basically) to buffs of all ages for viewing on their home theater systems. O'Brien is splitting the revenue (and occasional financial bloodbaths) on the live shuttle broadcasts, which have essentially become his personal laboratory for working out the bugs in streaming technology and becoming a network of one. "It got to the point where CNN just didn't think people cared about the subject I was best known for. They'd shrink the shuttle coverage down to two minutes. I was basically there in case it blew up. So it's really kind of amazing now, we go live, people start Twittering and Facebooking, and suddenly there are thirty, forty thousand people from all over the world tuning in really interested in what we have to say."

No doubt many of them will be watching today. The forecast calls for partly sunny skies with a 40 percent chance for afternoon and evening thunderstorms. Will he make it?

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