After the moon launch, then what?

Things were strange after the Apollo 11 launch. It actually began before the launch, when aerospace companies started laying off people. We had accomplished our mission, so the rocket scientists were no longer needed.

The question is: What does a “rocket scientist” do when there is no more need for rocket scientists?

All of their education and training, and all of their work experience, was in rocket science and engineering.

A lot of them opened restaurants. Everybody has to eat, right? So surely that is a good business.

It is also a difficult business, especially if there is a lot of competition.

And there was a lot of competition:

The director of the Brevard County Health Department told me that they had more requests for inspections of new restaurants in the year after the moon landing than they’d had in the entire history of the Brevard County Health Department before that. Most of those restaurants failed.

Others bought service stations, but they had no experience or training in running a small business, and most of them soon gave it up.

There were a lot of suicides, which we seldom covered in the newspaper.

For years Brevard County had been one of the most stressful places in the United States, with more alcoholism and a higher divorce rate than anywhere else in the nation.

The aerospace industry contributed to the stress: To save money, the aerospace companies would lay people off just before they were eligible for benefits.

That happened to me when the Gemini program came to an end. I had worked for Martin Marietta Corporation for nine months, and during that time – in addition to being paid more than my work was worth – I had accumulated almost a full month of vacation time and another month of sick leave. I didn’t have another newspaper job yet – I wanted to stay in Brevard County – and I figured I would have a couple of months extra pay to tide me over.

That didn’t happen. Arch explained that in order to be “vested” I had to have been employed there for a full year.

A lot of people already knew about that: They would work for an aerospace company for almost a year, then get laid off and hired by another company a few weeks later. No vacation pay, no compensation for unused sick leave, no retirement benefits. Just the stress of looking for and then starting a new job every few months.

Not newsworthy any more

The whole world watched on television as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. To me, it is still the greatest achievement in the history of the world.

But after that, people lost interest in the space program. We had already been to the moon, and as the old saying goes: Nothing is older than yesterday’s news.

While reporters and photographers and dignitaries from all over the world attended the Apollo 11 launch, nobody came to watch Apollo 12 take off on its visit to the moon.

Well, not “nobody,” but very few came to cover it, and it received very little press.

So prior to the Apollo 13 launch, NASA got our attention by launching an Air Force rocket at night without announcing it ahead of time.

Nothing will get a reporter’s attention faster than acting like you are trying to keep a secret – to do something without letting the news media find out.

So the Apollo 13 launch was better attended than Apollo 12, but far short of Apollo 11.

And then there was Apollo 13’s well documented “problem” that almost killed the three astronauts. If you are not familiar with it, then watch the outstanding Apollo 13 movie.

That was not a manufactured problem, it was real, and it reminded everybody that space flight was serious business and we needed to pay attention. There was no shortage of news coverage after that.

We had new editors at the Melbourne Times and they decided we should all go to Kennedy Space Center for the launch of Apollo 14. Our assignment:

Get a story that nobody else has.

Sure, nothing to it: Find a story that a thousand other hungry reporters missed.

I took a black and white picture when the countdown clock reached zero.

There was nothing exciting about that picture, but it brought some symmetry to my Apollo photos. I had that tragic photo of Apollo 1 on the launch pad and then the launch of Apollo 4. Then picking up at Apollo 8, I photographed every third launch: 8, 11, 14, and finally 17.

Apollo 14 Liftoff
Apollo 14 at the moment of Liftoff

While at Kennedy Space Center for the Apollo 14 launch I met a Life magazine photographer who was using a dozen or so cameras to take a whole series of pictures all by himself.

As I recall, he had 3 tripods, each with multiple cameras attached to a horizontal bar that was mounted onto the top of the tripod. He also had three foot switches to so he could trip the shutters remotely, and he had another camera mounted on a NASA photo platform that was there to shoot film of the rocket when it was launched for as long as it was in sight. There was a tracking sensor on the platform to keep the camera centered on the rocket’s exhaust. If it blew up, they would have pictures of it.

The Life photographer had done what I did for Apollo 11 and exposed some film ahead of time, only he took pictures of the 3 astronauts: Alan Shepard, Stuart Roosa, and Ed Mitchell. He had done them in both black and white and in color, and had cameras loaded and ready to superimpose the rocket launch onto the film after the rocket had cleared the launch tower. Those cameras were on one tripod so he could start taking pictures with them after the rocket cleared the launch tower.

He had other cameras, some with black and white film and others with color, to shoot tight shots of the rocket, wide shots, and who knows what else, as they left the launch pad.

What I found interesting was a sketch artist who noticed the camera setup, and sat down on the ground and started drawing it on his sketch pad.

I found an angle where I could have the sketch artist, the Life cameras, and the rocket that the cameras were pointed at all in the photo.

There were a lot of people at the press site, walking around, waiting for the launch, so I had to wait until nobody was in the way and then take my picture. I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I am accustomed to it. When necessary, I keep both eyes open so I can see what is going on outside of the viewfinder.

Eventually the crowd cleared and the only person I saw off to the side was the young Life magazine photographer walking back towards his cameras, so I went ahead and tripped the shutter.

The Life photographer heard it – we photographers are very familiar with that sound and it gets our attention. As soon as he heard it, he started apologizing to me:

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to step in front of you,” he said, and I replied, “You didn’t, I had both eyes open, I saw you coming and I took the picture before you got into the frame.”

“I’m sorry,” he said again, “I’d never do that to another photographer.” And I replied again, “You didn’t, I saw you coming. I had both eyes open.”

I think I finally convinced him. He was a very nice guy. Life magazine photographers were the best news photographers in the world. There might be others as good, but none better. I was impressed that he was so humble and so concerned about somebody he didn’t even know.

I wonder if that episode qualifies as a story that nobody else had. Perhaps, but nobody would be interested except other photographers.

It was an interesting day, but other than my brief encounter with Life magazine – which is always fun for an old news photog – the day was pretty uneventful.

From Dawn to Dusk of the Apollo Program

The mighty Saturn 5 rocket had first roared to life at dawn on a on a bright and clear Thursday morning in 1967. Now it was scheduled to blast off on its final journey into space five years later on a damp and cloudy Wednesday night in December of 1972. Continue to the story...