An impossible photo
They said it couldn’t be done, that I was wasting my time, that it was impossible to take a time exposure photo of a daytime missile launch... in color... directly into a Florida sunrise... from ten miles away.
If anybody would know, Arch Smith would.
Arch had first conceived the idea of making a time exposure of a daytime missile launch during the Gemini program. He ran the photo department at Martin Marietta’s Canaveral Division, and he happened to have an opening for a darkroom technician at the same time I found myself between newspaper jobs.
The Gemini rocket used liquid fuel and didn’t produce a bright enough exhaust, so Arch photographed the launch of an Atlas Agena rocket that the Gemini crew was going to rendezvous with in orbit.
It would be necessary for Apollo astronauts to rendezvous and dock with the Lunar Lander when they flew to the moon, so Gemini astronauts were proving that it could be done.
Taking a black and white picture of a Saturn 5 launch was easy enough. Even Arch thought I might be able to pull that off despite the fact that the Saturn 5 also used liquid fuel. The Saturn 5 fuel might not have been as bright as the Atlas fuel, but there was going to be a lot more of it.
And I did.
I only had one tripod so I did it with the big Crown Graphic press camera sitting on the hood (or “bonnet” as they call it in England) of my MGA automobile. You can see the bonnet in the bottom right corner of the photo.
Here is a reenactment of that morning. My cab driver shot this picture of me in February of 2019, here in South Texas. I may be a few decades older, living couple of thousand miles from Florida, and my sports car days might be many miles behind me, but the old press cameras haven't changed a bit in the last half century.
The trick for black and white pictures is to use infrared film. It wouldn’t work with regular film, but infrared film turns the daytime sky dark, as you can see in the previous photo. Even with the sun shining straight into the lens, it still turned most of the sky dark.
Actually I had already made a similar photo, with Arch watching. I had gone to work at Martin Marietta Company in the Spring of 1966, and Arch showed me the time exposure picture he had taken of an Atlas rocket launch. It was beautiful, but as a news photographer, there was one thing missing:
There was no life in the photo. Not even a houseplant.
So I suggested to Arch that we take another picture and this time have our secretary, Annie, in the shot watching the launch through a pair of binoculars.
The picture turned out great except for one thing: It doesn’t look like she is looking at the rocket.
I never intended to have her look at the rocket. If she had been, all you would see is the back of her head. In order to create the illusion that she is looking at the rocket, I had her look slightly to her right, where I expected to rocket to go.
I expected the rocket to go “downrange,” towards the southeast where the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had established a string of missile tracking stations.
I didn’t realize that manned launches didn’t go downrange but are launched due east. So Annie is not quite looking at the rocket.
I was a little disappointed, but it paid off later when I made the Apollo photos because I knew where the rocket was going.
Evidently it didn’t hurt the picture that she wasn’t looking directly at the rocket because the Associated Press photographer who came to cover the Gemini launch from on top of our hanger, put it on the AP wire along with the photos he shot. A couple of weeks later he mailed us a clipping of the photo on the front page of a daily newspaper in the Northeast. We gave the clipping to Annie. It never occurred to me to keep a copy of the picture for myself, and that is why I can’t show it to you.
But I can show you this old picture of the Martin Marietta Photo Department in the fall of 1966: Arch, Annie, me, and Bill.
So I was confident that I could get a good black and white photo of the Apollo 4 launch, but could I get a color picture of the same scene?
The rocket scientists and engineers had plenty of problems. Just Getting to this day had been even more challenging than they had anticipated.
Back in January, just 10 months earlier, three American astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, had died in a fire in the Apollo capsule during a routine test.
Everything was shut down at that point as engineers worked to understand exactly what had gone wrong and how to keep it from happening again. The Saturn 5 rocket was the most powerful and complex machine ever built, and resuscitating President John F. Kennedy’s moon landing dream in the next 2 years was a daunting task.
Thanks to a series of events that had nothing to do with the Apollo program, I had the opportunity to take a picture of the Saturn1B rocket while it was being prepared for the three astronauts.
You can read that story here.
Begging for a half-hour off
So now ten months later, after a couple of small tests, NASA was ready to take a giant step forward and launch the massive Saturn 5 rocket for the very first time.
My first challenge in getting a picture of it was getting the okay from my editor at the Melbourne Daily Times to come to work a half hour late.
Pearl Leach is a fabulous editor, exactly the kind of editor you want to work for if you are a police reporter for a small daily newspaper. There is nothing you will encounter that she hasn’t seen before, and she will always have your back.
Starting on her 18th birthday, she had worked as a police reporter for a dozen years, and had seen it all.
No matter what kind of jam or embarrassing situation you found yourself in, Peal could empathize with you and share a story from her career that was even more embarrassing.
When you are on deadline and still don’t have all the facts, Pearl has been there and done that and you can call on her experience to bail you out.
When the sheriff calls and wakes you up in the middle of the night screaming and demanding a retraction and an apology and promising to be in your editor’s office first thing in the morning, you know that Pearl will back you up.
But that’s another story – or series of stories – for another book – or series of books.
