By J. L. Pickering, coauthor of Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments
This book is available at a discount price through July 31, 2019, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. Order here and use code APOLLO.
How many photos of an historical event are “enough”? The answer likely depends on who you are. Let’s use the mission of Apollo 11, the first time humans landed on the moon, as an example. If you’re a casual student of history, the number of images that have been publicly available since 1969 are probably sufficient. If you’re more of space enthusiast, however, you want to see more, since they would add to your understanding and appreciation of what transpired.
But if you’re a true historian, the answer may be, “there are never enough!” That’s because each additional photo provides more detail and information, much like a movie showing the same scene from different angles. As someone who has been collecting, organizing, and archiving still photos from the U.S. manned space flight programs for 48 years, I fall into this category.
What is that astronaut holding during training? Who is the technician seen obliquely in one image but clearly in another (maybe his name can be deciphered by zooming in on his name badge)? But the desire to bring as many photos to light as possible goes beyond just factual reasons; sometimes, a more attractive version was overlooked or omitted.
The relatively small universe of photos released by NASA, however, was not nefarious but was determined by the demand. It’s important to remember that during the Apollo era, newspapers (almost all printing in black and white halftone) and general-interest magazines only needed so many photos; and digital reproduction and the Internet were still decades away.
In the intervening forty years, attention also turned to what would end up as something of a temporary future: the space shuttle program, lasting from 1981–2011. When digital photography arrived during the 1990s, the number of shuttle images exploded and “storing” them was not a problem. Meanwhile, however, tens of thousands of celluloid negatives and prints from the past Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were packed away and eventually sent from NASA’s field centers to the National Archives.
A significant cache of material ended up in a spare railroad boxcar parked in the Florida heat and humidity near the Launch Complex 39 Press Site, and after years of neglect, was headed to a local landfill. A few concerned retirees managed to save thousands of prints. Many of them, however, had already been released (or at least made available to the media) during the 1970s. The bulk of physical Apollo-era photography was eventually boxed up and sent to one of three National Archives facilities in Maryland, Texas, or Georgia. In the past few years I have spent many weeks and dollars at these facilities scanning and “liberating” images from color negatives that were never printed.
Many of these photos—and others I have obtained from private sources—form the core of the space history photo books I produce with my coauthor, former news correspondent John Bisney. Our goal is always to go beyond the “greatest hits” to bring readers a wealth of great new images they would never otherwise see. These locked-away photos, taken on the ground as opposed to the more famous (and fully released) in-flight images snapped by the astronauts, capture moments in time, split seconds in history that will never be repeated. They’re filled with far more than astronauts and spacecraft—instead they reveal the men and women behind the successes and failures of the early U.S. manned space program. We see their emotions, their workplaces, and glimpses of their everyday lives and culture on the job.
This is why I continue to persevere to try to overcome a less-than-helpful federal bureaucracy not particularly interested in devoting resources to releasing images from half a century ago, now languishing in government warehouses. John and I are always delighted to bring you the results.
J. L. Pickering, coauthor (with John Bisney) of Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments, has been archiving rare space images for some forty years. Drawing from NASA archives, retired NASA personnel, news photographers, and other sources, his collection numbers more than 120,000 high-resolution prints and images. He covered the final Apollo/Saturn launch in 1975 and attended numerous Space Shuttle launches. Today he serves as a resource and expert for authors, documentary filmmakers, museums, former astronauts, and even NASA. He lives in Bloomington, Illinois.