Norwegians were mourning the death over the weekend of Erik Tandberg, an air force officer and rocket science engineer who explained the developing space age to generations. He was 87.
Tandberg was hailed not just for his immense knowledge of all kinds of space matters, but also for his unusual skills in sharing what he knew with various audiences, from children to reporters to fellow space buffs. He was such a frequent guest on Norway’s black-and-white TV screens of the 1960s that some viewers called him Mannen i månen (“the man in the moon”). Tandberg remained active his entire life, in a variety of jobs and roles, but always as the go-to person when space stuff needed explaining.
“His passion, detailed knowledge and ability to share it have provided priceless contributions to our common knowledge through generations,” Business and Trade Minister Iselin Nybø told newspaper VG.
Space and TV pioneer
At the dawn of the space age, which in Norway coincided with the arrival of television, Tandberg was already an experienced mechanical engineer at the forefront of the rapidly advancing jet technology field. He had also been a Norwegian swimming and water polo champion, and had won an argument with his father, who wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a businessman.
Instead, Tandberg aimed for a career in aviation. While serving as a mechanic in Norway’s air force in the early 1950s, he was sent to the US for additional training in jet mechanics. He would return to the US several times, obtaining a Master of Science degree at Stanford University in California, and later doing post-graduate studies in rocket engineering and combustion technology at Princeton University New Jersey.
By then, Tandberg had written his first articles on space technology in the media. According to Norway’s biographical encyclopedia (Norsk biografisk leksikon), he made his first TV appearance in 196o on a program about weather satellites. Soon after, he became a much-used expert commentator for Norway’s only broadcaster at the time, Norsk Rikskringkasting (NRK), teaming up with NRK’s own reporter Jan P Jansen. The pair would closely follow the intensifying space race between the US and the Soviet Union, which culminated with the moon landing on July 20, 1969 and a marathon 17-hour live broadcast hosted by Jansen and Tandberg.
Changed the TV style
While getting high marks for their teamwork, Tandberg and Jansen caused controversy by addressing each other on the air with the informal du (for “you”) instead of the formal De, which was the polite style of the time on NRK and almost everywhere else. Following complaints, the matter was elevated to the country’s powerful broadcasting council. Instead of reprimanding the two spacemen, the broadcaster’s top executive Torolf Elster ordered that it was time to try out a less formal language in NRK’s other programming, too.
Tandberg often said that he hoped he would one day see a Norwegian astronaut on a mission in space. That never happened, but he did get to meet several famous astronauts, including Jurij Gagarin, first man in space, and Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.
In Tandberg’s opinion, the 1969 moon landing was the most significant event of the 20th century. Following his death on Saturday, most commentators said it was also Tandberg’s most memorable moment. Norwegians with long memories, however, would perhaps suggest that more than a single broadcast, Tandberg’s greatest contribution was to share his expertise throughout much of his life.
By the time the moon landing occurred, Tandberg had been a fixture in the news for almost a decade, educating viewers and listeners about rocket technology, astronomical phenomena, the objectives of the US’ Apollo programme, the likely effects of space travel on the human body, and much more.
“He was the one who showed us the universe and the stars. He taught us about the sun and the moon,” science-fiction author Tor Åge Bringsværd told VG. Bringsværd and his partner author Jon Bing met Tandberg several times and recruited him to read the prologue to a 1979 TV series they wrote, Blindpassasjer (Stowaway).
At the center of space circles
Kjetil Bilic Michaelsen, manager of defense affairs at Norsk Romsenter (The Norwegian Space Agency), described Tandberg as a key figure in Norway’s space community. “He was really passionate about his field of expertise, and inspired so many people,” Michaelsen told VG. “His passion made many other people interested in science subjects and space matters.”
After leaving Norway’s air force, Tandberg worked for consulting firms Hartmark and Norconsult, and went on to be a communications officer at oil company Esso. He was a consultant at Norway’s space agency and served on several boards, including the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology, to which he donated his archives of 14 three-drawer filing cabinets. Tandberg also served on Oslo’s City council from 1969 to 1989, representing the Conservative party (Høyre).
Tandberg was knighted by King Harald V in 2007. Throughout his career, he received a multitude of awards, including one in 1969 from Norsk lytterforening (Norway’s broadcast audience association), honouring him for excellent language use in radio and television.
Tandberg was divorced and had two children. He was the father of Vibeke Tandberg, a prominent visual artist.