Hmmm... I wonder if anybody would be interested in those stories. If you are, let me know. If enough people are interested – you know: more than one person – I might write them up.
Meanwhile, back in November of 1967 Pearl wasn’t all that enthusiastic about taking an “impossible” picture of an unmanned missile launch, but when she realized how much I wanted to do it, she agreed – provided that I would be in the office by 8 a.m.
I was sure that I could clock in at 8 a.m. – approximately – if the launch went on schedule, and if traffic wasn’t too bad. I wasn’t too worried though, because Pearl doesn’t like mornings any more than I do. I knew that even if I was an hour late, she wouldn’t be there to catch me.
Now that I had Pearl’s okay for a few minutes of time-off, and with Arch still insisting that I was on an impossible mission, it was time for me to figure out exactly how I was going to pull it off.
I had one 4x5 inch press camera, so I borrowed a second one from Sterling Hawk, a local commercial photographer who shot pictures for the Times and processed film for us when we shot our own. We loaded up a couple of cut film holders, one with color negative film, the other with black and white infrared film.
The infrared was easy: a red filter would turn the sky dark, and reduce the amount of light sufficiently for the long exposure. We had done it twice at the Cape: Arch did it first, then we did it again with our secretary Annie in the picture watching the launch.
The color was a new challenge. The film was much faster – I would have to find a way to reduce the light at least 8 f-stops, which I think is 1/256th the original amount.
A 4x neutral density filter only reduces the light by 2 stops, so even if I stacked two of them, it would only give me half of what I needed.
But I had an idea: Polaroid made a special neutral density filter that enabled you to use their ultra-fast 3,000 speed film in daylight. It reduced the light by 4 stops.
Fortunately the diameter of those filters is just big enough to cover the lens on the press camera.
But how to attach them? Polaroid put them into rubber holders that would fit over the lens of their Polaroid cameras, but not over the lens on the Graphic.
So I used tape. I got some black tape and taped one Polaroid 4s filter onto the front of the lens, and another onto the back of the lens.
Now I had two cameras, both set up and ready for action, and film loaded into the cut film holders.
But I only had one tripod.
That was no problem: I had often used the hood of my MGA automobile as a camera platform, as well as a big step stool I could stand on if I needed to get up high to get the picture.
So on Thursday morning, I got up early, headed north from my home on South Merritt Island, across the Indian River to US Highway 1, and continued north to Titusville.
Here is a picture of my “camera platform” and me in the fall of 1967.
Pushing the limits
November 9, 1967, was shaping up to be a very special morning.
Long before the tug-of-war began between darkness and daylight, ten thousand people were already up, working, worrying, waiting, wondering if they could really pull it off.
Dawn is not my favorite time of day. Me and mornings don't get along. But this morning was different. With a lot of luck, we would see something that had never happened before.
And I would do something that had never been done before.
A million things had to go perfectly that morning in order for me to get the picture I wanted.
The launch itself was a long shot.
Nineteen sixty-seven had already been a tough year for NASA, and they were improvising to try to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s dream of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade.
The Apollo 1 fire back in January threw the whole Apollo schedule into chaos. With less than three years left to figure out what had happened, fix it, test the most complex machine ever built and use it to send astronauts to the moon and bring them back again safely, everybody was overworked and overstressed.
After ten months of testing, NASA was ready to launch the very first Saturn 5 rocket.
Gemini’s two rocket motors produced a total of 474,000 pounds of thrust.
By comparison, the Saturn 5 rocket, which had more than 3 million parts, produced a thundering 7.6 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.
That was so much power that they could not start all five motors at once. Some people feared it would knock the earth off its axis. Engineers feared it might blow the rocket apart if they ignited all 5 motors at once. So they started igniting the 5 rocket motors 3 seconds before liftoff.
To paraphrase one of the astronauts, imagine sitting on top of thousands of pounds of high explosives in a vehicle built with 3 million parts... all provided by low bidders on a government contract.
So on that November morning, everything had to go perfectly to keep the Moon Mission on schedule... and to give me a chance to take an impossible photo.
I loaded everything into the MG and started the 45 mile drive from my home on South Merritt Island to Titusville.
A nice day for a launch
There is a nice area on the bank of the Indian River at the intersection of US Highway 1 and State Road 50 at Titusville where you can pull onto the shoulder and look across the Intracoastal Waterway and see the largest building in the world, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). It is not the tallest building, but has the most volume. It is clearly visible in my photos, even from more than ten miles away.
After the Apollo program ended, a lot of people watched Space Shuttle launches from that spot, and those launches were just as spectacular as the mighty Saturn 5.
I found a nice spot for the MG, close to a little palmetto bush that would look nice in the foreground to give some depth to the picture.
A lot of people had come to watch the early-morning launch, including an excited and nervous young woman whose husband worked on the rocket. She was listening to the countdown on a portable radio. I set up my cameras next to her so I could hear the countdown too.
Everything was going exactly as I had hoped as we listened to the countdown. The edge of the sun crept over the horizon at about T-minus-20 minutes before liftoff.
