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.

It should have been the easiest picture to take, but it turned out to be very eventful. After the shoot I was disappointed and depressed and wondering how I could have done so poorly.

But when I finally got the picture developed a few weeks later I was dumbfounded and ecstatic and wondering how I ever snapped such a spectacular picture.

In the end, this final Apollo launch photo turned out pretty good, to say the least.

I was working for a different newspaper. In the summer of 1971 the Orlando Sentinel had hired me to be their Melbourne bureau chief. They had specialists who covered the space program, and they weren’t interested in anything I had to say about it. So I sat out the Apollo 15 and 16 launches and spent my spare time covering the local stock car races.

But Apollo 17 was different: It was the last manned flight to the moon, my last chance to photograph a manned moon launch, and it was the only Apollo mission to take off at night. I couldn’t pass all that up.

It didn’t pose the same problem as the daytime launches of finding a way to reduce the amount of light painting the film, but I still had the challenge of what exposure to use. As far as I know, nobody had ever done this before, so all I could do was make an educated guess. And my education in this area was pretty limited.

My previous experiences had taught me exactly where the launch would come from and exactly what direction the rocket would go. The experience I’d had more than 6 years earlier when I posed our secretary Annie too far to the right for my first time exposure missile launch photo turned out to be a valuable lesson. It helped me get the composition right for the Apollo 8 launch photo from the old Mather’s Bridge fish camp, and the additional experience of that photo gave me confidence that I knew exactly where to point the camera for this final moon shot.

But I still needed something else in the picture besides the streak from the rocket’s exhaust.

I decided to shoot the picture from the remains of the old Canova Pier that jutted out into the Atlantic Ocean just off the east end of the Eau Gallie Causeway. The contrast of a relic of early 20th century Florida with the technology of a moon launch would make a nice contrast.

Canova Pier Eau Gallie Florida
Canova Pier Eau Gallie Florida

All that I would need to do is to set up my cameras at the right distance from the remains of the old pier, and then figure out how to get enough light on the pier so that it would be visible against the dark sky.

A night of indecision

Those two things turned out to be much more challenging than I expected.

There were several delays in the countdown, with rain accompanying each delay.

It seemed like Apollo was desperately clinging to life, realizing that once they lit his fuse, he would take flight for the very last time, and would never fly again.

Those delays and the rain were a blessing as far as the composition was concerned:

Each time it began to rain, I took my cameras underneath the pier to keep them – and me – dry.

Then when the rain stopped I came back out, walked back to my previous spot south of the Pier – and decided I needed to back off even farther.

I did that same dance several times, each time moving farther and farther back from the pier.

Judging from the results, I guess I finally got it right.

I only had a small flashgun with me. My plan was to walk up close to the pier, after I had opened the shutters, and fire the flash at the pier as many times as I could during the 60 second exposure. People had gathered north of the pier to watch the launch, but I thought they were too far away for the light to reach them.

I turned out to be wrong on both counts.

Eventually I realized that the old weathered wood of the pier would soak up all the light from my little flash unit, and it did.

But my “open flash” techniques wasn’t wasted, because it lit up the people on the beach and that added a lot to the final photo.

I was using 2 cameras, both with color film. One had color negative film, while the other camera was loaded with slide (transparency) film. My plan was to put the slide film into the overnight pouch to Orlando with a note asking them to develop it and see if they wanted to publish it in the Orlando Sentinel.

But after the launch, I abandoned the idea. I was still wondering if I had ever found the right spot to shoot the pictures from, and after firing the flash at the pier I was very doubtful that it had lit up the pier enough to make a decent photo.

No point in sending the editors at the Sentinel a photo of a black sky with a curved streak going through it.

My decision not to send the film to Orlando turned out to be a good one: The frame was blank! Other frames on the roll of film were exposed. You could see traces of light from lanterns that people carried across the beach. But there was nothing at all on the frame that should have had the missile launch.

Only one of my cameras had a “T” setting for Time Exposure, where the shutter would remain open until you pressed the shutter release a second time. The camera that I used for the slide film only had “B” for Bulb, where the shutter remained open for as long as you held the shutter release down.

