Gemini prepared the way

The Gemini program was coming to an end after accomplishing everything that NASA had wanted from it.

Gemini is an under-appreciated asset that was created when scientists realized how long it would take to design and build the Saturn 5 rocket.

They turned to Martin Marietta and their Titan II rocket. With two rocket motors and 474,000 pounds of thrust, it could lift a pair of astronauts into earth orbit. Best of all, they could “man-rate” the Titan II within a year – add the redundant systems that are required for manned launches.

By the time the first Saturn 1B rocket was being prepared for launch, Gemini astronauts had already validated most of the procedures that would be required for a trip to the moon:

Gemini was the first to rendezvous with another vehicle in space, and the first to dock with another vehicle in space.

The first EVA – Extra-Vehicular Activity – also known as “space walk” – was by a Gemini astronaut.

Gemini was the first to keep two astronauts in orbit for two weeks. Imagine you and a buddy sitting in the smallest sports car you have ever seen, top up, windows closed, and staying there for the next 14 days. No exercise. No privacy. No bathroom – but you have little bags you can use. When astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell climbed out of the Gemini capsule after their ordeal, the expression on their faces told you know that “once is enough.”

From Gemini to Apollo

When the final Gemini flight, Gemini 12, splashed down safely on November 15, 1966, a Saturn 1B rocket was being prepared for the first manned flight in the Apollo program.

Martin Marietta wanted to commemorate Gemini’s success with a picture of technicians lowering the erector at Pad 19 for the last time. That erector had lifted every rocket into position for all 12 Gemini missions and everyone involved had become quite fond of it.

Arch sent his photographer, Bill, to take the picture, and I went along too. Martin Marietta Technicians raised the erector about 30 degrees so that we could photograph them lowering it for the last time.

Bill gave me the big Crown Graphic press camera and told me what to photograph and I did, while he climbed onto the gantry and explored various angles and took pictures with our little 35 millimeter Pentax camera.

We came back with great snapshots, but nothing that told the story and conveyed the emotion and pride that everyone associated with Gemini felt.

The public relations director asked Arch to try again. So the technicians went back to Pad 19 and raised the erector again so we could photograph them lowering it for the last time...again.

This time, though, Arch went, and took me along. While he used the big 4x5 press camera mounted on a tripod, he left me on my own with the little Pentax.

Arch covered his head and the camera with a black focusing cloth to shut out light, the way they used to do in the early days of photography. It was quite a sight. He was very popular in the company and everybody wanted to be in his picture.

Here is a picture of Arch with a “Big Bertha” camera, a single lens reflex Graflex camera that used a gigantic telephoto lens to capture distant images onto 4x5 inch film.

Arch Smith with a Graflex Big Bertha camera
Arch Smith with a Graflex "Big Bertha" camera
Old time photographer

Arch left me alone to do whatever I wanted to do, so I did what Bill had done: I climbed onto the gantry and under the gantry, I looked around and over and under everything, and I didn't see anything that would make an interesting picture.

Finally I did what professional photographers do and took a look beyond Pad 19.

That's when I saw it: The picture that would tell the story.

In the background, about four miles away, was Launch Complex 34 and the Saturn 1B rocket that was being prepared for the first manned flight in the Apollo program.

We had a short telephoto lens for the Pentax so I put that on, but none of the technicians would come over to be in my picture. I had to ask Arch to stop taking pictures for a couple of minutes and send a few of the Martin Marietta employees my way so I could have them in the picture.
I fired off about half a dozen shots and sent the people back to Arch.

Arch continued taking pictures and didn't show any signs of stopping, so I walked over and told him – in a kind of arrogant way – that there was no need for him to shoot any more pictures, I had already made the one they were going to use.

He gave me a hard look, but I knew I could get away with that because we had so much respect for each other. He knew I had been taking news photos all my life, and he also knew how much respect I had for his experience and technical expertise.

If you don’t believe I’ve been taking pictures all my life, just look at this picture of me on our 1940 Christmas Card, when I was six weeks old. The caption was, “Focusing on You.”

Arch took a couple more pictures of the Gemini erector, gave me a couple more hard looks – not angry looks, but curious about what I had done that made me so confident – then we packed up our gear and went back to the hanger.

I developed all of his pictures and a couple of mine and laid all the pictures out on a big table – all the photos from both shoots.

Our secretary Annie saw them first, pointed to my picture and said: “That's the one they will use.”

When Bill came in he looked at them and as soon as he saw my photo he said, “That's the one they will use.”

A few minutes later Arch came in and looked them over. He scanned the photos and when he got to mine, he paused, then he said, “Send them all over to Cocoa Beach and see what they say.”

They ran the picture on the front page of the company newsletter, which came out on Friday, January 27, 1967. That was a memorable day:

It was my last day with Martin Marietta. I got a copy of the newsletter in the morning, and at noon I left for the final time feeling pretty good about my 9 months as working as a Data Acquisition and Analysis Technician in the Gemini and then the Titan III Engineering Space Programs at Cape Canaveral. I made that title up because it sounds better than telling people my job was developing film and making prints like I had been doing since I was 10 years old.

I headed across the state, picked up my girlfriend and her little brother and we went to St. Petersburg to listen to Lenny Dee and his Hammond Organ. My girlfriend's little brother loved the Hammond Organ.

During the show Lenny Dee said, in the gentle voice that lounge performers use, “Did you hear what happened at Cape Canaveral today?”

It sounded like he was making a joke.
When he said that three astronauts had died in a fire on the launch pad, I thought: “This is the worst joke I’ve ever heard!”

As he explained what happened, I realized it wasn’t a joke!

My first thought was to cover the story – to reach out to my sources, to talk to people on the street and get their reactions – anything I could do to cover this story.

But who would I do it for? I wasn't working for a newspaper, and every newspaper had its own staff to cover stories like this.

I don't recall anything else about that night. I don't know what we did the rest of the night.

And of course the picture was now more a source of sorrow than a source of pride.

It was a memorable day okay, but for all the wrong reasons.

Gemini Pad 19 Erector lowered for the last time
Gemini's Pad 19 Erector lowered for the last time

Ten months later NASA was ready to launch the very first Saturn 5 rocket. Liftoff was set for sunrise. How could I resist an opportunity like that: Birth of a powerful new rocket as a new day dawned over Kennedy Space Center. Read more...