MSNBC's Barbree, CNN's O'Brien report on tragedy

As the story of the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia unfolded early Feb. 1, the two top-rated news nets for the day relied not on their high-profile anchors but a pair of well-connected spacephiles.

While Tom Brokaw was on vacation snorkeling, NBC vet Jay Barbree broke the shuttle news for MSNBC after sensing something was wrong when Columbia didn’t respond to dispatches upon re-entry around 9 a.m. The 45-year net vet was on “The Today Show” at 9:13 with the news.

“It was like a kick in the gut,” says Barbree, who has covered every manned flight since 1961. “It was Challenger all over again.”

Over at CNN, where anchor Aaron Brown was out of the mix due to a celebrity golf tournament in California, Miles O’Brien had his morning-show producer in one ear and NASA’s feed in the other.

A science reporter at the net for the past decade and a pilot with hundreds of hours of flight time under his belt, O’Brien stepped up as the tragedy unfolded.

“We were in the middle of getting our affiliates to get some pretty shots,” the cable newsy’s anchor and space correspondent says. “It wasn’t so beautiful.”

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