Apollo 11

There are plenty of photos of the Apollo 11 launch, and many of them are higher image quality than mine. If I had been using a Nikon instead of a Pentax, then Nikon would have loaned me a big lens for the shoot. They were happy to loan equipment to press photographers, because then they could brag about all the moon launch photos that were made with Nikon gear.

But I was on my own, and I wanted to do something different.

Arch Smith had a theory that a good amateur photographer could always take better pictures than a professional.

I was a good example of that on this assignment – mainly because it wasn’t an “assignment.” I did not have to come back with a photo, so I was free to experiment and take chances. If I came back empty handed, nobody would know but me.

My first challenge was coming up with an idea that I hadn’t seen before. An obvious idea would be to include both the Apollo 11 rocket and the moon in the same picture. And to do it in-camera, not in the dark room.

Even today when I do an Internet search for “photo of apollo 11 rocket and the moon” and “photo of apollo 11 launch and the moon” I don’t find any pictures like that. So maybe my double-exposure photos are the only ones in existence.

However, Life magazine had a similar idea: They took a picture of the three astronauts ahead of time, and then double exposed that with the rocket launch. I think they might have done that for both Apollo 11 and Apollo 14, because I met a very nice Life magazine photographer during the Apollo 14 launch who was taking pictures with about a dozen cameras at once, including the multiple exposures in both black and white and color.

The first two problems I needed to solve were where to find lenses suitable for my purpose.

Sterling Hawk at Sterling’s Photography had the solution for a lens that was long enough to photograph the liftoff from 2 miles away. That’s how far it was from the launch pad to the very front edge of the press site.

Sterling had a 500mm mirror lens. By using mirrors, like with a telescope, the lens would be far less than 500mm long. It would be easier to handle than a longer lens. But it did lose some sharpness. Regardless, it was the only option I had, and it would definitely do the job. The image of the rocket is 3/4 of an inch tall (18mm) on the 1-inch-tall 35mm film.

But Sterling didn’t have a lens long enough to give me an image of the moon that was at least 3/4 inch tall.

While talking about it, someone told me they knew someone who had a brother who had a big telescope in his back yard, so I tracked him down and he was kind enough to let me use his telescope to photograph the moon a couple of weeks before the launch.

I marked the film before I loaded it into the camera so that I could take it out, and then reload it exactly the same so I could make the second exposure on the same frames two weeks later.

But how do you take a picture through a telescope?

I had time to think about it as I stood in his backyard watching and waiting for the moon to rise above the trees so I could get a clear shot of it.

I got a little nervous as a police car drove down the street. I was a police reporter so I knew most of the officers, but what if it was an officer who didn’t like something I had written about him or the department. But he kept going, so I went back to my moon gazing.

The telescope was huge, and was mounted on a pedestal. It had a mirror that reflected the light back and gave it a focal length far greater than the length of the physical barrel. It had a removable eyepiece in the side of the barrel.

I put the lens of the Pentax against the eyepiece and took a look through the viewfinder. That didn’t work.

I took the lens off the camera and tried using the eyepiece as the lens. I don’t think that worked either. Well, that was 50 years ago and it was the only time I ever took a picture through a telescope, so forgive me if my memory is a little fuzzy.

I think I ended up removing the eyepiece – partially dismantling the man’s telescope – and just holding the camera up to the hole in the side of the telescope and letting the mirrors reflect the image of the moon onto the film. It looked good in the viewfinder.

With that problem solved, I started working on the next challenge: What exposure do you use when taking a picture through a telescope?

Fortunately the Pentax had a nice through-the-lens exposure meter.

Unfortunately, the needle that indicated how much light was going to the film was on the edge of the viewfinder. The was a problem because the only light was the round image of the moon itself in the center of the viewfinder. It didn’t illuminate the exposure needle.

I could move the camera so that the moon was on the edge of the frame and lit the area where the needle was, but that didn’t give me an accurate reading: The exposure meter is “center-weighted,” which means it got most of the reading from the center of the frame.

I could see the needle dropping as I moved the camera towards where I could see the needle.

In other words, I couldn’t get an accurate reading.

So I guessed.

That wasn’t the only thing I guessed at.

I had guessed that it would be better to take the picture either before or after the full moon. That way, I reasoned, the slight shadow on the edge of the moon would provide a little depth – some dimension – instead of just a bright disk. That seems to have worked.

I skipped the first couple of frames, so that I would be able to take pictures of the rocket alone as it began to lift off the launch pad. It took almost eight seconds for the rocket to clear the launch tower, so that gave me plenty of time to expose a couple of frames.

After it cleared the tower, then there would only be blue sky behind the rocket, the conditions I needed for the double-exposures with the moon.

I was also guessing what it would be like to take the pictures. I was using a lens that was built like a telescope to take pictures of the launch. I had never used a telephoto lens that long, and I had never even been to the press site at Kennedy Space Center for a launch, much less taken a picture of a launch from just two miles away.

I alternated, exposing a couple of frames of the moon, then leaving a couple of blank frames that would only show the rocket. Then more frames of the moon, followed by more frames with the moon.

Boy oh boy was I in for some surprises.

