My Best Shot
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 Life.com, “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.
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.