My Best Shot

NPhoto - - Contents -

Dis­cover Ralph Morse’s shots of the 20th cen­tury’s most an­tic­i­pated launch…

On May 25, 1961, Pres­i­dent Kennedy made his his­toric pledge for the United States to put a man on the Moon. He de­clared: “I be­lieve that this na­tion should com­mit it­self to achiev­ing the goal, be­fore this decade is out, of land­ing a man on the Moon and re­turn­ing him safely to Earth.” Barely eight years later, three as­tro­nauts were strapped into a tiny con­i­cal cap­sule atop a mas­sive Saturn V rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and fired to­wards the Moon. The launch of Apollo 11 marked the start of the most an­tic­i­pated voy­age in his­tory.

The as­tro­nauts climbed into the cap­sule from the el­e­va­tor in the launch tower, and it was within this tower that Life pho­tog­ra­pher Ralph Morse had placed a Nikon F cam­era, inside a steel box with an op­ti­cal glass win­dow. Nearly two mil­lion litres of highly com­bustible rocket fuel pro­pelled the 100-me­tre-high Saturn V past the launch tower, and Morse’s wait­ing cam­era. Morse, who died on 7 De­cem­ber 2014, aged 97, only re­cently re­vealed how he got this unique per­spec­tive on the launch.

“You have to re­alise,” he told, “that the rocket had to go through the cam­era, in a sense. It had to go through the cam­era’s field of view. It took me two years to get NASA to agree to let me make this shot… I was able to put a Nikon with maybe 30 or 40 feet of film inside the box, look­ing out through the glass. The cam­era was wired to the launch count­down and at around mi­nus four seconds the cam­era started shoot­ing some­thing like ten frames per sec­ond.”

An hour after lift-off, Morse was al­lowed back up the tower to re­trieve the cam­era and film from inside the box.

The re­ac­tion

Four days later, Neil Arm­strong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin be­came the first men to walk on the Moon, while Michael Collins or­bited above. The as­tro­nauts re­turned to Earth as he­roes and the Apollo 11 mis­sion was lauded as the great­est achieve­ment of the 20th Cen­tury. On 11 Au­gust 1969, Life pub­lished a spe­cial edi­tion, ‘To The Moon and Back’, and ran Morse’s now iconic launch-tower se­quence across a dou­ble-page spread. This com­pos­ite of five frames – a pen­tap­tych – has since been de­scribed by Time-Life as one of the most im­me­di­ately rec­og­niz­able pho­to­graphic se­quences ever made.

For Morse, the photographs marked the cli­max of a decade-long as­sign­ment cov­er­ing the NASA space pro­gram. But in 1972, barely three years later, Life ceased pub­li­ca­tion as a weekly. At the time Morse was cov­er­ing the Apollo 17 mis­sion, which launched on 7 De­cem­ber 1972. It was to be the last ever Apollo mis­sion.

Keith Wilson

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