Since I couldn’t stand there and hold the shutter release during the launch, I got a roll of tape, wrapped some around the shutter release, and then let the weight of the roll hold the shutter open. The practice frames showed the trails of light from the lanterns that people had carried, and proved that my idea was good. It just didn’t work when it counted.

Now my only hope of having a picture was with the lone remaining roll of film from the other camera.

The Identification Officer at the Melbourne Police Department had taken a similar time exposure picture of the launch, but farther north at the Pineda Causeway. The composition was fine, but the color was horrible – an ugly shade of yellow. We never did figure out why. Maybe because he was behind the rocket and it was going away from him, perhaps the exhaust overwhelmed the film. Whatever happened, it sure didn’t make me feel any better about my own shot.

Everything seemed to be going wrong. I wasn’t very optimistic. In fact I was disappointed, discouraged, and concerned that I had blown my opportunity through poor decisions and bad luck.

It was already mid-December, two weeks before Christmas and the Postal Service was airing their annual plea to mail your packages early, and I decided not to risk having the film get lost in the mail.

So I didn’t even mail it to Color Lab of Florida until January. Perhaps I was a bit like Apollo on that cold damn night, clinging desperately to my last hope of getting just one more Apollo launch photo.

When I finally mailed the film to Color Lab of Florida, I included a note to them explaining what I had done and my hope that the flash might have provided a little bit of light on the pier so that it would show up against the night sky.

When I picked up the package at the post office a week later I was still in no hurry to see the results, so I didn’t even open it until after I went outside and sat down in the MG.

When I opened the box there was a note on top apologizing and telling me they had tried but were unable to get the pier to show up.

Then I pulled the 8 by 10 inch print out of the manila envelope and was stunned at what I saw:

It didn’t look anything like I had expected. It didn’t look anything like I had imagined. It didn’t look anything like any other missile picture ever made.

It was – and still is – the most beautiful missile launch photo I have ever seen.

Apollo 17 End of an Era
Apollo 17 End of an Era

The pier was exactly where I had wanted it to be. The missile went exactly where I anticipated it would. The pier is far more visible than I ever imagined... as a silhouette. And while the flash didn’t light up the pier, it did light up dozens of people lined up on the beach to watch the launch.

All I can say is thank goodness I was sitting down when I first saw it, because if not, I think I would have fallen down.

Many people consider the Apollo 17 launch photo the best I ever made. It is definitely the most popular, which illustrates what Arch Smith said: that a good amateur could take better pictures than a professional at any time.

I had a dozen or so copies framed and gave them to some of the public officials and others who had provided me with numerous news stories through the years. It was fun going into city and county offices and seeing my Apollo 17 picture on the wall.

I had given a print to Bill and Barb Cramblit at Bill’s Bait and Tackle and they put it in a lighted beer sign. It was beautiful, but I new that a transparency would look even more spectacular, so I had one made for them and they displayed it for a long time.

Any fool who had a box camera loaded with long exposure color film could have captured that photo, as long as there was a way to keep the shutter open for 60 seconds.

But let’s keep that between us. I’m quite happy to take credit for it. After all, as somebody said:

The harder I work, the luckier I get.

Download Pictures for Free

The Apollo launch photos look great on a digital screen, like those Digital Photo Frames you can buy, so I made copies of all of the missile launch photos at 1024 by 768 pixels, the 4x3 proportion that looks best.

You can download them for free from here.

There is also a link on the web site where you can order photographic quality prints, canvas prints, and more. You can also order custom frames if you wish.

There is an example below of one of the frames. It is very similar to the ones I gave to public officials to hang in their offices and homes. Click on the picture to see all of the many frames that are available for you to design your own.

I hope you enjoy these pictures as much as I have. I wasn’t assigned to shoot them, I didn’t shoot them for pay, and evidently I wasn’t very concerned about getting them published since it has taken 50 years to get around to it.

This is the first time that the color versions of these photos have been published.

I also hope you remember Arch Smith’s lesson, that an enthusiastic amateur can do better work than a professional at any time.

Thank you.

Design your own custom frame