They had to “light the candle” on time – without any delays – in order for me to get the picture I wanted. Or any picture at all for that matter – I couldn’t wait for a launch later in the day.
I watched and waited for red and orange and yellow color to fill the horizon and sure enough it did. The color spread and intensified as the countdown continued.
Suddenly my opportunity to shoot my impossible photo and make my “impossible dream” come true began to disappear right before my eyes.
The sunrise began fading away.
There had been a beautiful red glow about 5 minutes before the scheduled 7 a.m. liftoff.
And then it faded away.
I watched helplessly as the color kept slipping away. It looked like it would be completely gone about two minutes before liftoff. There was nothing I could do about it, nothing I could do to overcome this challenge.
Sure enough, with two minutes to go until liftoff, all the color was gone.
Then a miracle happened:
As the sun continued to climb up over the horizon, it found a little white cloud just a few degrees above the horizon.
As the count closed in on the final seconds before liftoff, the sun slowly slipped behind that little cloud, and the color began to return.
I held my breath as more and more color spread out behind that skinny little cloud, not as much as the “real” sunrise, but enough for my picture.
As the count reached T-minus-3 seconds and they started igniting each of the five engines, I opened the lenses on both cameras. The color started fading at about that time, but there was more than enough color still left during the next 60 seconds for me to make my picture.
As the count reached Zero and the giant rocket began to slowly power its way up – right on schedule – people started yelling and cheering it on. The young woman next to me was jumping up and down and shouting enthusiastically, then she grabbed my arm and held on enthusiastically.
It felt good, but not good enough to make me forget about my picture. I reminded her to please be careful not to bump the tripod or the car. She quickly turned loose, moved a couple of steps away, and continued jumping and cheering. Then I wished I hadn’t said anything to her. Excited young ladies excite me. But to me, the job always comes first. (sigh)
After 60 seconds I closed the shutters on both cameras, loaded everything into the MG, and began my next challenge: To get back to the Times office in Melbourne almost 60 miles away by 8 a.m. I’d promised Pearl that I could do it.
To give you an idea of how far I had to go, here is a map of the Space Coast – or the “Platinum Coast” as newscaster David Brinkley called it one night in a sarcastic tone of voice. He said if south Florida was the Gold Coast, then Brevard County must be the Platinum Coast. That sounded good to those of us who call it home, so we continued to use that term.
There was surprisingly little traffic, so I had no problem crossing US 1 and heading west on SR 50 towards Interstate 95. I turned left on the Interstate and drove until I got to U.S. 192, took a left and drove straight to downtown Melbourne. A right turn on Waverly Place, halfway down the block and I was at the office.
I clocked in at 8:04 a.m., close enough to my target time.
The day had been a big success, but I didn’t realize that my biggest challenge lay ahead. It was embedded in the latent image on the color film.
Here is a 5 minute video that captures the excitement of that morning:
The infrared film was fine. We developed it and made a print and published it on the front page of the paper. That afternoon, after that day’s paper was out, I took the color film to be developed.
The picture I got back was a shock and a huge disappointment. The beautiful colors that had miraculously appeared just in time for the liftoff were all gone. Vanished. The whole picture had an ugly reddish color.
That is when I learned about “reciprocity failure.”
Ektacolor S film is for “short” exposures, no more than 1/10th of a second. Ektacolor L is for “long” exposures, longer than 1/10th of a second.
The problem is that different colors of light are at different frequencies, different wavelengths, so when you have a long exposure, too many “waves” of certain colors reach the film.
Too many red light waves and too few blue ones had reached the film. Almost all of my work had been in black and white, because virtually no newspapers had the technology to publish color photos back then.
I sent the negative to a couple of different photo processing labs and the prints came back the same.
A friend to the rescue
Then a photographer friend that I had met when he was a member of the city council told me about Color Lab of Florida in Ft. Lauderdale. I sent them the film with an explanation of what I had done, and waited to see if they could help.
They helped – they rescued my “impossible mission.”
They sent the whole series of test prints they had made. The first was the same as I had gotten from the other labs.
The second was better, but not great.
The third one was good enough. There was some blue in the sky, contrasting with the yellow and orange in the sunrise. It looks like the sunrise is trying to fill the whole sky. That was good enough for me. We were both very impressed with each other, and I continued to send all my color work to them for the next 25 years.
Then 50 years later when I decided it was time to do something with my Apollo Launch Photos – the color versions have never been published anywhere before – I finally got what I had wanted all along.
I bought a couple of scanners – an old Epson flatbed scanner capable of scanning 4x5 film, and a CanoScan 9000F – and began experimenting.
The scanners are smarter than I am! The software for both scanners have a couple of marvelous adjustments: One adjustment lets you compensate for fading colors, the other is for “backlight correction.” Both offer three levels: light, medium, and heavy correction. So I tried all of the combinations to see what would happen.
Those adjustments fixed the photo! When I tried to see what I could do manually, it was never as good as what the software had done on its own.
Finally I have a photo that looks like the scene looked that morning more than 50 years ago: Blue sky, pretty sunrise, the big blocky Vehicle Assembly Building clearly visible to the right of the launch pad.