First was the sound. The rocket is big enough to shake the ground 30 miles away in Melbourne. It is a deep rumbling sound.

Across the river on U.S. 1 it is the same kind of sound, but louder.

It is not that way at the press site: It sounds and feels like an explosion! Not a problem though. I was a little startled by the sudden intense sound, but I got my shots off.

Then after waiting patiently for the rocket to clear the launch tower, I thought I would have plenty of time to expose the next 34 frames.

Not so. Once that big bird gets moving, it flies fast. Very fast.

I had the camera on a tripod, and had the tripod adjusted to its lowest setting. Things tend to look bigger when you shoot from a low angle, close to the ground. That is great when you are photographing athletes from the sidelines, but when you are taking pictures of a giant rocket from 2 miles away, it doesn’t make any difference in the picture.

But it sure made a difference in shooting the pictures. The rocket began to accelerate so fast that I could barely keep up with it. I was snapping pictures and winding the film as fast as I could, and kept rotating the camera back on the tripod, pointing it higher and higher until I felt like I was about to fall on my back.

Before I had finished the roll of film, I knew the rocket was too far away for the pictures to be of any value, but I kept shooting anyway.

The pictures came out the way I expected. Nothing spectacular, but I had photographs of the most historic event of my lifetime.

Apollo 11 the journey begins
Apollo 11 the journey begins
Apollo 11 on the way
Apollo 11 on the way
Apollo 11 aims for the moon
Apollo 11 aims for the moon

I was just one of what seemed like a million photographers at the press site that morning. I knew my photos of the rocket blasting off the launch pad wouldn’t be anything special, but my double-exposure photos with the moon seem to be unique.

Here is a NASA photo showing part of the scene at the press site that day. I was part of the crowd way up at the very front, as close as they would let us get to the rocket. In this photo the rocket is just clearing the launch tower, about eight seconds into the flight. Another 10 seconds or so later it was like craning your neck to look up at the ceiling.

NASA press site for Apollo II launch
NASA press site for Apollo II launch

Would we miss the moment?

Now that I had my pictures of the launch, I was ready to take the picture I really wanted: An astronaut stepping onto the surface of the moon.

Apollo 11 arrived at the moon right on schedule. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin climbed into the Lunar Lander while Michael Collins waited behind in the Apollo 11 spacecraft.

Then there was the exciting descent to the surface of the moon, when Armstrong had to take over control and fly the Lander manually in order to maneuver to a smooth landing spot.

Nobody on earth knew what was happening during those long moments, until Armstrong got back on the radio and said those famous words: “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”

It was the perfect phrase: The first words – “Tranquility Base” – meant they had landed. The rest of the phrase was confirmation.

Then they began their preparation to open the hatch and climb down the ladder to the surface of the moon.

A small group of us were poised around my old twenty dollar black and white television set at the same time, making our preparations. I had the 4x5 press camera on a tripod, loaded with Polaroid 4x5 professional sheet film, and a young boy sitting in front of the camera, watching the television.

Finally the big moment arrived. Neil Armstrong had emerged through the door of the Lunar Lander and was standing on the top step, just moments away from taking the first historic step onto the surface of the moon.

We were watching and waiting to see the most historic event of our lifetime – perhaps of all time – when we heard a screech! and a crash! outside.

Some idiot had driven down South Tropical Trail too fast and wrecked his car in my front yard! It happened occasionally. There is a little jog in front of the house that catches drivers by surprise and they hit one of the palm trees.

My best friend Bill was there. He is a first responder, a volunteer fire fighter and ambulance attendant, and I have seen him risk his own life to go to the aid of others.

But this time we sat and looked at each other, undecided about whether to stay and photograph history, or go check on the idiot in my front yard. If he is that dumb, we wondered, to get drunk and wreck his car at a moment like this, then are we actually doing the world a favor by saving his life?

But of course we knew we had to go check on him.

As we started to get up we heard a woomp! woomp! woomp! and chug! chug! chug! sounds of an automobile engine turning over, then it caught and started to run. The chug! chug! chug! was accompanied by the clank! clank! clank! of what sounded like a fan blade hitting metal, probably the radiator.

So Bill and I waited to see what would happen next.

Sure enough, we heard a ker-klunk! as he put it into gear, and then some scraping and squealing and clanking and thumping sounds as the car pulled away and continued down South Tropical Trail. Away from my front yard.

Now that the driver was gone and there was nothing we could do for him, we sat down and turned our attention back to the television set.

I got behind the camera with my finger on the shutter and when Armstrong jumped onto the surface of the moon and they flashed the words “Armstrong on Moon” I tripped the shutter and we had captured history on a sheet of Polaroid film.

I had traveled up to Kennedy Space Center – which was originally called MILA – Merritt Island Launch Area – at the north end of Merritt Island, and had taken a picture of the rocket as it began its journey to the moon.

Now I was in my home on the south end of that very same island – Merritt Island – taking a picture of a young boy watching as a human being stepped onto the lunar surface for the very first time.

It was very satisfying.

Neil Armstrong on the Moon
Neil Armstrong on the Moon

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? Continue...